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“So what, precisely, will happen if we start shipping out televisions?” asked Amaryllis.

She was pissed off, for a number of reasons. She was pissed off at Bethel, naturally, for both the foul play and the break in communication, especially against someone who was probably an ally. She was pissed off at me, for taking it in stride. And she was pissed off at Raven, or maybe Raven-as-messenger, because a lot of her plans had apparently been shot in the foot. (On a different level, she was pissed off because that was the lingering affliction that the crown of thorns had given her.)

We had switched rooms again, into one with less blood on the floor. I had cleaned off, and Raven had too, though she hadn’t changed out of the clothes she came in. She was a little bit shaky, and I’m sure part of that was that we were still inside the house that had temporarily maimed her. The entire Council of Arches (Fenn excluded) sat at a half-moon table, with Raven seated at the focal point, on a chair that was set in a sunken floor. We didn’t quite tower over her, but the room had been built and furnished a few minutes ago using every trick in the book to put Raven at a psychological disadvantage. It wasn’t remotely subtle, and in my opinion, entirely pointless, perhaps even detrimental, but a quick tele-thought conversation with Bethel stopped me from objecting outright.

Bethel had made a seat for herself, but she wasn’t sitting in it, instead allowing the projection to fade away. The empty chair was ominous.

Raven took a breath. “A cathode ray tube television works by manipulation of an electron stream, modulated by --”

“I’ve built four prototypes,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t need a primer on how they work. What is the consequence to the world you’re attempting to avoid by coming here and issuing me a warning?”

“There’s a planar entity,” said Raven. “Under certain circumstances, it’s capable of altering the electron stream within a television in order to produce moving images of its own design. Some of those designs are capable of producing … effects.”

“Specifically,” said Amaryllis, gritting her teeth.

“Mental changes in those who view them,” said Raven. “The effects vary.” She continued on quickly, because it seemed like Amaryllis was going to press the issue again. “The best case scenario is increased mental acuity, decreased reaction times, better impulse control, and lessened emotional response, which comes packaged with a direct line of communication to the entity itself. Non-replicable when the moving pictures are recorded, in case you were wondering. The ‘gifts’ are temporary and used as leverage. In the worst case … there are a lot of worst cases. The entity can make people into flesh puppets. It can leave them comatose. It can hold them hostage in their own bodies, locked in, which it does if it thinks that will give it an advantage.”

“And why wouldn’t you --” Amaryllis paused. “Ah. Cultists.”

“Cultists,” nodded Raven. “Not like those that worship the infernals though, because there’s every indication that the entity is forthright in honoring the promises he makes. There have been scenarios where knowledge of the entity was presented to the world at large, as you suggest, in the hopes of mutual cooperation. The result, every time, was a race to the bottom as the nations of the world attempted to be the first to get on the entity’s good side. World population undergoes a precipitous drop once the entity has its toehold, until eventually the last one percent of survivors live in something approaching a paradise for a decade or two before the entity is brought to immanence. From there, it’s a paradise with bodily sacrifices. The contorted writings of those living in that world are something to behold.”

“How much danger are we in, if we’ve watched television?” asked Amaryllis.

“Your prototypes?” asked Raven. “Almost none, if it was just for testing. The dangers are more on a wide scale.”

“Let’s say … six hundred hours of exposure,” said Amaryllis.

Raven stared at her. “Six hundred?” asked Raven. “You would know if you had seen one of the sequences, but … six hundred?”

“And if I’m not conscious of having seen one of the sequences, I’m safe?” asked Amaryllis.

“Yes,” said Raven. “But what were you even watching? That’s twenty-five days without rest watching television, and without anyone making compliant media --”

“It’s not important,” said Amaryllis. A deer barfed up a magical backpack that pulls potentially infohazardous information from a world that may or may not actually exist. I was trying to track Amaryllis’ math again. Six hundred hours would be an hour every day for almost two years, or two hours a day for less than a year, which didn’t seem too far off from what I’d seen of her media consumption in the chamber. Six hundred seemed like a bit of a lower end estimate, to be honest.

“So, sorry … you do have books from after the fall of civilization?” I asked. “I was under the impression that no more were published past the end date.”

“She asked about television,” said Raven. “I’m doing my best to answer the questions that are presented to me as accurately and completely as possible.” She left ‘because you have a gun to my head’ unsaid.

Amaryllis pinched the bridge of her nose. “Then what threat are you here about?” she asked. “Plastics, somehow?”

“I’m not here about any specific threat,” said Raven. “Though if you’re talking about synthetic polymers, there are some pitfalls we’ll need to discuss, specifically regarding the volatility of their innate magic. It’s fairly likely that you would abandon the project on your own, after having invested quite a bit into it.”

“Then why are you here?” I asked.

“We only know what’s going to happen because the Library contains books that either discuss what’s happened, or what’s happening at the time the disaster occurred,” said Raven. “Sometimes it’s simple, and sometimes it’s not, but it requires something from the books, some hint as to what happened. In this particular case, we have no hints. It’s not an apocalypse that one percent of the world survives, it’s not a total collapse of civilization, it’s not an infernal invasion, the books just … stop. I came here because the Republic of Miunun is the strongest single lead we have, and it’s not -- or wasn’t -- particularly strong. There are warning signs here, mostly in terms of the technologies that are being produced with wild abandon, and whose origin I’m still ignorant of.”

We still hadn’t told her anything, mostly because we didn’t have to. Eventually she was going to put her foot down and refuse to say more, but we hadn’t reached that point yet. So long as she was willing to answer our questions without demanding anything in return, I was pretty sure that we weren’t going to volunteer anything.

“So you don’t actually know if we’re implicated?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” said Raven, but there was a note of hesitation.

“And the Library is fallible, in more ways than one?” asked Amaryllis.

“It is,” said Raven with a nod. “It’s entirely possible that the entity I spoke of would be excluded to his own patch of Aerb if televisions were ever distributed, and we might lose another metropolis because of it, but it wouldn’t be the disaster for all the mortal species that the Library was predicting when I left. Unfortunately, we have no idea whether the exclusionary principle will protect us until it actually happens -- or fails to. Obviously intentionally attempting to trigger an exclusion is something we don’t do.”

“Obviously,” said Amaryllis.

“And you are, by your own admission, implicated,” said Raven. She had her hands folded in her lap. “I came here wanting to know what the ultimate source of your technological sophistication is, and I think that I might have found a deeper answer than I expected. This might be the solution to the greater problem.”

“Wait,” I said, holding up a hand. “Explain? Draw me a timeline here.”

“You’ll need background,” said Raven, taking a breath. “The Library staff consists of roughly one hundred librarians, with another three hundred working on the outside. The Library contains every book that has been or will be published, including duplicates, but the exact nature of the predicted future displayed in the books-yet-to-be-written is missing a few crucial elements. So far as we can determine, the future written in the Library cannot account for people coming and going from the Library itself. That means that anyone entering into the Library will, from the Library’s perspective, vanish from the face of Aerb, which has some unpleasant knock-on effects. The second major problem, at least for our purposes, is that the exclusionary principle is unknown to the Library.” She took another breath. This was clearly a rehearsed speech, one which she was trying to get through quickly. I wondered how many people she’d shared these details with, and how their conspiracy had stood the test of time.

“Whenever someone enters or exits the library, everyone in the library instantly returns to the vestibule, and all books are instantly reorganized and altered on the basis of the new future,” said Raven. “The organizational schema are unique to each reset, but there are patterns to them, and with the help of a specific type of magic unique to the Infinite Library, we can generally find relevant books within weeks or months of a reset. Because those resets represent a complete loss of cataloging effort, we make every effort to control travel to and from the library. Are you with me so far?”

I nodded.

“Wait,” said Amaryllis. “It resets when people enter? You said that the predicted future already accounts for people entering the Library. Why would that be the case that their entrance causes everything to change again?”

“We don’t know,” said Raven. “We only know that it happens. Much of the Library is like that.”

“Fine,” said Amaryllis with a wave of her hand. “Go ahead.”

“The problems started roughly two and a half months ago,” said Raven. “The world’s end date was two hundred years into the future, and all was right with the world. Then we had a regularly scheduled shift change, the Library reset, and we began delving the books again, only to find that our timeline had been cut down to virtually nothing. We’d been dreading the day that the Library turned up something that we couldn’t stop, and for seventeen frantic, exhausting days it seemed as though that was what had happened, because there was simply a dead stop in publications. We started on our contingencies, the biggest of which involves building up a map of all the scheduled events on the week that the world is supposed to end, in the hopes that we could find a trigger, something like the announcement of a new testing facility being opened. None of that bore fruit.” She went silent, as if reliving the stress.

“How did you avert it?” I asked.

“We didn’t,” she answered. “We had a few desperate contingencies that we were going to put into place. When our agents left the Library, a week and a half before the end of the world, the Library reset, and the end of the world had been pushed back considerably, and without any seeming involvement on our part. We sent out another set of agents to stop the first set from enacting the contingencies, which reset the Library a second time. We were down to a twenty year timeframe.”

“What are the contingencies?” I asked.

Raven shifted in her seat. “That information is classified,” she said.

“Just curious,” I said with a shrug.

“I’m more than curious,” said Amaryllis. She tapped her fingers on the table in front of her. “Tell us.”

“I don’t actually know who any of you are,” Raven replied.

Bethel appeared as Tiff, standing two feet in front of Raven, leaning in with her hands on the arms of the chair. Raven let out a very understandable yelp of surprise.

“You know me,” said Bethel.

“I do,” said Raven. She had pushed herself back into the chair, as far from Bethel’s projection as possible. “Sorry.”

“Don’t give her PTSD, please,” I said.

Bethel stood back from Raven’s chair. “What’s PTSD?” Bethel asked, still staring at Raven.

“Posttraumatic stress disorder,” I replied. “You’d call it shellshock, or maybe combat neuroses?”

“ERD,” said Amaryllis. “Event response disorder.”

I frowned at that, and nearly let it go. “That seems like the most bland possible name for it,” I said. “That’s not even a description of what it is. It’s a stress response.”

“I didn’t name it,” said Amaryllis. She sounded weary, which was a good change of pace from angry, so far as I was concerned.

“Ah, I think I’m well familiar with the phenomenon,” said Bethel. “Tell me, does it take one hundred times longer to induce it in the Ell?”

“Yes,” said Raven. She seemed to be holding her breath.

“Enough with the threats,” I said. “If she can’t tell us, there’s probably a good reason.”

“No,” said Raven, still backed up in her chair. “No, I can tell, if things are starting back up again … at least I can say in general terms. There are different ways the world can end, different levels, and our most extreme contingencies involve causing something we would normally try to prevent.”

I frowned. “So you unleash certain horrors that you’re responsible for keeping contained in the hopes of turning back a reality restructuring event?”

Raven froze. “Where did you hear that term?” she asked.

I sat in silence. The answer was that it was part of the overarching plot of Long Stairs, or at least, the first version of it I ran, which was in turn loosely inspired by the SCP Foundation. The concepts I’d need to lay down as background were too daunting for the time being. There’s this thing called an electronic computer on Earth, and a lot of them are hooked together, and people can collaboratively edit documents on them, and, and, and.

“I’ve been extremely cooperative,” said Raven. “You’re keeping me in the dark, and I can respect that, but I can communicate more effectively if I know who you people are and what you’re trying to get from me.”

“Continue with the recent history, please,” said Amaryllis.

Raven opened her mouth, then closed it again. “The future was shifting rapidly,” she said. “That was a bad sign. There was something that the Library was having trouble with, either a cascade of events that balanced on a knife’s edge, or something that the Library couldn’t account for. It was hard to say which. We saw the Isle of Poran in three of those futures, three times when it was a catalyst for some unpleasant future we wanted to avoid, and worse, three different bad futures. We put plans into motion to stop you, and the future would clear up, but not always for the better, and using the Library risks damaging it. The internal schemas becomes more convoluted and the Library’s geography more unfriendly, depending on the intervention used.” She furrowed her eyebrows. “It felt like we were being backed into a corner. And then it finally happened, something that we had only theorized before. We got the good future.”

“Ah,” I said. “The future with no calamities in it.” The Infinite Library was patterned off the Boundless Library, and that was one of the concepts I’d worked up for it. Librarians would try to monkey with the future only to find that they got the good future -- and they were locked out of it, if they wanted it to remain the way it was. Mix in some uncertainty of how accurate the Library was, and you’d get a powderkeg of conflicting views among the librarians.

Raven nodded. “The future without end,” she said. “There were too many books for us to get an accurate estimate of how many there were. Most were in languages so foreign that they could only be read using our most powerful translation magics. They didn’t even use the same calendars we were used to.”

“But it locked you inside the Library,” I said. “You couldn’t go out without changing the future.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered,” said Raven. “We would all gladly have died in the library if it would have given us that future. But the future the Library shows isn’t always true to events, and it wouldn’t be the first time that it’s shown a future better than what happened. Either way, there was no stopping the next shift change, which would happen regardless. We scrambled to find answers as best we could, but we weren’t even able to crack the schema in the time we had.” She paused, weighing her words. “There was a book that spoke, in passing, of a transition from danger to safety. We didn’t learn enough to know what had happened to create the paradise, because the shift change came, and the library reset. It was back down to ten years time.”

“So you came to find us,” I said.

“Something was happening,” said Raven. “We didn’t know the root of it. We knew that the Isle of Poran and the Council of Arches were, at least in some futures, a part of it. I think it’s safe to say that I didn’t know what I was walking into.” She gave a little snort of laughter at that as she glanced down at her fingers. It was reminiscent of the nasal way that Maddie sometimes laughed. She looked back up at us. “What more do you need from me?”

“Did Uther kill Vervain?” I asked. I saw a muscle in Amaryllis’ jaw move. No doubt she considered this a distraction, but she had the good grace to let me continue.

“That’s,” said Raven, then stopped herself. “May I ask who told you that? So I can know which version of the story you heard?”

“It was Heshnel Elec,” I said. “He didn’t say much on the subject.” And he’ll be visiting tomorrow.

“There’s not much to say,” said Raven. “They went off together, to somewhere unspecified, and when Uther came back he was alone. He didn’t give us answers. He only said that he had killed Vervain, and that he was justified in doing so. It was cryptic, even for him. We thought that perhaps it was something that we couldn’t know, or something that it would be dangerous to know. That had been the case in the past. I’m sorry I can’t offer more.”

“We need profiles of all of the threats,” said Amaryllis. “You haven’t specified how you enter the Library, but we’ll be coming with you next time you go there.”

“That’s not how it’s done,” said Raven, her voice taking on a bit of chill. “We don’t let people into the Library without carefully vetting them first. We aren’t supposed to let people know of its existence, though obviously leaks occur from time to time. You said that you met with my father. Was he the one who told you?”

Bethel appeared again, still as Tiff, wearing the ‘Kansas Swim’ shirt we’d first found her in. “Would you like me to do an impression of you, if you fail to let us into the Library?”

“Bethel, enough,” I said. “She’s going to let us in, with or without your threats.”

“It’s a very good threat,” said Bethel, turning back to me and raising an eyebrow.

“I have very little doubt about that,” I said. Seeing Tiff again was hard. I had pangs of longing for her, not as my girlfriend, but as someone I’d always been comfortable talking to. With all the stuff that had been going on lately, with losing Fenn, I wished that -- I don’t know, that I had her to lean on in my time of need. None of my party members really felt like they could fill that role.

“Juniper, would you like to do the reveal?” asked Amaryllis.

“Oh,” I said. “Certainly.” I had been working on refining my speech a bit, since it seemed as though we were going to be bringing people in. I cleared my throat. “The universe shaped itself around Uther Penndraig. It’s doing the same for me.” I gestured around me. “This is the Council of Arches, which I guess would be the equivalent to Uther’s Knights. I have the same Knack that Uther did. If it looks like something is going wrong with the world, it’s probably because we’re expected to fix it.”

“That’s not what it was like,” said Raven. Her voice was soft.

I frowned. I hadn’t been done. “It wasn’t?”

“The universe didn’t shape itself to him,” she said. “The world threw everything it had at him. He fought with a fervor that I doubt most men could ever have hoped to match. He had advantages, we all did, I would never dispute that, but he was put through the wringer until the very end, when there was practically nothing left of him. But that’s not the whole story.” She leaned forward in her chair. “There were times we were rudderless, when he didn’t know the next thing he should be doing. He wasn’t a man who liked lacking for purpose, and those times were always the most difficult. We would go to new places with him sometimes, following in his wake, and we would have to watch him searching for a way he could insert himself into the affairs of others, a way he could reframe whatever was happening so that it would become a part of his mythology.” She leaned back. “And it’s very apparent that he was too successful, because there are people who legitimately believe that the entire world was made for him.”

“It was,” I said, voice firm.

“No,” said Raven, shaking her head.

“It was,” I repeated. “I know, because I was the one who made it.”

Raven stared at me.

“It’s a long story,” I said. “If you wanted to start at the beginning, you would start on Earth. Arthur and I were classmates. We played games together. Aerb is … it’s hard to pin down, but I invented most of the pieces of Aerb from whole cloth, or cribbed from Earth media, before I came here, and before I knew that it was or could be a place of its own. Every single day, I see things in my notes brought to life. I read through history books and I remember doodling out fragmentary versions of those events while I was watching TV. Maybe Aerb didn’t bend itself to Uther completely, not if he was going to bend it all on his own, but whatever it is that’s going on, it was made for him.”

“You’re dream-skewered,” said Raven, staring at me. “That’s how you met my father.”

“Yes,” I replied. “Uther was too. Those times that he sometimes knew things that he shouldn’t? That’s because he’d already played with the toy versions.”

Raven sank in her chair. “Why?”

“Why what?” I asked.

“Why … why all of it?” she asked. “I never wanted to believe there was a plan, because if there was a plan, there was a planner, and if it was all according to plan, then the planner was a madman and a monster. So why, if this was all meant to be, if it wasn’t just some abstract force … why?” She was staring at me like she thought that I actually had the answers.

“We’re still working on that,” said Amaryllis, in her most sardonic tone.

“There’s more background I’ll have to give you, once I know you’re not a threat to us,” I said.

“I’m as thoroughly disarmed as I’ve ever been in the last few hundred years,” said Raven.

“We were attacked, earlier today,” I said, though it didn’t feel like earlier today, since subjectively, it wasn’t. It hit me like a punch to the gut when I realized that it had been less than twenty-four hours since Fenn had died. I was grateful for the time we’d had in the chamber. Without it, I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to hold things together. “They were old friends of Uther’s. We’re not inclined to take chances anymore.”

“Attacked?” asked Raven.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “Everett Wolfe, Gur Dehla, and a bellad, O’kald. We were poisoned and attacked. They’re all dead now.”

“Everett,” said Raven. “Gods, Everett.” She sat forward in her chair and held her face in her hands. “Gods, is he …” When she looked up, it was clear she was crying. “Is he in the hells?”

“I don’t think so,” said Amaryllis. “A renacim, Pallida Sade, said that she was going to retrieve the souls. We never learned whether she was successful or not.”

Raven wiped her eyes, drying them on the sleeve of her robe. She drew in a breath and then let it out, shaking slightly. “Forgive me,” she said.

“We lost one of our own,” I said. I could feel myself resenting her for her grief over someone who had tried to kill us, someone who was at least partially responsible for Fenn’s death. I took a deep breath and burned WIS. Raven had been with Everett for thirty-some years, through all kinds of crazy adventures, of course she would mourn his loss. The phrase ‘monopoly on grief’ kept going through my head. I’d been accused of that a few times, back on Earth. I’d tried my hardest not to do the same on Aerb in the wake of Fenn’s death, trying not to lash out in the same ways. The only reason not to show sympathy was that it took effort. “I’m sorry,” I said. I tried to formulate some way of phrasing ‘sorry we killed your friend but we were totally in the right’ that didn’t sound dickish, but nothing seemed suitable, so I left it at ‘sorry’.

“It’s fine,” said Raven, wiping her tears again. “I’m the only one left. I knew I would be. Everett thought … he thought that maybe if he jumped ahead he might get answers, some day.”

“He did,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t know if that’s any consolation.” She turned to me. <Juniper, scenario?,> Bethel asked in her voice, relaying the message.

<Zero,> I replied. <Surprised that you’re willing to use this method of communication given the potential for man-in-the-middle, no offense.>

<None taken,> replied Bethel.

<We’ll have a long talk as a group after this is over,> said Amaryllis. <I’m not happy about the way things went. That said, we have more important fish to fry.>

<Sorry about your plans,> I said. <They were very nice before they got destroyed.>

<We’ll see what we can salvage,> replied Amaryllis.

“Thank you,” said Raven. “And thank you for giving me time.” She looked at me with bleary eyes. I had some preconceptions of Raven, which had been reinforced when she’d gone into Valkyrie mode with magic flaring around her, but now I was finding her much more vulnerable than I had thought she would be. A small part of me wondered whether that was an act intended to evoke sympathy, but it didn’t seem likely.

“You said that Uther’s last known location was the Fel Seed exclusion zone?” I asked.

The faint, grateful smile on Raven’s face fell. “Yes,” she said. “That’s not widely known.”

“Why?” asked Amaryllis.

Raven licked her lips. “How much do you know about the time after his passing?”

“Some,” I said. “Largely unspecified threats, spoken of in such a way you assume that people are using capital letters, massive loss of life among those who fought, bad feelings all around, and at least one schism between the survivors.” I shrugged. “Most of that we learned in the last few days, speaking with either Speculator Masters or Heshnel Elec.”

“By the time I found what I’d found, things had quieted down,” said Raven. She wiped at her eyes again, though they were already dry. “I didn’t want to stir them up again. And it had been so long … it was very likely that he was dead.”

“Likely,” I said, “But it was possible that he wasn’t?”

Raven swallowed. “Fel Seed,” she began, then stopped. “We don’t know how Fel Seed happened,” she said, measuring her words. “There wasn’t a source, like the others, some magic gone awry or some entad that came out too powerful. He appeared in 34 FE, but … we’re not sure that there wasn’t some kind of incubation period, that he hadn’t gained his power, or that he was in hiding, and … there were rumors.”

“Rumors that Fel Seed was Uther,” said Amaryllis.

Raven nodded, head down.

“Not a theory that anyone gives actual credit to anymore,” said Amaryllis. “I read it once in a footnote, a theory that was dismissed in the same sentence it was brought up. I had the same thought myself, even before that.” She was staring at Raven. “Do you believe it?”

“No,” said Raven, looking back up at us. I kind of hated the way we were sitting above her, in a position of power we didn’t really need. “ No, ” she repeated. “It’s absurd, there’s a four year gap you’d have to account for, and -- and even if he had broken completely, there’s no way that he could have become something like that, whatever his sins, he just wasn’t --” She stopped and looked at Bethel’s empty seat. “If people knew that I’d tracked his last location to the Fel Seed exclusion zone, that rumor wouldn’t be so quickly dismissed. He wouldn’t be the Lost King, he would be the Fallen King.”

“Who knows?” I asked, after a silence had fallen over the room.

“Only the people in this room,” said Raven, looking between us.

“You trust us?” asked Grak, frowning.

“I don’t know,” said Raven. She was breathing harder than she had been. “It’s starting up again. I could already feel it before I came here. Maybe you’re villains, maybe you’re heroes, but whoever you are, I think you’re important.” She glanced at Bethel’s empty chair. “The secret has come close to dying with me. I wouldn’t want that.”

“We’re going to need to have some private discussion,” said Amaryllis.

“I did come here for a reason,” said Raven. “Wherever you’re getting your plans from, you have to stop. This is more of an intervention than the Library usually likes, but if you’re the common denominator, it needs to be brought to an end one way or another.”

“Once I know the details, I’ll know how to work around it,” said Amaryllis, folding her arms.

“That’s historically met with problems,” said Raven.

“Of what sort?” asked Amaryllis, after Raven didn’t volunteer anything further.

“Let’s say, for example, that you decide that you’re intent on producing cathode ray tube televisions,” said Raven. She furrowed her brow. “You decide that you can come up with some clever workarounds for the entity that will prevent him from getting his hooks in or inflicting damage, such as testing which specific images he’s able to produce and mapping out the contours of how and when it can alter the images you’re projecting. You would build up a model of the threat and work on some countermeasure, one that’s proof against the inevitable reverse engineering by others. Yes?”

Amaryllis squinted slightly, then nodded. I was sure she didn’t agree on the specifics, but in the general sense, yes, she would be inclined to that sort of approach.

“Perhaps you miss something, and we see it in the Library,” said Raven. “That’s probably your first thought, because it was Uther’s first thought. Unfortunately, the Library doesn’t take kindly to that kind of iteration, and every attempt to rapidly cycle through futures in hopes of avoiding specific negative outcomes has resulted in a Library that’s twisted and warped, sometimes beyond our ability to properly use it.” Raven cleared her throat. “Now, that might be a bullet that you’re willing to bite, because you might consider the Library to be of little worth given its limitations, but this is where we get into other problems. Namely, sometimes an exclusion will rear its head for what seems like no good reason. The exclusionary principle is a double-edged sword, protective and limiting, and sometimes pushing some seemingly promising idea too far will trigger it, or invoke it, or whatever is actually happening on the cosmic level to create it. Those are probably the two least bad scenarios, at least from your perspective.”

“And the third?” I asked, because I could see where this was going. Amaryllis was silent, with a sour look on her face.

“Third and fourth,” replied Raven. “The third outcome is a mysterious death, or deaths, or accidents, or … something. We don’t know what. All the books we would read about your ventures would be filled with stories of success, but even if we sequestered ourselves away in the hopes of ensuring that future happened ... “ Raven went silent and looked into the distance. “We’d come out, twenty years later, only to find that the future hadn’t gone like the books said it would. We would try to trace back what had happened, and find that there was a freak fire in your laboratory that claimed the lives of everyone involved. Or a lead scientist would have caught a seemingly innocuous cold, only for it to develop into something more serious and beyond the workings of any magic he had available to him. Those aren’t hypothetical.” She took a breath. “And sometimes these would be small things, chance happenings with surgical impact on the project, but other times they would be nationwide calamities like wars or plagues.”

“Like someone was nudging history away from the places they didn’t want it to go,” I said.

“Maybe,” said Raven. “It was believed, for a long time, that there were agents working within the Infinite Library itself. That would have closed the question nicely, since it would explain why the Library couldn’t account for them, even if it would be incredibly troubling. A conspiracy within a conspiracy … I’m the head librarian. If that conspiracy exists, then I’ve never found any evidence for it. I don’t even know what the point of it would be.”

“And the fourth scenario?” asked Amaryllis, voice barely above a whisper. Her fists were clenched in front of her.

“It’s something similar to redaction magic,” said Raven.

Amaryllis let out a sigh that ended in a growl. “Redaction magic is excluded.”

“Yes,” replied Raven. “It’s not redaction magic, but it is something similar. More powerful, too. Small traces get left behind, which is as close to evidence as we ever get. It appears to have some problem with numbers, leading to accounts that are inconsistent with themselves, places where line items were removed but the total wasn’t changed. Proper recordkeeping makes it more noticeable, but you have to already have a good guess in order to start looking for evidence. Again, we don’t have any clue who or what might be the cause.”

“There seem to be a lot of fingers on the scale,” I said.

Raven shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I’m overstating because I’m trying to warn you,” she said. “These occurrences are exceptional, specifically because we work so hard to avoid them. We work with the Library only in very specific ways, ones calculated to cause the minimum amount of damage to both the Library’s continued function and to the world at large.” She grimaced. “That’s been a challenge, of late.” She looked between us. “I need more from you. You might start with where you’re getting these innovations from.”

“The last living locus spit up a magical backpack that can pull in books from Earth,” I said.

Raven stared at me.

“I had a long conversation with the ur-creator of Aerb, and he offered me the backpack as either a way of being generous, or as a ploy to set this up,” I said. “I’m reasonably certain that he’s directly responsible for creating exclusion zones as one of his few interventions, though he’s also confessed that he gives occasional nudges from time to time, which would explain the apparently random accidents that happen when you attempt to exploit the Library. He’s almost certainly capable of unpersoning anyone he wants, though he could do it flawlessly if he really wanted to, so my guess is that the evidence is either left behind because it’s more convenient that way, or because he’s sending a message, maybe both. He would probably be inclined to cloak these activities in some way, so I would expect, say, an antimemetic monster that feeds on, say, a specific brain pattern associated with,” I waved my hand. “Whatever phenomenon he wants to limit as a way of keeping the world to a certain level of technological advancement, rooted within a particular aesthetic he’s fond of, or possibly something even more flippant.”

Raven kept staring at me, mouth slightly open. Her eyes flicked over to Amaryllis, who had her face in her hands.

“So,” I said. “It looks like we’re probably going to be heading into the Fel Seed exclusion zone in the fairly near future, and you’ve got a strong pedigree, strong magic, lots of knowledge, and a personal connection. Would you like to come with?”

“Juniper, sidebar,” said Amaryllis.

A column of pitch black surrounded Raven in her chair as wards snapped into place.

“We need to talk about this as a group,” said Amaryllis.

“I know,” I replied. “And we need to know how she knows, and then confirm it ourselves, before we’d even think about going near Fel Seed. I’m not about to ask anyone to put their life on the line, and the most compelling case I can make is that Arthur seems like the endgame to me, the point where I might actually be able to win instead of treading my way through challenges. I know that’s not terribly compelling.”

“Juniper, to put this in terms that you’d understand, Fel Seed is a high level quest,” said Amaryllis. “We have an enormous stack of high level quests, and as far as I can see, he’s the highest. Making a beeline for him is … it’s probably not suicide, though I can’t actually think of any reason that it wouldn’t be, other than narrative, which you’re adamant that you don’t believe in.” I saw the muscles of her jaw working after she was finished speaking.

“What would you have us do?” asked Grak. To my surprise, he pointed the question at Amaryllis, not me.

“We should go into the library and try to find some answers there,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper has the skill --”

“Picked because I didn’t know what it did,” I said.

“Juniper has the skill,” Amaryllis restated, “And there’s almost certainly an angle there, in spite of all the warnings that Raven has issued. We’ll wait until tomorrow when we have a meeting with Pallida and Heshnel to see what they know, and whether there’s something more urgent that we need to focus our attention on. It’s very likely that we need to put out what seem like a wide variety of fires. We need to know the threats, then assess them, then decide on which order we’ll tackle them in given our abilities and how rapidly we think we can escalate up to being able to deal with them.” I saw the muscles of her jaw tighten again. Her speaking was rapid and slightly clipped. It was subtle enough that I wouldn’t have noticed it if I didn’t know her so well.

“The locus cannot wait forever,” said Solace. She was still in the body of the brown-skinned man, but her manner was as patient and calm as ever. “It’s possible, even probable, that the Library has some information that would be of use.”

“I’ll do whatever anyone wants me to,” said Valencia. Her voice was low and she kept her head down.

“Well, if we’re making our wishes known,” said Bethel, appearing out of thin air and still wearing Tiff’s skin, “I would rather not lose any more members of the house. At the same time, I very much look forward to the conversation with Uther that Juniper has promised me.”

“Don’t talk about Fenn that way, please,” I said.

“I meant it with respect,” said Bethel. “I liked her.” She hesitated for a long moment. “I apologize.”

“It’s fine,” I said with a wave of my hand. “Just still very raw.”

“And that’s why you want to go after Fel Seed?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I said. “I think, if I were the Dungeon Master, I would have made Fel Seed the final quest. He was one of the first things I thought about once I realized what Aerb was. The fact that Raven has brought us a link is a pretty damned clear signal. We’ll have to figure out why Uther actually went there though.”

“He’s Fel Seed, obviously,” said Bethel.

“No,” I said. “At least, I don’t think so. Not just because he’s Arthur, but … I made up Fel Seed. Maybe it would be best for us if he was Uther, because then I’d at least be able to make a personal appeal, instead of … however we’re supposed to beat him, if it’s possible.”

“You haven’t told us the whole story,” said Amaryllis.

“Not much to tell,” I said. “It was stupid edgelord bullshit. If you know what Fel Seed is, then telling you why I made him is just … I don’t know. Redundant.”

“Excuse me,” said Solace, frowning slightly. “What do the Edge Lords have to do with this?”

“Oh, right,” I said. “Er, it’s just an Earth term. I mean, the Edge Lords were also based on that, in part, but it just means someone who’s being moody and dark for no real reason, or at least a reason that doesn’t fully explain why they’re being ... edgy.” My vocabulary was failing me.

“Except the Edge Lords do have a reason,” said Amaryllis.

I waved a hand. “Doesn’t matter,” I said. “It was a poor choice of words on my part.”

“She’s struggling against the barrier,” said Bethel, peering at the black column she’d erected.

“I thought it was just for privacy?” I asked. “Blocking light and sound?”

“No,” said Bethel. “She can’t leave.”

“Well, let her,” I said.

“Please,” said Amaryllis.

Bethel frowned slightly and waved a hand, which caused the column of black to disappear, leaving Raven standing there. She must have been pounding or pushing against the barrier, because she tumbled out and then had to pick herself up from the floor.

“Productive conversation without me?” she asked, brushing herself off and retaking her seat. She didn’t seem terribly put out.

“We’re deciding on next steps,” I said.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll decide on next steps when we have more information. We were discussing possible next steps, once information gathering is concluded.”

“I see,” replied Raven, looking between the two of us.

“We’d like to go into the Library,” I said. “It’s likely that I’ll be capable of becoming the most proficient librarian you’ve ever had in the space of about a day.” Though I might have to trade off some other skills to make that happen.

“I see,” replied Raven again.

“In exchange, I’ll do my best to permanently stop the end of the world, get the good future set in stone, and as a bonus, clear up any lingering questions you might have had about Uther. My knowledge of him is limited to the time before he became Isiah of Colm, but I know a lot about Earth and the society he was raised in. Were there things he said that made no sense?”

“Almost every day,” said Raven. She pursed her lips. “My father,” she said. “Is he … did he survive?”

“Did you know that Speculation and Scrutiny was built within the exclusion zone for illusion magic?” I asked. “We found that out from your father, firsthand. But no, we left him alive and well. He owes us a cache of supplies and a handful of answers, actually.”

“Ah,” said Raven. It was the fourth or fifth time I’d heard her say it, an audible little reaction to new information. I somehow found it endearing.

“Pallida Sade, Heshnel Elec, and possibly Gemma Tails are all coming here sometime tomorrow,” said Amaryllis. “Are you comfortable being our guest until then? We’d like to know what information you have on them, and what information they have on you, before we make any concrete decisions on what we’re doing next. It’s been a very busy few days for us.”

“Do I have a choice?” asked Raven. It seemed like honest curiosity, but I couldn’t help but see the way her eyes flickered to Bethel’s empty spot.

“Yes,” I said. “You can walk out of that door right now if you’d like.”

“The hells she can,” said Bethel, appearing in her seat with her bare feet up on the table.

“She can,” I repeated. “She’s not going to, because we’re the key to mysteries she spent a century of her life trying to solve, not to mention we’re very likely to be the only ones capable of saving the world, which she spent … what, the past four centuries on?”

“Less,” said Raven. “I wasn’t a librarian until after the collapse of the Second Empire.”

I glanced at Solace, and she gave me a small smile and a nod. It was something that I’d wanted to clear up sooner than later, and I was happy that it wasn’t going to be a point of friction. Heshnel, on the other hand, might be more of an issue, as he had not only been a working member of the Second Empire, but had seemed a bit defensive of it.

“Can you stop Kuum Doona, if she decides to kill me?” asked Raven.

“No,” I said. “I have faith that she won’t.”

“It’s true,” said Bethel, voice calm. “I won’t. I never said that I would, because as I’m sure you’ve gathered, I back up my words with my actions, as any moral entity would.”

“Then I’ll stay,” said Raven. “I need some time to think, if that’s okay with you ... and some time to grieve.”

I wasn’t terribly surprised when Amaryllis pulled me in for a private conversation a few minutes after we’d left the room.

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Alexander Wales

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