Negotiations took hours, and I was thankful that my role in them was very minor. There were hundreds of things that needed to be hammered out, but Amaryllis and Valencia (with the most cunning devil she could find) were both up to it. No one ever said out loud that if we wanted to, we could just kill everyone and leave, but there were a few hints in that direction, especially with casual uses of magic, most of them by Bethel. She peeled the skin from an apple with her telekinesis while she held it in two fingers, which made the point rather clear.
The big sticking point was Anglecynn. Finch had been called into Cranberry Bay because of that first altercation with Larkspur, and he’d started connecting the dots right from the start, at least to hear him tell it. A mysterious man goes to a library asking about a disease from the Risen Lands, and just a short time later gets attacked by Anglecynn’s Foreign Security Director, who also happens to be the guy who benefits most from Amaryllis Penndraig supposedly dying in the Risen Lands a few weeks earlier? Yeah, maybe you might be able to infer from that that A) she was still alive and B) sick with some difficult-to-cure disease and C) Larkspur Prentiss was trying to finish the job.
Uniquities liked Amaryllis. Well, I shouldn’t say that, because Uniquities was a huge department, and a lot of what they did could have been entirely justified to the imperial legislature, if they ever had to answer for any of it. It wasn’t clear how many people were in the know on the things they might get in deep shit for, but my guess was that it was pretty small, like any good conspiracy had to be (barring magical means of maintaining it, anyway). But it was easier for me to think of Uniquities as being embodied by the three people I’d met, and especially their head honcho, Alcida.
Alcida really liked Amaryllis.
Alcida liked Amaryllis so much that she wanted her as a major player in Anglecynn politics, and had been willing to bend rules in order to get that to happen, both before and after Amaryllis had started on her long, strange journey with me. I found a lot of what Alcida said a little grandiloquent, stuff about ‘as Anglecynn goes, so goes the Empire’, comparing the kingdom to a listing ship, and talking about rooting out the heart of corruption, something that could only be done by someone with a keen intellect, an iron will, and covert backing.
Amaryllis wasn’t having it.
“I care about Anglecynn, deeply,” she said. “But I also care about Aerb as a whole, and if I go back to Anglecynn to become one of a very large number of princes and princesses, I’m not in a good position to actually accomplish anything.”
“You had allies before,” said Alcida. “They might not have been able to save you -- unless they were the ones who contacted the Council of Arches on your behalf?”
“They were not,” said Amaryllis. The meeting had gone long enough that Solace needed breastfeeding, which Amaryllis was doing as the negotiations continued on. It seemed like a power play to me, but I wasn’t well-versed in such things, and it might have been simple necessity.
“But you did have allies,” said Alcida. “There would be barriers to you returning --”
“I was given an expedited trial by adversity,” said Amaryllis. “I would either be accused of having not made it through the Risen Lands, or charged with desertion from the Host, and even though it wouldn’t make any sense, it’s very likely that both would happen. My nominal allies would be spending enormous amounts of political capital in order to secure me good standing among the Lost King’s Court, and once all was said and done, I still wouldn’t be in a good position to actually accomplish much, especially given how much rebuilding there would be.”
As lies went, that was a little bit transparent. We had a rather significant number of advantages, and that was part of the argument for why we wanted to have a puppet state of our own. But it was true that this would all be harder if Amaryllis was also having to spend time fighting entrenched institutions, political opponents using those entrenched institutions, and working within the constraints of a system that had been set up five hundred years ago and modified in the ways that were expedient. Anglecynn’s legal system was like a house that had been lived in for a few generations, where each owner had applied their own temporary fixes to various problems, sometimes applying temporary fixes on top of previous temporary fixes, until the whole thing was a mess that you needed years of study to even make sense of. We didn’t want anything to do with it.
Alcida eventually relented. I don’t think she liked the idea of giving us free rein, especially since she didn’t know the half of what the Council of Arches actually was, but the creation of what would hopefully be a new nation with some amount of legal recognition would give some cover for Uniquities to post agents there. Obviously Esuen would have to be consulted, but they apparently still didn’t know where she was, and we were keeping that under our hat for the time being. (I was pretty sure that Finch was going to be pissed off about it, and I have to admit that I was looking forward to it.)
“When we see each other again, it will be under a different pretense,” said Amaryllis, toward the end of things. “We’ll collect Esuen and square things away with her, and receive your dossier on potential contacts and locations by dead drop. I think it’s likely that if the Isle of Poran ends up being a possibility, we’ll take the opportunity to settle there.” So far as I had been able to discern, the Isle of Poran was a rocky, craggy place that no one wanted.
“The Council of Arches has further designs though,” said Alcida. “From what you’ve said, and your willingness to parlay, I think our goals are roughly in alignment, but I’d desperately like to know more.”
“You’ll find out soon enough,” said Amaryllis. “If your goal is maintaining the empire and improving the lives of its citizens, then I think you’ll be quite pleased.”
After Amaryllis and Solace were both given a bill of clean health by the doctor (who was very calm about the fact that Amaryllis had mostly recovered from birth in the space of a day, and that Solace had grown considerably in the same amount of time), we teleported out, all of us at once. Valencia didn’t count as a person for the purposes of the teleportation key, because magic didn’t recognize her as a person, and Bethel was, technically, a magic item, just like Ropey (who had maintained his position coiled around her).
Solace cried when we came through to the foothills of the World Spine, which wasn’t too surprising given the sharp pain it caused. Amaryllis calmed her, rocking her gently and cooing to her, while the rest of us put on our breathing masks so we could go into the glove. The bottle was right where we’d left it six days prior (or, depending on your perspective, between two and nine months ago). Grak peeled back a few of the wards he’d put up so we could get in, and then we all piled into the glove while Amaryllis rode her immobility plate down.
The interior of the bottle was stiflingly hot, and as I looked around, most of the grass was dead. The tree house in the center had lost about half of its leaves, and they were laying on the ground, brown and dead.
The locus came over to us, limping and bleeding, panting with its tongue out. I’d forgotten just how intimidatingly large it was, and the oddity of seeing a deer with six eyes. The whites of its coat weren’t as bright or pure as they’d been when we’d left it.
Amaryllis approached the doe with Solace in her arms.
“I --” she began, then stopped. “This is her,” she said. “I guess you would know that. I don’t know if you can --”
Curling bits of glowing smoke or mist began rolling off the locus’ hide. It straightened up until it reached its full height, then bent down toward Solace. I steeled myself, not knowing what to expect. Druids ran on bullshit, and the locus was the source of that bullshit. I’d had a glimpse of it when I’d had stratospherically high Essentialism, but that was me coming at the whole concept of a druidic ritual from a completely different direction -- or rather, the game giving me brief insight into how to do the working without actually giving me any actual skill as a druid (along with the total lack of connection). The locus was mysterious; that was its entire mode of being.
The Six-Eyed Doe took in a deep breath, and the tendrils of glowing mist twisted in an invisible wind, until they were all pointing toward Solace. When the locus released the breath, the mist rushed forward, washing over Solace and spreading around Amaryllis, continuing on as the Six-Eyed Doe extended its long exhale of air.
Solace began to change and grow, her swaddling cloth falling off her, leaving her naked in Amaryllis’ arms. Within the space of a few seconds, she had doubled in size, then again, becoming older, from tiny baby to little girl before our eyes.
That was when the locus faltered. It coughed, and the glowing mists around it dissipated, spreading out onto the ground around it, which went from limp and brown to green and vibrant in an instant. The locus gave a low moan and collapsed to the side, breathing heavily.
Solace pushed away from Amaryllis and slipped out of her arms, clambering down to the ground, and came to the side of the locus’ head. She laid a hand on its neck, murmuring something in its ear, then kissed on its cheek.
I don’t think that I had ever seen Amaryllis look more forlorn. Solace looked like she was back to being Solace; her face was animated with the same intelligence and experience that she’d had in her previous life, and her connection to the locus seemed as strong as I’d ever seen it. This was what we’d hoped for, what Amaryllis had spent almost nine months of her life in a cramped room on, and now it was all over. She hadn’t really talked about her confused feelings towards Solace, not with me, but it was evident that she hadn’t excised them from her soul without telling anyone.
Solace glanced over at Amaryllis, and must have seen the same thing, because she walked over to her. They had a brief conversation that I couldn’t hear, and that I was trying not to hear, because it seemed private, but the end result was that Amaryllis picked Solace up, and they had a hug that lasted for minutes. Solace’s small, dark green lips were moving, whispering something in Amaryllis’ ear, and when they broke apart, Amaryllis was crying happy tears.
Solace approached the rest of us, holding Amaryllis by the hand.
Fenn stood next to me, and leaned in close enough to whisper to me. “Does this mean Solace is a loli now?” I glared at her as she pulled away from me, smiling. She gave me a thumbs up, I think because she was happy one of her Earth references had landed. A glare might have been the reaction she was going for.
“Thank you all,” said Solace. Her voice was high, childlike, which made sense, considering. Crantek were already one of the smaller mortal species. “I’ve been reborn many times, but that death was my first.”
“Are you stuck like that?” asked Fenn.
“As a child?” asked Solace. “There’s nothing wrong with adolescence. I’ve been through it before. The locus rushed things because there’s need of me.” She looked to Valencia. “New faces,” she said. “The locus had good things to say about you.” (I assumed that was figurative, because as far as I knew, the locus didn’t speak at all.)
Valencia curtsied, going low and bringing her dress out to the side as wide as it would go. “It’s an honor to finally meet you, Oorang Solace. My name is Valencia the Red.”
“Go speak with it,” said Solace. “It’s in need of comfort and wants you by its side.”
Valencia rushed off, running pell-mell across the grass, which was slowly becoming greener around where Solace stood.
“Grakhuil,” said Solace. She glanced down at his prosthetic. “Can I give you a hand?”
Grak nodded. “It’s been three months,” he said. “Long enough for it to scar over.”
“Three months?” asked Solace. “I had a vague recollection of a hospital. Shouldn’t it have been … what is it for humans? Nine?”
“Hyperbolic time chamber,” said Amaryllis. They were still holding hands. Amaryllis was standing close to Solace, possessive, like she was worried that our druid would run off. Or maybe like she was worried that her child wasn’t going to be okay.
“Ah,” said Solace. She looked around the bottle. “I had wondered. It’s clear there will be some catching up I have to do.” She glanced at Bethel, and the staff that Fenn had stuck in the ground. “Another new member?”
“I’m the new house,” said Bethel. “You’ll need to show me where to expand, if we’re all to live here for the time being.”
Solace nodded, then looked up at Amaryllis. “How much time has passed, would you say?”
“Two weeks, give or take a few days,” said Amaryllis. “I haven’t looked at a calendar lately.”
“And so much has changed,” she said. “What happened with Fallatehr?”
“We killed him shortly after Juniper learned soul magic,” said Amaryllis. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem like the right path toward getting the locus onto its own land.” She hesitated slightly. “We still don’t have a solution to that problem, I’m sorry. We had thought that Juniper becoming the most powerful soul mage on Aerb would do it, but he was, briefly, and that did allow us to bring you back, but … we don’t have many productive avenues left.” She looked around the bottle, through the stifling heat and dead plants. “Can you fix this?”
“Certainly,” said Solace. She looked to Fenn. “I don’t suppose you have my staff and cloak in that glove of yours?”
“The cloak we have,” said Fenn, producing it with a flourish. “The staff was voided, unfortunately. I’ve also got a dress for you.”
“The sun feels nice on my skin,” said Solace with a frown. “My species drinks the sun, you know.” She seemed remarkably well put together, for everything she’d been through. The locus had done something with her, some restoration of the soul that flew in the face of everything I knew about what the soul was. Solace didn’t seem to mind. She took the cloak of leaves and threw it around her shoulders, which did approximately nothing for modesty, while simultaneously blocking the majority of the light from hitting her skin.
Grak had taken off his prosthetic and approached her with his stump held out in front of him. It was scarred over, but the scar was still red, not the waxy texture and whitish color of a long-ago wound.
“I have some faculty with soul magic,” I said. “If the internal state of his soul is going to be the problem, I can just mirror his hand from the other side and get it to be consistent. We’d have fixed him ourselves, but the bones take something special to grow back, and --”
Solace cracked her tiny knuckles and smiled. “Juniper, could you get me a stick?”
“I -- sure,” I said. I looked through the grass, trying to find one that I thought would be appropriate to the ritual. “Just any old stick?”
“No,” said Solace. “A special one. You’ll know that it’s special because it’s the one you choose.”
I’d forgotten her faintly amused expression, and it brought a smile to my face, despite myself, because I was being given a firm reminder that druidic magic drove me fucking nuts. All that mist coming off of the locus probably didn’t mean anything, it was just abstract magic without apparent rhyme or reason. But we’d spent a considerable chunk of our lives getting Solace back so that the locus wouldn’t die in its bottle, so I supposed I would just count myself lucky that it was, for all its deliberate weirdness, still really powerful.
I spent some time looking for a stick. Going ‘hur dur, I just grabbed the closest one I found’ seemed like it would be going against the spirit of the thing. The one I settled on had two forks in it, and was dry and brittle, with most of the bark stripped off the outside. My skill at identifying wood pretty much stopped at ‘yup, it’s wood’, but I assumed that it had come from the tree that served as a house.
Solace took the stick from me and stared at it for a moment, then began pinching it here and there. The wood responded to her touch like taffy, extending and being shaped by her touch. When she had finished, it very vaguely resembled a hand. She took Grak’s stump and pressed the stick to it, which caused the flesh to part like soft butter and seal closed as though a piece of wood hadn’t just passed through it.
“It will take some time,” said Solace. “An hour or two. But when it’s finished, you should be as good as new.”
Grak turned the stick around inspecting it. “Thank you,” he said.
“You couldn’t have just regrown the bones?” asked Amaryllis.
Solace gave a faint smile and shrugged. “Who knows?”
“Will it be as good as new, or better?” I asked.
“Different,” said Solace. She shrugged. “Better for some things, worse for others. Better, I would think, for the type of person Grak is, or would like to be.”
I nodded. I was pretty sure that if I suggested cutting off my arm and having her replace it, or doing the same for all of us, the druidic resistance to being put in a box would come forward in full force, stopping that venture before it even began.
“It’s good to have you back,” I said instead.
Quest Completed: Pregnant Virgin Princess - Amaryllis has given birth to Oorang Solace, bringing her back from the dead. If another of your party members dies, don’t expect it to be so easy.
Quest Accepted: Birth of a Nation - You’ve set out to become a real power in this world, no longer independent agents bumbling from crisis to crisis, but instead a nation, bumbling from crisis to crisis. Quest completion entails becoming accepted as a member nation of the Empire of Common Cause.
Quest Updated: Taking Root - The world has but a single druid, tending to but a single locus. With the locus so constrained within a magic bottle, no more druids may be inducted, but removal might prove fatal. With your help, druids might stalk the world once more. (Companion Quest)
My brain splattered across the ceiling of the universe, becoming stars in the sky, each neuron a swollen red dwarf, the hyperspace connections between them engorged with the pleasure feeding through them. There was nothing like awareness to me, only pleasure so vast that I couldn’t hope to feel anything else. It was reductive, stripping away the thinking part of me and leaving only the animal, pinning me down and fucking me, a fist thrusting straight into my brain, thick fingers manipulating my internal wiring.
When I came to, they had me pinned down. Amaryllis was fixing my soul; she had intuited, correctly, that it was no longer a change I could make on my own, not after what I had felt.
END BOOK V