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“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go. Valencia, at the first sign of trouble, we’re bailing. Watch them closely.”

“Mode?” asked Valencia.

Ah. Fast-talking or fisticuffs? Based on how she’d described the experience, it wasn’t so much that she had a demon or devil’s thoughts, it was that for the strong ones, their skills became so much a part of her way of thinking that it was hard to avoid. When all you had was godly combat ability, every situation seemed like it could be solved with combat. When all you had was social manipulation, it might seem like you could lie your way out of anything. Either of those approaches could be really dangerous. Unfortunately, the turnaround time on switching between the two skill sets was just long enough that it could be a problem. (The talk of them being modes had come from me, I was pretty sure.)

“Talking,” I said. Not because I was terribly eager to talk, but because I was still on edge from Masters and his illusions. I wasn’t going to fully trust Valencia, not with illusion magic in the air and Soul Sight not as sure a thing as I would have liked, but if she were really there and really communicating with me, then her insights might allow me to avoid tripping over a landmine.

Valencia just gave a curt nod. She holstered one of her pistols, clipping it in place with one hand, but kept the other.

“Move?” asked Pallida. “Now?”

“We should take Masters,” said Valencia. “Joon?”

“Do we need him?” I asked. “Because it’s probably going to look like we’re kidnapping him, and if these people have answers, then --”

“I’m worried that if we leave him here, he might die,” said Valencia. “We don’t need to take him with us, but he’s going to need medical attention, which means getting him somewhere that he’ll be found quickly once we’re gone. Unless you want me to wake him up?”

I frowned at that. “How did he capture you?” I asked.

“Really not the time for this,” said Pallida. “Campus security is apparently here. Your friends have agreed to come with.”

“My friends?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied Pallida. “Four of them? They’re in the ship, waiting for you.”

I turned to Valencia and raised an eyebrow. “That’s apparently the truth, as far as she knows,” said Valencia. She must have seen my expression, because she continued on. “Authentication, two pass, two fail, random order as confirmation.”

I nodded, slowly. “Go ahead.”

She gave me four names. Two were Harry Potter characters, and the other two were (so far as I knew) made up.

“Okay,” I said with a sigh of relief. I wasn’t that worried about Masters anymore, given that I was as sure as I could be that he really had been knocked out, but there was no guarantee that he was the only illusion mage.

“Yes, now can we go, pretty please?” asked Pallida. “Word is that we’re dangerously close to an altercation with campus security. Our options as far as non-violent resistance go are limited.”

I went over and lifted Masters up, then put him over my shoulder. It was far easier than it had any right to be, especially since he was dead weight, but I’d put on a lot of (debatably unearned) muscle in the course of my level ups, and had him secured with relatively little effort. I positioned him so that I would be able to draw my sword at a moment’s notice, not that I thought I would have that much warning if things started to go south.

We moved down through the building, taking the central stairs, while Pallida talked.

“There’s Gemma Tails, she’s a fox Animalia, blade-bound, and a pretty weak velocity mage. She took a leave from Might and Motion, where she’s still enrolled, about a month ago. Heshnel Elec is a dark elf, flower mage and former soul mage, though he got stripped of that skill after the Second Empire fell, nothing to worry about there. O’kald is a bellad, our brute. And then Gur Dehla is lenssi, our warder. There are others back at base, which is where we’re going, but those are all the people that are on my side, which means your side.” She spoke rapidly as we went down the stairs, not paying much attention to me.

I was grateful that she didn’t see me tense at the mention of a team warder. Valencia showed no reaction whatsoever, which wasn’t at all surprising.

The Valencia Problem was one that we were going to have to deal with sooner than later. The Red Armor of Arramor (which sounded like a made up name every time I said it in my head, like someone had just fumbled through saying ‘armor’) would block her from warder’s sight, but she couldn’t stay in it forever, and there were other senses that could be problematic beyond just the one warders got. I was pretty sure that Soul Sight wasn’t just a game mechanical thing, it was a real thing that advanced soul mages had, in the same way that the Blade Bound virtues correlated to something that people who trained could actually achieve. I was really hoping not to ever run into another soul mage, but not at all counting on it. Beyond those two, there were entads that simply wouldn’t work, magics that would fail, and all sorts of esoterica that could reveal her. Masters had probably been able to sense our senses from the moment he’d met us, and I didn’t doubt that he’d sensed Valencia’s lack of senses.

I saw Valencia reach down to the pouch that she wore on her hip and slip her hand inside. I could tell what she was thinking, mostly because I had been the one that had come up with the plan in the first place. We’d done some testing on her Soul Capture ability, mostly using the ‘blank’ souls, enough to confirm that Valencia could use one for about fifteen minutes of ‘having a soul’ if she pushed it hard. That was Plan Mountain Dew. Unfortunately, Valencia was a vessel who could only fit one thing in her at a time (phrasing), which meant that if she was going to pretend to be human, it was going to be at the expense of all her other abilities. Also, apparently it was bad manners to drink a soul, because that would condemn it to the hells.

Valencia looked back at me, face unreadable given the armor, but I knew that it was a questioning look. I shook my head fractionally, hoping that I wasn’t making a mistake. The armor would hide her, and I had a feeling we were going to want all the advantage we could get. The lenssi and bellad were going to be problems for Val, I was pretty sure, given that one was just a floating skull in human-shaped fluid, and the other was a rock creature without much in the way of facial expression. We’d discussed all the ways that her social-fu could be thwarted, in whole or in part, and the more extreme mortal species were definitely on the list of possible counters. All the mortal species had souls, and all ended up in the hells (renacim aside), but some were niche, and not every devil had full knowledge on the particulars of all the species.

(That we’d run into two of the more problematic mortal species and someone who had studied with the Elon Gar was either an example of the Dungeon Master being predictable, or the Dungeon Master having a joke at our expense.)

We stepped down the first set of stairs and found ourselves in the lobby again. The receptionist was gone, and three people were standing around, the dark elf, lenssi, and bellad. They were watching me, and I noted how close their hands were to their weapons.

“Let’s go,” said Pallida. “Introductions later.”

“Gemma is talking to campus security,” said the dark elf, Heshnel. It occurred to me that if I were Pallida, I might have lied about the capabilities of my teammates, but maybe that was because I had a hard time trusting new people, especially when they were armed. “We should give her a chance to resolve things.”

“And what the hell is she going to say to them that’s going to convince them to let us leave without arresting us?” asked Pallida.

“She seemed to have a plan,” said Heshnel with a shrug. He was wearing a cape that came down over one side, giving him an asymmetric look. He wasn’t wearing armor, but his jacket seemed specially designed to hold a fair number of flower buds, which were arranged like an army general might pin his medals. As he spoke, I realized what seemed off about him: his teeth weren’t the horrifying fangs of the other elves I’d seen. They looked like human teeth, if a little too white, just like Fenn’s. I wasn’t sure if he was half-elf though; I thought his features were too pronounced for that. His skin was purple-black and his hair was white, classic drow, though on Aerb the historical drow lived at the bottoms of the oceans, in the Gelid Depths, rather than in caves. “We’ll wait until the fighting starts and make our escape then, unless she finds some way of convincing them that this was all a misunderstanding.”

“There were other ways we could have come,” said the bellad, O’kald. His voice was like a bucket of rocks being poured out. This was my first time seeing a bellad, but he was more or less what I’d expected. No nose, and just little slits for eyes and a mouth, like someone had put as little effort as possible into a rock carving of someone’s face. They weren’t a common fixture of the empire, in part because they weighed too much.

The lenssi made a quick gesture through the air, warping its vague hand-shapes into tendrils in the process.

“Yes, and much slower,” replied Heshnel. “Do you think that Masters was going to share what information he had? It was inevitable that we would butt heads.”

The lenssi made another series of gestures, going on for longer.

“I don’t intend to find out until we’re far away from this place,” said Heshnel. My eyes kept being drawn to his teeth. Dark elves were close to being monochrome, but his gums and tongue were more purple than black. I didn’t trust him. Drow were one of the classically evil races, fodder for many adventures, and while the dark elves on Aerb didn’t fit that mold, I was immediately suspicious. He turned away from the others and cracked the door, looking out.

“How is Masters doing?” asked Pallida.

I gently laid him down on the floor, making sure to keep his head and neck supported. I glanced up at Valencia for a moment before realizing that she’d have given up her ability to see whether or not he was okay by switching to talking mode. I reached down and lifted up one of Masters’ eyelids, checking pupil dilation, then felt for a pulse. I didn’t really know how he was doing, just that getting knocked out wasn’t too great for you, even if it was done by a competent professional.

“Fine,” I lied.

“I’m worried about what’s going to happen when he wakes up,” said Valencia. “I don’t have a good estimate. I hope he wakes up. I did hit him pretty hard.”

“Do we have a way of confirming that any of this is real?” asked Pallida.

“No,” O’kald rumbled.

“We don’t have a way of confirming that he’s right about this being an exclusion zone,” said Heshnel, turning back toward the group. “It’s worrying.”

He had a point. I knew that it was an exclusion zone because someone had used illusion magic on me, but for him, hearing it second hand … yeah, he had to be paranoid about whether or not to be paranoid.

“Is Gemma talking her way out of the problem?” asked Pallida.

“It doesn’t appear so,” said Heshnel. He reached down for one of the flower buds pinned to his chest. “I can arrange a distraction.”

“We should talk about where we’re going,” said O’kald. I took stock of his clothing, which was a far cry from the armor I might have expected. So far as I knew, the bellad didn’t need to wear clothing, since they were made of rock, but O’kald had apparently put time and effort into dressing himself. He had on a coat with tails, and breeches that were partly covered up by thick, heavy boots. I also took stock of his weapons, which hung at his hip, a hand axe and a hammer, both of them different enough in style that I assumed one or both were entads.

“I told him we were going back to base,” said Pallida. “So, we’re going back to base.”

“Plan B,” said O’kald, crossing his arms.

“No,” said Pallida. “He’s just a kid.”

“That’s the point,” said O’kald.

“I’m inclined to agree with our rocky companion,” said Heshnel. His hand was still positioned so that his fingers were close to the buds. “Perhaps if Uther hadn’t prepared this place as well as he did, I might think it was something innocuous.”

“I don’t suppose that I get a say in this?” I asked. “What’s Plan B?”

“We don’t need to go with Plan B,” said Valencia. “We’re cooperating with you. Plan A is equitable exchange of information with the others, right? That’s exactly what we’d like.”

“Who are you?” asked Heshnel. “Sade said there was an entad of some sort. Mind reading?”

“No,” said Valencia. “Nothing so invasive.” She turned to me. “Plan B is suicidal, indiscriminate violence against us. Maybe not right away, but with the option for it if we give the wrong information.”

“How the hells do you know that?” asked Pallida, her voice sharp. She looked to the others. “Look, we can’t do Plan B if he knows, he’ll never come with us.”

The lenssi made a series of quick swipes through the air.

“It says that they can kill us at base if they have to,” said Valencia.

Everyone froze at that.

“Alright,” I said. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere with you.”

The dark elf plucked a flower bud from its place on his jacket. “We’ll go with Plan A,” he said slowly. “We’ll return to base and discuss things there.”

“You think that I’m the next Uther Penndraig?” I asked.

“We don’t know,” said Heshnel.

“That’s what they think,” said Valencia.

“It’s not what I think,” said Pallida, who had taken a few steps back. She was holding her spear in both hands, no longer just using it as a walking stick.

“Do you have some kind of distance communication?” I asked. “We could use that instead, if all you want to do is talk.”

“Your friends are already on board the Egress. They agreed to go,” said Pallida. “Look, we’re not going with Plan B, we’re going with Plan A, and before we get to talking, you can have your warder set up whatever defenses you’d like. We’ll even show you how to use the Egress and you can sit in it while we talk so you can make a getaway in a hurry.”

“She doesn’t speak for the group,” said Valencia.

“Can you stop trying to undermine every single thing we say?” asked Pallida.

“Start telling the full truth and I won’t have to,” said Valencia.

Heshnel had the door propped open with one foot, and from outside, we heard a yell, followed by the distinctive sound of metal on metal. I really, really hoped that my companions weren’t in a battle with campus security.

“Diplomacy has failed,” said Heshnel, with a glance outside.

The lenssi swished its tentacles through the air.

“No, not yet,” said Heshnel. He turned to me. “We’re leaving in the Egress. If you don’t come with us, you’ll be left facing campus security and trying to explain to them what you were doing with the ship that came down, who we were, and what happened to Masters, who will be waking up shortly, unless you killed him.”

I hesitated. “Val?” I asked.

“He’ll live,” she replied. “Unless you have information I don’t, I think we should go with them. If they try Plan B, I’ll know, and be ready to warn you. If Grak and the others are really in that ship, then we can bargain for time to set up defenses before we say anything.”

“Okay,” I said, sucking in a breath. “Then we’ll go with you.”

“Mode shift,” Valencia said, voice so low I was hopeful that I was the only one who heard her. She’d have to shift back once we were aboard their ship, or whatever it was, but I was in agreement that combat prowess might be a useful thing to have in the next handful of minutes.

“We’re going to leave Masters,” said Valencia. “Assuming he can get some medical attention, he’ll be fine. He’ll wake up on his own.” There was something about how she said that which made it sound more like hope than certainty.

I nodded at that, then steeled myself to go. I hesitated for just a moment, then ducked behind the reception desk and grabbed the clipboard there, taking the piece of paper that still had our names on it. That wasn’t going to erase our presence here, not by a long shot, but it would give Masters some cover to lie for us, if he wanted to. I had no idea where the receptionist was, but hoped that he was okay.

We left out the front door, with O’kald in the lead. Pallida had said that he was their brute, which meant that they had a soul link with him. That was one of the few uses of soul magic that was still authorized, if you had the right permits. The actual process was a little tricky, since it required manipulating two souls at once, but it was the sort of tricky that didn’t need a lot of deep understanding. The binding effect was short-range and non-permanent, useful mostly for if you wanted someone to take the brunt of every single attack made against your group, which we really didn’t.

I saw the fox Animalia, Gemma, in heated combat with campus security, who she was running rings around. I was mildly surprised to see that she had two daggers, and wondered which one of them was bound, but it didn’t seem to matter, since she danced her way between sword and hammer strikes with grace and precision, parrying attacks and slipping past defenses. She wasn’t hurting anyone, and I had enough of an eye for combat that I could see most of the times she could have easily jammed one of those daggers in the gap in someone’s plate.

Campus security had a lot of people though, and preparation on their side. With a shout from by the vans, they began pulling back. One of the vans was moving, backing up so the back of it was facing toward the ship they’d come in, which --

Well, the ship was Cloud Gate, the sculpture that sits in Chicago, a big metal bean that reflected the campus around us. I had visited the sculpture with my parents and thought that it was utterly magical, like someone had taken a bit of D&D and transplanted it into the real world. It was how I had always envisioned the ship that the party had used in our world-hopping campaign, but my description must not have been obvious, since Tiff had made a drawing of it that looked completely different. In my head though, I’d always described the ship like it was the one I saw in front of me.

Gunfire erupted from the van. The back was open, and they were firing a fucking chaingun at the fox Animalia. She spun her daggers around, deflecting about half of the bullets in a very impressive display. That left the other half to hit her, hits that showed up on O’kald, barely seeming to affect him. I didn’t waste any more time looking, and raced across the open ground to where the bean was sitting, its skin split along the side. Grak was standing at the entrance, watching me, waving me forward.

Very suddenly, Masters was standing in front of me.

I kept running, until I’d run through him, but the world began to warp and shift around me, and after a few seconds, I had to stop for fear that I would run into something, or that I had ended up running the wrong way.

Master was standing in front of me again.

“I don’t have any illusions about keeping you here forever,” said Masters. He seemed haggard, with sunken eyes. I still didn’t have the full details on what had happened between him and Val, but she had said that she’d seen him speaking. Did he need to project himself? Or was it just easier that way?

“Yeah,” I said. “But you’re not going to let me go without a fight.”

“If this were a fight, you would be dead,” said Masters. “I never wanted to hurt you, I only wanted to know. The people you’re going with are part of the group that thinks it would be better if you were dead.”

I didn’t respond. The noise of the chain gun had cut out, but I could still see it firing. I assumed that Masters had hijacked my sense of sound so that he could get the last word in. The problem was, I wasn’t actually sure where I was in relation to everything, not when Masters could spin the world around me. “Val, help!” I shouted. “Illusion!”

She stopped and ran back for me, holstering her pistols, as the land around me twisted and warped.

“You’re in danger if you leave,” said Masters. “I can fix everything here, if you stay. We can talk at a distance, with you outside the exclusion zone, as you wanted. Please.”

Again, I didn’t respond. The newcomers weren’t any more trustworthy than Masters, and maybe less so, but at least they hadn’t tried to fuck me yet.

“Uther left behind a cache, for you, or whoever else might have come instead of you. Some of it is quite powerful, the kind of equipment you’ll need if you mean to take up his mantle.” Masters was watching me, or at least appearing to watch me. He looked run down, which wasn’t surprising given that he’d been knocked out. “Please,” he said.

I was tempted, not just by the power on offer, but by the idea that I would get to see more of what Arthur might have planned for me, beyond just the message in the mirror. If he’d thought that I might show up, or maybe one of the others, or just someone from Earth, then he’d have made more preparations than just a simple, melancholy message, right? Well, I already knew that was the case, since I’d seen the room with the entads, and I was pretty sure that they were actually real, since everything I’d seen and heard had been consistent with Masters being incapacitated. With Valencia on my side, and strategies for mitigating what he could do … well, as I said, it was tempting.

(There was something else, buried under the surface, and mostly unexamined. Masters wanted answers, but he was following Uther’s will. From what I’d heard, this new group wasn’t too keen on Uther. They would give me different stories about Uther, I was sure, and I would prefer to hear Masters’ version.)

But on the other hand, Masters was actively restraining me to get the last word in, and whatever he was offering, it wasn’t enough. I didn’t trust many people outside the party, but if I was going to be with someone I didn’t trust, then it was going to be the group without illusion magic making me question every single thing I saw or heard.

“I still have your non-anima,” said Masters. As he said it, Valencia popped like a bubble, disappearing from view. Whatever methods he was using to mask his emotions, they weren’t holding up. He sounded utterly distraught and defeated, and I didn’t believe my own eyes for even a second. That lack of faith was rewarded a few moments later, as the world abruptly changed its shape around me.

I was being dragged across the ground by Valencia, who was holding a harness Ropey had fashioned. We were only a few yards from the ship, with Fenn waiting anxiously a few feet away. As soon as she saw that she had my attention, she sprang forward, heedless of a shout from Amaryllis, and lifted me up from the ground, pulling me back toward the ship. I couldn’t see much further than five yards away from me, as the air was dense with pink petals. As soon as Valencia was in, the thin metal skin of the ship closed behind her, and Heshnel began manipulating a silvered expanse of the wall.

“We should wait,” said Amaryllis. “We need to confirm that everyone is here.”

“You have this place warded against Masters,” said Heshnel.

“We think we do,” said Amaryllis. “How much punishment can this ship take?”

“More than a chaingun,” said the fox, Gemma.

“It’s too late,” said Heshnel, stepping back. “We’re already on our way.”

I took a quick inventory, first of our people, then of theirs. We had six to their five, but if we were moving (and there was no way to know for sure that we were) --

Quest Completed: Straddling Worlds - There were five dream-skewered, five centuries ago. There were no answers about those others to be found at Speculation and Scrutiny. If you want to know more, complete The Lost King, Found.

That was reassuring, even if it left me feeling a bit hollow. I turned to face the others, swallowing once at the idea of being with this group who had shown various levels of hostility toward me. I was really hoping that we were still on Plan A, given what I had seen of their abilities. And if Plan B was that they would kill me with swift and overwhelming force, then I thought we were already probably fucked if that’s what they’d decided on, since I held no illusions that the Dungeon Master would spare my life, nor that we would win in terms of raw power.

“Introductions,” said the dark elf. “I’m Heshnel Elec, this is O’kald, Gemma, Dehla, and Sade.” O’Kald was much the worse for wear for having tanked a fair bit of chain gun fire, pitted and cracked in places and pressing pebbles against himself where ichor was coming through. Gemma was the only one of them I hadn’t met, and the mystery of which of the fox Animalia’s weapons was blade-bound was resolved when I saw her smash them together, causing them to shift and warp before forming a long blade. Dehla, the lenssi, was sitting as far from everyone else as possible, its floating skull turned away from us. As for the one he’d called Sade, that was apparently what Pallida went by. Her oil-slick armor had changed to cover her head and hands, completely encasing her, but it was dripping back down now, allowing her to speak.

“Sorry about circumstances,” she said once it was past her lips.

“We can worry about pleasantries later,” I said. I looked to my companions. “We do need to establish trust among ourselves.”

“Juniper, you fucking asshole,” said Fenn. She had her arms folded across her chest.

“Whatever this is, it can wait,” I said. I looked at Amaryllis. “Keyring is presumed compromised. Personal details have the same problem, if we assume that ”

“I’m not letting you off the hook,” said Fenn.

“No, I know,” I replied, trying to keep my temper in check. “But before you can yell at me for staying behind, I need to make sure that everyone is who they say they are.”

“Moving pictures,” said Amaryllis. She pulled a small gray ball from the pouch at her side, the one that Masters had used for the screening. I only needed one guess for who had taken it from the table. “Green, blue, and grey get assigned two, one, and zero. Each triplet of titles will encode one letter. Here, I’ll write them down.”

“Jesus Christ, are we really going to do this?” asked Fenn. “This is going to take forever.”

“I’m afraid I may not have the depth of knowledge necessary to pass this test,” said Solace.

“We’re here,” said Heshnel. I hadn’t felt any acceleration on leaving or deceleration on arriving.

“So soon?” asked Amaryllis.

The dark elf nodded. “The Egress is slower than some other methods of hexal travel, but not by much.” He strode toward the side of the ship and split the skin of it with the motion of his hand. The landscape beyond him was a wide field of something like wheat, with tall mountains in the distance beyond that. A handful of cobblestone houses sat in a clearing, which he strode toward with purpose.

“We’re within teleportation wards,” said Grak. “Again.”

“We still need to verify,” said Amaryllis.

“Take your time,” said Heshnel, turning back to look our way. “There’s no rush.”

“I will stay with them,” said O’Kald as he continued patching himself up.

“Me too,” said Pallida. “Gemma?”

“Sure,” she replied.

The lenssi made a few swift motions with its tendrils and walked out of the ship without waiting for a response from anyone.

I don’t think anyone really wanted to do it, but we sat down at the table and worked out a system that would work, given what we knew we knew, and keeping as much mutually known information secret as possible until it could be mixed with information that was false or not mutually known, such that we could communicate to each other without the possibility of someone being able to forge it.

“It’s not totally secure,” I said. I was specifically thinking of the possibility that Amaryllis had gone through all this with an illusion of me, and now I was going through all of this with an illusion of her, one that was ready with all the answers she’d given the illusion of me. I would have to ask questions that Masters wouldn’t have known to ask, and she would have to do the same.

“Nothing is ever completely secure,” said Grak. “Anyone who says otherwise is lying.” He got up from his chair and began tracing out a ward around us, which I guessed was a ward against sound from the way that the noise of the outside world immediately cut off. A second ward followed the first, which made the area outside the ward a bit dimmer; that would have been an annihilation ward against light, making it so that we could see out but they couldn’t see in. The last one had no visible effect, but I assumed he was redoing his ward against illusion magic.

Grak began. In theory, if he was able to communicate to us using movie titles, then we could trust him, which would mean that we could trust the wards. It was slow, painstaking work to spell out each letter three movie titles at a time, but our “hosts” were apparently willing to give that time to us, so we took it.

S-A-F-E

“Okay,” said Fenn. “So we’re good?”

“Not yet,” said Amaryllis. “I want one short, coherent message from everyone, ideally something personal. If there’s any doubt, we can ask questions and give responses to each other. Solace, you should have enough, given movie nights. Some small amount of repetition is allowable. False titles should be repeated at roughly the same rate as true titles.”

We all went, one by one. I found it a bit hard to follow sometimes, especially since the distinction between green and blue was between movies that had been seen and movies that we’d only heard of, which was different for every one of us. There was a little bit of guesswork involved, but we were just spelling out words, and getting one letter off wasn’t a huge detail. I also had a much better memory than when I’d first started out on Aerb.

While we were doing this, Fenn was quietly stewing. She took her turn last.

“Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, Fifty First Dates,” she said.

That was either W or Z; I didn’t know whether or not she’d seen Lawrence of Arabia, but I didn’t think so. Fifty First Dates was proposed for group movie night but ultimately rejected.

“Transformers, My Boyfriend Sucks, Snakes on a Plane,” she said.

“Your boyfriend sucks?” I asked. Obviously not a movie, which meant that was code for T.

“Yeah,” she said. “Do you really need me to tell you why?”

“Finish up, please,” said Amaryllis. She’d taken her helmet off once Solace had finished, which let me see the way her lips went thin.

“Fine,” said Fenn. “Bulls, The Thing, Scream.” Scream was another movie night movie, while I had vetoed The Thing. That meant F. “Done,” said Fenn.

“That’s not a word,” said Amaryllis with a frown.

“It’s an acronym,” said Fenn. “Joon knows.”

“It’s an initialism,” I said. I could feel my cheeks growing warm. The raw hostility radiating off Fenn was raising my hackles. It was clear to me, and probably to all of us, that she was spoiling for a fight, and there wasn’t much ambiguity about who she wanted to fight with.

“Oh fuck you,” said Fenn. She turned to look at Amaryllis. “Are we good? We’re done? All wrapped up here?”

“Yes,” nodded Amaryllis.

“Do you want to yell at me?” I asked Fenn. “Because you can yell at me now, if you really need to.”

“We took a fucking vote, Juniper, we weren’t declaring what we were each going to do, we took a vote on what we were going to do, as a team, and then you just stayed behind like you thought you were a hero,” said Fenn. She practically spat the words.

I couldn’t keep myself from frowning. “As much fun as it might be to second-guess every--”

“Juniper, if you had put your foot down, I would have stayed, but you made the dumbest, most boneheaded move you could have,” said Fenn.

“I think we should calm down,” said Solace. “We haven’t heard each other’s own perspectives on what happened. Given that illusions were in play, this might be no more than a misunderstanding.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s not,” I replied. “It seems like Val knocked out Masters not long after Solace opened up the connection to the tree.”

Fenn looked at Valencia. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Fenn asked. She looked back to me. “So on top of it all, I was right, the invincible Valencia handled all her problems on her own and would have been completely fine without us?”

“Look, I’ll agree I should have said something,” I replied. I could feel a flush in my cheeks. I didn’t want to be having this conversation, not with Fenn on the attack, and not in front of our friends. It felt too much like airing dirty laundry. “But there were considerations. I was the only one that had some kind of workaround for what Masters was doing.”

Fenn glared at me. “You made up that excuse after the fact.”

“Yeah,” I said. She knew me too well. “So what? Is it not valid?”

“Juniper, do you remember me telling you all the shitty things that happened to me when I didn’t listen to luck sense?” asked Fenn. “I was put in prison. I got cut in half. When I say that it’s time to get the fuck out, then we should get the fuck out.”

“I didn’t feel it as strongly,” I said. “And Masters could have faked it.”

“You said he got knocked out,” said Fenn, folding her arms across her chest.

“He could have faked it. He obviously didn’t, but -- look, I didn’t feel it like you did,” I began. I was on weak ground. It had seemed unconscionable to leave Val behind, but now it was seeming just as bad that I had left, and all I was doing was making up stories to make myself feel better, arguing positions that I was thinking up as they came to me, rather than what I’d actually felt or thought at the time.

“You didn’t feel it like I did,” repeated Fenn. She was staring at me. “You are so fucking --” she paused, searching for the word, “-- dismissive of me.”

“Is this about the Citizen Kane thing?” I asked. I was getting frustrated with her, not just because this didn’t really seem like the time, but because it seemed like it was coming out of nowhere.

“Fucking --” started Fenn, before she thought better of it and popped two VHS cassettes out of her glove, slamming each one down on the table. “Right there, Orson Welles, Orson Welles.”

I looked between the two of them. The VHS sleeve she was pointed at said “The Transformers The Movie” on it, with cheesy ‘70s art on it. Down in the corner, with the rest of the credits, it said “and Orson Welles as Unicron”.

I looked up at Fenn. “Different movie.” I flipped the box over. “Copyright 1988.”

“That’s not even the point,” said Fenn. “The point is, I said that I had seen it, and you just thought that I was confused or being stupid, and I wasn’t, I was right. I said that I felt like we needed to get out, and you just brushed me off like it wasn’t actually important.”

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “This is going to have to be something that the two of you fix in your own time. Val, can you help?”

“Excuse me?” asked Fenn, turning on Amaryllis. “Are you serious?”

“I think I would have to lie,” said Valencia. She lifted up her faceplate and looked between me and Fenn. “I’m trying to chart a course where sticking to the truth makes things better.” She frowned a bit. “No,” she finally said. “Maybe if they didn’t know who I was. I could talk to them individually, but it would take hours of time.”

“That’s time we don’t have,” said Amaryllis. “I’m sorry, but you can continue hating each other for the time being. We need to strategize, while we still can.”

“Agreed,” said Grak.

“Fine,” said Fenn. She looked at me with a glare. “I do love you.”

“But,” I said.

“Yeah,” replied Fenn.

“Okay,” breathed Amaryllis. “Val, report?”

“They had two plans,” said Valencia. “This is Plan A. Plan B would have taken us to a different site, possibly killing us in transit, and if not, it would mean something akin to suicide for all but the renacim. They intend to talk to us and find out whether or not Juniper is the Chosen One. If he is, opinions are mixed on what should be done about it. They might attempt to kill Juniper, but it would depend on the specifics.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “Then we’ll chart a course.”

“I don’t know the course,” said Valencia. “I’m putting together what Masters said, what they’ve said, and some reading of sentiment.” She gestured out to Sade and Gemma, who were standing beyond the ward that Grak had constructed, in low conversation with each other. “Sade is practically radiating with uncertainty. My read is that she’s in over her head here, possibly, given her species, because she mellowed out too much from deaths and rebirths. Gemma was born into her role here -- that’s supplemental knowledge from below, she’s part of the Foxguard, I can give a summary of them later -- so she’s compelled by duty, but she’s uncertain whether that duty extends to whatever is going to happen here.”

“And the lenssi wants to kill me,” I said. “As does the bellad. What about the dark elf?”

“It’s more complicated than that,” said Valencia. “I know that you know that.”

“I assumed it was complicated,” I said. “But in general terms, I’m looking at these people as allies or enemies.”

“Reductive,” said Grak.

“Heshnel was an acolyte of Vervain,” Valencia continued. “I assume their association was brief, by elven standards, but I also think he probably knows that Uther was the one to kill Vervain.”

“What?” asked Amaryllis. Her voice was spiked with alarm.

“We’re a little behind, it seems,” said Solace.

“Masters mentioned it,” I said. “I’m not sure whether to believe it.”

“I don’t think he was lying, or at least he didn’t think he was,” said Valencia. “I only heard Masters’ half of the conversation, but he seemed sincere. He wasn’t doing too much to hide his emotions, aside from how badly he misses his daughter, which he was trying to cover for.”

“He spoke?” asked Amaryllis.

“Yes,” said Valencia. “He didn’t when he removed me from the room, but after we were in his office, he began speaking. Whatever he was doing, it placed some strain on him. I think speaking out loud was easier for him.” She turned to Fenn. “To answer your question, he used some kind of amber effect on me, an entad, I think. It trapped me in place while he moved me. I-I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t understand why no one was doing anything, and then he drew on the floor with a piece of chalk and I was trapped.” She let out a breath. “And I still don’t really understand what happened to everyone.”

We had a bit of necessary debriefing after that, as we each got filled in on what the others had been up to. The chalk that Masters had drawn around Valencia created an impenetrable barrier, but she had gotten past it by damaging the floorboards and going underneath it enough to break the magic that held her, all while not seeming to be anything but resigned to her fate. Amaryllis and the others had gone through their portal and then cautiously backtracked, though less cautiously than Amaryllis would have liked, mostly due to Fenn trying to rush back to me.

She flushed slightly as Amaryllis talked. She was still angry with me, clearly, but she’d come back to the clinic because she was worried. I softened somewhat on hearing that.

“Okay,” I said, once the mutual sharing of information was finished. “What’s our game plan?”

“I’d like to listen to what they have to say,” said Solace.

“Me too,” said Amaryllis. “If the world is going to end in five years … it seems likely that we’re going to have to be the ones to do something about it, the way things have been going.”

“We’ll probably all be dead before then,” said Fenn.

“True,” said Grak.

“Do we have a quest?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I said. “But we haven’t been given the pitch yet. Straddling Worlds completed, as did The Name of the Beast.”

“Meaning you’re one step closer to a level up?” asked Fenn.

“Probably,” I said. “I don’t exactly get experience points.”

“We’re going to have to be on watch for it,” said Amaryllis. “So long as Fenn or I are close, we can change you back.”

“Sure,” I said. My stomach churned at that. The way the level ups affected me was invasive, but it still felt wrong to have one of them monkeying around in my soul. I stopped short of saying that I would rather Amaryllis do it. Whatever problems Fenn had with me at the moment, I didn’t want them to bleed into forcible soul surgery. I also didn’t want to say that out loud, now that her discontent had (momentarily) passed. I wasn’t worried that she would do something we’d both regret … but it was my soul, and it was best not to take chances.

“We need to talk about the fourteen points,” said Amaryllis. “What we want them to know, or not know, the things we can hide, and the things we can’t. Juniper, did you reveal anything to them?”

“Not that I can think of,” I said. “Valencia is going to be a problem for us, given that they have a warder who apparently has warder’s sight.”

“Sorry,” said Valencia.

“It’s just … tough to explain to people,” I said.

“I know,” said Valencia. “I’m sorry.”

“We can cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Amaryllis. “I acquired an infernoscope and packed it into the glove, but that requires some preamble. I’d almost say that we should deal with that first, but …”

“But it’s asking them for a lot of trust,” I said. “And that’s before we get to any of the stuff that they actually want to talk about, or that we actually want to say.”

“I’m fine in the armor,” said Valencia.

“Okay,” I said. I breathed out a sigh. “I’m worried about what they’re going to do if they think that I’m an agent of Uther’s, or his reincarnation, or the Chosen One.”

“Which you are,” said Solace.

“I -- yeah, kind of,” I said. “I don’t think that I am in the way that they might think I am though. Even if the horrors of the world are rising, timed to my arrival, my read is that they’re a gauntlet laid out for me, not something that I’m guaranteed to pass through. And even if they removed me … given what I understand of the Dungeon Master, I’m not sure that he would save the world from whatever things he’d put in motion. I guess how much that matters depends on how serious those threats are.”

“You think that the Dungeon Master would let the world fall, because that’s what you would do,” said Amaryllis.

“Yeah,” I said. “Kindred spirits, he said. I wouldn’t do it to real people, obviously, but for worlds that I’d built … I did. It happened three or four times.”

From the corner of my eye I saw movement, and I turned to see Heshnel stepping back into the ship. He gave the wards an appraising look, then frowned slightly and went to join Gemma and Pallida, who were still in murmured conversation.

“They’ll know that Uther was dream-skewered,” said Amaryllis. “They’ll assume that you are too. Maybe we can let those particular secrets go. It’s possible that outright telling them you are the Chosen One is the way to go.”

“Unless that gets them all ready to commit a murder,” said Fenn.

“Yeah,” I said, looking at Heshnel. “Let’s hope that it doesn’t come to that.”

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Alexander Wales

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