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I was alone.

I’d thought that it would feel like I’d made a huge mistake, but strangely, there was a feeling of righteousness that came with my decision. I probably shouldn’t have felt exhilarated, but I did. Whatever thing Fenn had felt so strongly, I only had a twinge of it. Did that mean that it was better for Fenn to go and me to stay? Or just that I wasn’t great at tuning into luck when the stakes were high? I shrugged off the question and tried to focus on the task at hand. I made a mental list of the things I knew.

  1. Illusion magic was limited in the effects that it could produce. There was an upper limit to the amount of pain it could dish out, as an example.
  2. Though it seemed like my illusory body could desync with my actual body, this either cost something, or there were limits to it.
  3. For an illusion to work like reality, the illusion mage had to understand what the reality was.
  4. The game layer was sacrosanct.
  5. I had about fifteen minutes left on Soul Sight, which wasn’t subject to illusion, so far as I knew. Even if Masters knew that was what I was using, he would have to be able to see with soul sight in order to know what color to make it, which I wasn’t sure he could do.

Of course, any one of those could have been another layer of deception, but I was willing to bet that none of them were. That wasn’t to say that I was underestimating Masters, just that his motives seemed fairly straightforward, and even if they weren’t, it seemed like it was in his best interests to just keep the illusion as complete as he could. A fake weakness might work as a complicated chess move, but five fake weaknesses would be a bit much.

As it so happened, I had one other advantage. I wasn’t quite alone; I had Ropey.

I tried to think through the consequences of that. I didn’t know whether or not illusion magic could apply to entads, since most of what I knew was based on guesswork and some scant evidence acquired by experimentation. I did know that Bethel had something similar-to-but-distinct-from a soul, in the same way that the locus did. When I’d boosted Essentialism the first time, I had seen a line from my soul which pointed toward my sixth and seventh companions, before I had even met Bethel. That said, she had a lot of the same immunities that Valencia had, and I hadn’t gotten Bethel to Loyalty 10 as yet, meaning I hadn’t had a chance to see what her sorta-soul actually looked like. I also didn’t know whether she was typical of sentient entads in that regard, or whether she was special because she was my companion.

In the case that Ropey could be affected by illusion, he was close to being a liability. He showed up white to Soul Sight, because he was (technically) Amaryllis’ entad, so that meant that if Soul Sight couldn’t be faked, he could at least uni-directionally communicate with me, even if my own communication back wasn’t secure.

In the case that Ropey couldn’t be affected by illusion, he was a boon, but I had no idea whether or not that was actually the case. Worse, any inquiries would reveal him to anyone watching, which would remove one of the cards up my sleeve.

(Ropey didn’t have much in the way of senses, just sight, sound, and touch, and those were quite limited in range. I had asked Bethel about that in the course of some idle conversation about the vastness of her sensorium, and she had replied, in a frosty tone, that I should ask my companion myself, which I eventually had.)

I reached down and patted the rope in what I hoped was an inconspicuous way. He gave a squeeze in response. For now, I wasn’t actually sure what to do with that advantage, if it was one, but I was going to count it as another point in my favor.

I had a few problems though. The first was that Valencia didn’t have a soul, which meant Soul Sight wouldn’t work on her (naturally), and I didn’t expect any color to come from her entads either, given that they were unbound. The second problem was that I had no idea where she was. And the third problem was whatever had spooked Fenn and shaken the building, assuming that wasn’t just more illusion at work. I wasn’t sure whether Fenn’s sense of luck could be faked or not, but it didn’t seem like Masters had the incentive to do it, not when what he wanted was for me to stick around and answer all his questions.

I opened the door I’d punched a hole in and began retracing my steps. I wasn’t sure when exactly Valencia had been taken, but I thought that it was probably before Solace had been stopped from making her first attempt at a portal using her staff. My reasoning was that I’d seen Valencia hacking away at the amber that Solace had been stuck in, and Fenn had fired her arrow that was deflected shortly after that. If the amber had been an illusion, then Valencia’s attack with her sword was a misdirection, intended to keep the others away. And if Masters batting Fenn’s arrow to the side was an illusion, then Valencia would have presumably seen through it, assuming non-anima immunity applied. So, she was taken before any of that had happened.

This was assuming that Masters didn’t have other abilities beyond just being an illusion mage. Given the magic armor he was wearing and his extreme age, that probably wasn’t a great assumption. The Ell took longer to learn things than the other mortal species, but not a hundred times as long, which meant that Masters would in theory have had time to learn some other discipline as well. If I ballparked him as looking about fifty years old, then he was really five thousand years old, which was … well, daunting to say the least.

I made my way down the hallway, touching the walls as I went. I remembered passing doors, but illusion magic could have removed them from my sight. Touch could be faked too, but if my hand hit a door knob, it would knock my hand out of sync with my vision of my soul, and I would notice that.

“Okay,” I said, partly to myself, partly to Ropey. “Unknown threats, unknown territory, not feeling too great about this.” I felt another squeeze around my midsection, which was comforting. “All I have to do is find Val and get out of here.” Easier said than done.

I stopped at the first door I came to, and tested the handle to make sure that it was real. I wasn’t sure how much Soul Sight I had left, but I was pretty sure I needed to be moving faster than I was, unless I wanted to either lose that advantage or feed more skill points into Essentialism.

When I opened the door, I saw a room full of boxes … which didn’t actually tell me anything, since my vision was suspect. I began feeling around, watching my hands carefully. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I stepped back, then looked down the hallway at the other doors. This place wasn’t actually a full dormitory, but it was meant to look like one from the outside, and it was sized for up to a hundred dream-skewered. That was too much space to search, especially if I assumed that Masters had taken Valencia to somewhere private and secure.

“Fuck,” I said to myself.

I went down the hallway, kicking in one door, then another, stopping only briefly to look inside. I was leery of the annihilation wards that Grak had mentioned were on the fourth-floor windows, but didn’t have the time to stop and test whether my bones were going to get removed from my body at every door. I didn’t even think I had time for a full inspection of each room, so I skipped that, checking them over for a form visible in Soul Sight, then moving on to the next. Mostly, the rooms were empty, or with boxes in them. The windows looked out over a calm day at the athenaeum.

I was doing this when a woman with bubblegum-pink skin came jogging up the stairs. Her soul was maroon, and the fact that I could see it meant that she was real, or that Masters had somehow cracked Soul Sight. She carried a long spear with a barbed head and was dressed in black form-fitting armor of an unfamiliar material, which shimmered like an oil slick. She stopped when she saw me, just as I’d stopped when I saw her. I was pretty sure she was renacim, a species so rare that I hadn’t thought I would ever see one.

“Hi,” she said with a wave and a smile. “Speculator Masters came up here with a bunch of people, are you one of them?”

I stared at her. “Who are you?” I asked.

“Concerned citizen,” she replied. “You wouldn’t be Juniper Smith, would you?” As she spoke she reached up with her free hand and itched at her chin. If I’d been a little less world-wise, I might have missed her touching a small tattoo where her jawbone met her neck. I was almost certain it was the Parson’s Voice; if she’d activated it, then she was speaking to someone else at the same time she was speaking to me. I wanted one for everyone on the team, but the magical inks to make them were a quarter million obols each, and we hadn’t been able to justify the expense, not if it wasn’t going to cloak communication. It wasn’t much better than a walkie talkie, except that it was considerably smaller than what they had on Aerb, and much more discreet.

“No,” I lied. “Sorry. I was just coming from a meeting.”

“Kicking in doors?” asked the woman with a glance down the hall. “Look, if you are Juniper Smith, then we just want to talk, that’s it.”

I glanced at the spear in her hand.

“Just a precaution,” she said. “I assume you carry a blade for the same reason. Just in case there’s trouble.” I was holding my sword, but I wasn’t quite in a ready stance.

I was trapped. The only way down to the next level was through her, since (per Grak) all the windows had annihilation wards. I was sorely tempted to just bum rush her, but unknown entads made that a tricky prospect, especially when mine weren’t that impressive. Besides that, attacking someone who proclaimed that they just wanted to talk and had shown no aggression seemed like kind of a dick move.

“Okay,” I said. “We can talk.”

“Pallida,” said the woman as she started walking toward me with her hand held out.

“No handshakes,” I said, looking down at her hand.

“Sure, I’m wary of strangers myself,” said Pallida, dropping her hand. She looked past me. “Is Masters around?”

“No,” I replied. I immediately assumed that she or her friends were responsible for the way he’d been cut off.

“So,” said Pallida. “Are you Juniper Smith?”

“No comment,” I said.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Pallida replied. I was pretty sure that was for the benefit of whoever was on the other end of the tattoo. She looked past me again. “Word from reception was that you came up with a group. Are they with Masters, wherever he might be?”

“Sorry,” I said. “Can we cut to the chase? Are you one of Uther’s old enemies, or one of his old allies?”

Pallida straightened slightly, and some of the good humor fell from her face. “I gave my life for him on two different occasions,” she said. That was only slightly less impressive than it sounded, since renacim reincarnated instead of going to the hells. “And you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. It hurt to say that, like a betrayal of the Arthur I had known, but after so long … “I didn’t know him. From what I’ve heard, ally, I guess.”

Pallida let out a breath. “Well, good, we have that in common. I’m very serious that all we want to do is talk. Whatever Masters said to you, set that to the side for now. He’s an old friend, but a bit obsessive when the mood takes him. We should probably get out of here though. We have a ride waiting downstairs.”

“I need to find Masters first,” I said.

I heard the sound of three faint gunshots from outside, and watched Pallida turn and listen. After those three, there was silence.

“Okay, sure, sounds like things might be getting rough out there,” said Pallida. “Mind if I help you then? We sort of made a splash. You might have felt it. Sticking around too long is going to raise some questions that we’d rather not answer. The faster we leave, the better.”

My eyes went to her barbed spear. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Who the hells are you?”

“Pallida,” she said again, holding out her hand. When I made no move for it, she snatched it back. “Right, right, no handshakes. My friends and I are -- well, old allies of Uther Penndraig, as you said, here to see to the continuation of his legacy, such as it is. There’s a survey that they give to the dream-skewered --”

“I know it,” I replied.

“Ah,” said Pallida. “Did you know that your name has been on it for the last five hundred years?”

“Yes,” I replied. I didn’t see a point in lying about that, or acting shocked.

“So you can see our interest, can’t you?” asked Pallida. “And if you’ll come with us, we can fill you in a bit more. Like I said, we just want to talk.”

“What did you do with Masters?” I asked.

“Do with him?” asked Pallida with a raised eyebrow. “I haven’t seen him in a few decades. Something happen to him?”

I was momentarily startled by the loss of color as the tint of maroon left her. I inwardly cursed; I’d spent too long talking, and Soul Sight had faded. That did seem to confirm that Masters hadn’t cracked it; if he had, he likely wouldn’t have known about the time limit.

“He’s somewhere in this building, I think,” I said. “I’m not going to leave until I find him.”

I wanted to ask for a minute to myself so I could get my Soul Sight back, but obviously I wasn’t going to mention Soul Sight out loud, and in either case, I didn’t trust this armed woman I’d met a few minutes ago enough to be bereft of my senses for a few minutes. That was probably a good indicator that I shouldn’t be going with her, but I was worried that things might get violent if I resisted.

For all I knew, they’d already taken Masters out.

For all I knew, they were working with Masters, even if Soul Sight seemed to semi-conclusively rule out her being an illusion.

“I already offered my help,” said Pallida.

“I think I’m doing fine on my own,” I said. I didn’t trust her, naturally, even if she was who she said she was. She was far too eager to help me. While I wasn’t going to lean on the information Masters had given me, I also wasn’t going to completely discount it. Uther had enemies and allies, both of which had an interest in me, and some of those allies had apparently soured on him. It sounded plausible, not so much that I was willing to act on it, but enough that I was willing to let it bend how I thought.

“Kicking in doors and seeing which one he’s behind?” asked Pallida.

“Sure,” I said.

“And what’s he done to you?” asked Pallida. I didn’t like the way she was holding the spear. It was a little bit too casual. “Other than having a survey with your name on it.”

“He’s,” I started, then stopped. I didn’t know whether this woman knew anything about illusion magic. “What was he known for, when you knew him?”

“He was Raven’s father,” said Pallida. “He didn’t like his little girl, only twelve hundred years old at that point, going off on dangerous adventures. Eventually he came around, but I never got the details. He’s been watching after the dream-skewered for a long time now. Nice enough guy.”

I watched her as she said that. She seemed sincere enough. I found myself bending the other way, partly by virtue of the possibility she’d try to fight me if I kept brushing her off, and partly because I couldn’t actually do anything to stop her from following me without committing to aggression. “You’ll help me find him?” I asked.

“I said I would,” said Pallida. “I won’t let you hurt him though.”

I frowned. “He kidnapped a friend of mine,” I said.

Pallida raised an eyebrow again. “Doesn’t sound like him, but like I said, it’s been a few decades. And I still won’t let you hurt him.” She looked down the hallway again. “There were six of you, according to reception.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s go find them.”

“Masters kidnapped all of them?” asked Pallida. “Like, all of them? We’re talking about the same guy here, late middle-aged Ell, scholar?”

“He’s a man of secrets, I guess,” I replied. I started off down the hallway, moving past her and not making for the stairs. It was the only direction that I could go without trying to make her give way. I tensed as I put my back to her, ready to see a spear coming toward me from my periphery, but the moment passed by. “And no, not all, the others left.”

I tried the handle on the first door I came across, and when it wouldn’t open, I lifted my foot, aiming squarely for the place where it latched.

“Here,” said Pallida. She reached forward and tapped the knob once, then opened it up without a problem. She gave me a cautious smile. “You pick up a thing or two, having lived since the dawn of time.” She looked me up and down. “You’re human, right?” She was trying to weasel more information out of me, as I’d expected she might.

“Sure,” I said. I looked in the room. It held row after row of bunk beds. They were well-made, but they were still bunk beds, triple-stacked and packed pretty tightly together. Each of the beds had a trunk at the base. I found the arrangement puzzling. Was this where the dream-skewered were supposed to be housed? Something resembling army barracks? It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if The Dream that Skewers misrepresented living conditions for the dream-skewered, given that they didn’t actually exist, but I didn’t really understand why you’d have something like this locked away up on the top floor. And from what Masters had said, there were a few patients, they were just plain old crazy. I assumed that they’d be kept down on the lower levels though.

“Not there?” asked Pallida.

I’d spent too long looking. “No,” I said. “Moving on.”

“Do you know why your name was on that list?” asked Pallida. “I met the dream-skewered, a dozen lifetimes ago. I asked one of them, after Uther was gone. I don’t remember everything, but I remember the look of confusion on his face when I went through the survey with him. Masters tightened things up after that. He didn’t want people snooping around, not even nominal allies.”

“He didn’t call you here?” I asked. I tried the handle of another door, and again found it locked.

Pallida came over and stopped with her fingers a few inches from the handle. “We’ve kept eyes on him, and a few others.” She tapped the handle once and then pushed down on it, letting the door swing open.

Pretty convenient that a reasonable person who also wants answers from me shows up right after Masters has burned his bridges.

The room was an armory. I counted two dozen weapons sitting on the racks mounted against one wall, all of them so different from each other that I thought most of them were probably entads. There were five suits of armor sitting against the far wall, all of them so different in their appearance that I was sure they were magical. Close to me, there were two display cabinets, side-by-side, each of them filled with trinkets.

“Guys, Masters has an armory up here, and I saw a barracks just a bit ago,” said Pallida, no longer keeping up the pretense of not using the Parson’s Voice to talk to the others. “I think we just found one of Uther’s hidey-holes. Masters might be more dangerous than he let on.”

“We’re in an exclusion zone,” I said. “Illusion magic, which is about how it sounds. Masters is a master illusion mage.”

Pallida’s eyes went wide. “What? ” Someone must have said something on the other end of her tattoo, because she started talking again, her words fast and clipped. “He says we’re in an exclusion zone for illusion magic,” she said. She waited half a tick, listening to the other end. “Masters is a practitioner. Face and Lotus protocols.”

I knew those: they were lifted straight from our tabletop games. The Lotus protocol was one the group had developed when fighting a dream mage, and the rule was that nothing was to be trusted as being reality. The Face protocol was one they’d made when I had them go up against a small army of doppelgangers. I wondered how fleshed out Arthur might have made them, or what adaptations he might have made for Aerb. There was little question in my mind that was where Pallida had gotten them from.

“Because he’s the one who said it,” Pallida replied to an unspoken question. “No, I don’t know why they would. Uther, probably.” She paused again, listening. “Well, even if you were, he’s got other magic. Assume that he’s shored up any weaknesses.” She shot me an apologetic look and rolled her eyes at whatever the other person had said. “I’m going radio silent while I make conversation..” Another pause. “Because that’s what I trained on.” She touched her finger to the barely-visible tattoo. “Sorry.”

“Do you have countermeasures?” I asked. Not that I would trust them.

“One of my partners does, downstairs,” said Pallida. “You have to tell us what you know, if not about who you are and what your connection to Uther is, then about Masters and what he can do.”

And now, suddenly, we’re on the same side against Masters, uh huh, sure. “He’s capable of displaying different illusions to different people, implicitly including the ability to insert himself into conversations between two people to make each think the other said something different. He doesn’t appear to be able to model things that he has no knowledge of, including people that he’s never met, information he never heard, or entads and other magic that he doesn’t know the function of. So far as I’m aware, he can meddle with any sense. I also assume he’s got surveillance either as part of the magic, or acquired it independently.”

Pallida stared at me. “And your plan was to track him down and attack him with a sword?”

“He has my friend,” I replied. “How things are going to go depends on how willing he is to give her up.”

Pallida tapped Parson’s Voice and repeated back what I’d told her, with some bits of commentary in there, most of which was about how she really didn’t like this new development.

“You said we were short on time,” I said when she was done. “You’re worried about the police showing up?”

“Our method of arrival wasn’t exactly subtle,” said Pallida. “We were worried you’d disappear. Sounds like campus security are already downstairs.”

“Then go,” I said. “I can make the search alone, and I’ve done nothing illegal. If you really want to talk to me, then we can get in touch later. Leave an ad in a Boastre Vino newspaper that mentions the colors green, chartreuse, and gold. I’ll be checking for the next month.”

“He wants us to leave,” said Pallida with a finger to her tattoo. “Gave a semi-anonymous contact method.” She listened and winced. “No dice,” she said to me.

“I don’t want to fight you,” I said.

“Whoa, hey, no one said anything about that,” said Pallida.

“Masters wanted answers from me,” I said. “When I tried to leave, he trapped me in an illusion. So if you want to keep asking questions, it’s going to have to be while I’m searching this place from top to bottom.”

“Sure,” said Pallida. Her mouth twisted in a frown, and she twirled her spear around once. “Fine.”

We went further down the hallway, opening a few more doors (storage, bathrooms, kitchen, dining hall, more beds) until we got to the other end of the building, on the opposite side from the room that contained the mirror. The more I thought about it, the more I saw the positioning of that mirror in its own large room as being something like a shrine to Uther, especially since it hadn’t been in use for the last five hundred years. There hadn’t been any dust, either, had there? Not there, nor on the bunk beds, nor in the armory, which meant that all of it must have been regularly cleaned, waiting for … something. Me, maybe.

This last door on the top floor was bigger and more imposing, sturdily built in a way that I didn’t like.

“Do the honors?” I asked Pallida after I tested the handle and found the door locked.

Pallida tapped the handle, then frowned. “Not the kind of lock I can open,” she said.

“No?” I asked. “And what does that mean?” I didn’t trust her.

“It’s locked from the inside,” said Pallida. “Some locks you can’t open unless you’re on the right side of the door.” She stepped back. “Seems likely this is where he would be. Though ...”

“Though you’re wondering why, if he’s a master illusion mage, he wouldn’t just make it seem like there’s not a door here at all?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Pallida. She turned to me. “I’m serious that we need to get out of here sooner than later. Campus police are already on the scene, and there are limits to how hard we want to fight in order to get away. We’re not really equipped for cracking heavy defenses.”

“I’m going to kick the door down,” I replied. I stepped in front of the door and took stock of it. It was wood, but a quick knock on it was enough to confirm that under the wood was metal. What Pallida had said meant, what, that it was barred from the other side? Chained, maybe? I had a lot in the way of brute strength, but I wasn’t about to delude myself that I was going to be able to snap a steel bar with my kick, let alone something more exotic. I still squared myself and reached out to my magics, then raised my foot.

Maybe predictably, a kick using the full force of my power broke a bone in my leg and was incredibly painful. I felt ligaments and muscles tear from the strain. A now-familiar notification from the game popped up, informing me of the broken bone affliction, and I watched the health meter dip a few points, which was, in a way, comforting. At least what I was doing was real. I ate a marzipan fairy as the pain began to increase, and sighed in relief as the bone set and healed itself.

“You broke a bone,” said Pallida. “Then healed it?”

“Not important,” I said, touching the mark I’d made on the door. I glance over at her and saw her watching. “Entads.”

“Sure,” said Pallida. She was looking down at the bandoliers on my chest. “Wait. I know that one. It was one of Uther’s.”

“Probably,” I said, looking at the door. I’d used a fairy instead of burning through a bone because I hadn’t wanted to show off unexplained magical healing with all the questions that would raise, but apparently the fairy raised other questions.

“No, I mean the fairies were one that was locked to him, invested by him,” she replied. “There was a jar of them that could only be opened with his consent. We had to give it back to his son. How do you have one of the marzipan fairies?”

“Long story,” I said. “You said we don’t have much time. Is there any way that you can open this? I don’t know what your specific abilities are.”

“We find your friend, then we go,” said Pallida. “You come with us, alright? And Masters doesn’t get hurt.”

I hesitated, naturally. So far, Pallida hadn’t done anything to inspire mistrust, but then, Masters hadn’t either, up until the point where he’d prevented me from leaving. The others were somewhere else, probably within the athenaeum, but I had no clue whether their plan was to return to me or bail out entirely using the teleportation key. I was pretty sure that Amaryllis was going to be pissed off at me for ignoring democracy, more so if I left with some strangers.

“Okay,” I said. “We find my friend, we leave. If you notice anything off about her, give me a chance to explain before you do anything rash.” When we found Valencia, I would ask her to give me her best read of the situation, and then not leave until she’d given the all-clear. I worried that she was unconscious, but that was a bridge I’d cross when I came to it.

“Stand back,” said Pallida. “I want to make sure I’m not going to kill you.” She held out her spear and pointed it at the handle of the door, raising the shaft so that she was resting it gently on one hand. She carefully swung the spear to one side, in my direction.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hold the end,” she said. “Avoid the barbs.”

I did as she said, holding onto the part of the shaft I could reach. She partially released it, letting me hold it. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“Testing,” said Pallida. “Making sure that I’m not swinging this thing where I don’t want to swing it.” She let go of the spear, leaving me holding it up. “Okay,” she said, grabbing it again. “Now I know you’re not an illusion, because if you were, then the spear would have fallen to the ground, and if it were on the ground, I couldn’t hurt the real you when I swung it.”

“Unless he has telekinesis,” I said. “Or some other way to fake haptics.”

“Does he?” asked Pallida with a frown on her face.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“If I kill you, sorry,” said Pallida. She faced the door and took a deep breath. “This is going to take a moment.”

“Sure,” I said. So far as I could tell, this was my chance. I slipped into my soul as quickly as I could, took all the points in Stealth and dumped them into Essentialism, then backed out as quickly as I could.

Skill increased: Essentialism lvl 28!

New Virtue: Soul Sight!

The door had several long slashes across it, making a crude rectangle. The tip of Pallida’s spear was still glowing. In the wake of the slashes was something bubbling and dark purple, the end result of whatever had happened to the metal and wood. I was immediately sure I didn’t want to meet the business end of that spear.

“Try kicking that,” said Pallida, gesturing toward the marks she made.

I walked forward and squared myself, then raised my foot and kicked with all my strength. This time the metal gave, breaking apart in the few places the bubbled purple stuff was and falling inward. I ducked to one side, putting myself out of the line of fire, then peeked in when what I’d seen registered.

Valencia was standing next to Masters with her pistols drawn and pointed my way. Masters was tied up in a chair with a gag over his mouth and his eyes closed. He didn’t seem conscious. The room had all the furnishings of an office, and the chair that Masters was sitting in clearly belonged to the desk that was behind him. There were two big windows with a view down the mountain, leading to the shimmering water. I looked at Masters with Soul Sight; he was reddish-orange, right where I’d expect him to be with normal vision. Valencia showed no soul at all, which was as it should be too, but that also meant she had no color to check.

“Keyring,” said Valencia, not lowering her weapons. “Dolomite.”

“Oak,” I replied.

“Excitement,” said Valencia with a nod. “Where did we first meet?”

“Prison,” I said. “It’s me. And I don’t think that his magic would be effective on you, given the necklace you’re wearing.”

That was one of our standard deceptions to explain Valencia; she was wearing a necklace of non-detection, which would cancel out any attempt to sense her with anything more than sight or sound. We needed a plausible reason that she would appear to be a non-anima, and an entad was as good an excuse as any, given their variable effects. It wouldn’t hold up, and we didn’t want to be in a position to have to explain things in the first place, but maybe it was an excuse that might serve us for a bit, until we could get to the anti-infernal bit, which was still shaky ground. The obvious next request for anyone with half a brain was that she remove it in order to confirm that it really was an entad, which was why it was an excuse to be used sparingly. I did wonder how many devils wearing non-anima skin had come up with all the same justifications for why they appeared as they did.

“Who’s that behind you?” asked Valencia. She still hadn’t lowered her pistols.

“Pallida,” I said. “She claims to be a friend, but I was hoping that you would be able to tell me for certain.” From my periphery, I saw Pallida give a little wave. “Can I come in?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Valencia. She still hadn’t lowered her pistols. “You’re going to have to explain things for me.”

“Naturally,” I said. I stepped into the room with her and glanced back at Pallida. “You’re under your own recognizance to shoot her.”

“Excuse me?” asked Pallida, ducking behind the door. “You just said she can shoot me?”

“No,” I said. “I said that she was allowed to shoot you and shouldn’t look to me for instruction or approval, because she should be immune to the effects of illusion magic, and I’m not.”

“Ah,” said Pallida. “I’ll stay behind the barrier then, thanks. You said that once you got your friend, we could go.”

“Who is this person?” asked Valencia.

“One of Uther’s old allies,” I said. “At least, that’s what she claims.” I looked at Valencia’s armored form, then back toward the door where Pallida was hiding. “Can you tell me whether that’s true?”

“Come out,” said Valencia, toward the door.

“Guns down?” asked Pallida.

Valencia lowered her pistols, but kept them in hand. “Okay.”

Pallida poked her head in, confirmed that there were no weapons aimed in her general direction, then stepped into the room. “We really should be going,” she said.

“Tell me about Uther,” said Valencia.

“Uh, that’s sort of a long story,” said Pallida. She paused. “He was the greatest hero the world had ever known. I wasn’t one of his Knights, but there were a few times I came close to filling that role.”

“If he came back, you wouldn’t be loyal to him,” said Valencia.

Pallida hesitated, then glanced at me for a moment. “I wouldn’t pledge fealty, no,” she said.

“It’s more than that,” said Valencia. “You feel hostility toward him.”

“No,” said Pallida, shaking her head. “He was a hero, and a great man, but it’s complicated.”

“What happened to the others?” Valencia asked me, turning fractionally in my direction.

“They left through Solace’s entad,” I said. The variable effects of entads were something of a godsend for cloaking our true abilities. “They should still be somewhere on campus, unless they left for the big guns.”

“Then why are you here?” she asked.

“I didn’t want to leave without you,” I said. “Masters was making some kind of threat when he got cut off, and … I disagreed with leaving.”

Loyalty Increased: Valencia the Red lvl 26!

“I don’t think that was very smart,” said Valencia. “I was the one who silenced him, when I heard him trying to use me like that. I’ve been waiting here because there was a banging sound outside, then gunshots. Was that just you?”

“Probably our landing and the local police,” said Pallida.

“We should go,” I said. “Val, it’s up to you whether we go with them or try to escape down the mountain. Obviously if we spot Mary and the others, we’ll regroup.”

“I get the same sense from her as from Masters,” said Valencia. “Stronger, because she’s not masking it. She wants answers, and she’s willing to hurt someone to get them.”

“I don’t think that’s fair,” said Pallida with a frown. “And how the hells do you know anything about me?”

“Entad,” I said.

“You’re lying,” said Pallida.

“She’s just guessing that you’re lying,” said Valencia.

“Well, that’s already annoying,” said Pallida. “Look, we really don’t have all the time in the world, because the cavalry has just been called in.”

I didn’t really want to go with her and her friends, but I didn’t know what the other members of our party had planned for. The only information I had was that they were, probably, two hundred yards away, since that was what Solace had said before trying to make a portal the first time. Would they stay, once I hadn’t come through? Or would they use the teleportation key? I could imagine Amaryllis scouting out the situation and seeing whatever forces Pallida’s people had brought to bear, then deciding that this was a battle to fight another day, especially given that they had no easy way around illusion magic. Amaryllis thought I was important, but there were limits.

Fenn though … I thought Fenn wouldn’t let common sense stop her.

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Alexander Wales

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