Pallida showed up with Heshnel and Gemma right around dawn, the earliest that they could have come and still claimed to have waited a day like we’d wanted them to. Their metallic bean-ship came down in a field half a mile from Bethel, and I walked down the path a bit to go say hello.
“There are a few things you need to know,” I said, without much preamble. “First, our house is magical and sentient. She hates Uther with a burning passion, she doesn’t like being threatened, she doesn’t like people boasting about how powerful they are, and she has, in the recent past, shown a penchant for violence as a way of getting her point across. She’s a valued member of our team though, so try not to piss her off.”
“Sounds lovely,” replied Gemma. Her voice croaked. She was still looking painfully old, her fox fur still grey-white and her skin wrinkled and loose where I could see it.
“The second thing you should be aware of is that she can hear and see everything that anyone says or writes, but she stops short of being able to read minds,” I continued. “I don’t want to trick anyone into thinking that there’s privacy when there really, really isn’t.”
“Wait,” said Pallida, looking up toward the house. “What kind of range are we talking here?”
“Ah,” I said. “You’re currently inside it.” Normally that wouldn’t have been the case, but Bethel had projected an extension beneath the ground, similar to the way that the tallest buildings on Earth had put on mooring masts and radio towers so they could claim an extra hundred feet. It was right beneath the path.
“Fuck,” said Pallida. Her skin was bubblegum pink, but her lips were a slightly darker color, and they were turned into a frown. She was dressed in her oil-slick, skin-tight armor, but she’d left her spear behind, or possibly just hidden in extradimensional space. “You know we come in peace, right?”
“I know,” I replied. “I’m just giving you information that I think you would want. It’s not a gun to the head, it’s just gently letting you know that we’re armed, so you don’t freak out if you see the gun. Does that make sense?”
“It’s appreciated,” replied Heshnel. The dark elf’s face was still disfigured, his eye too large and the flesh still weeping and spotted. Whatever their capacity for healing, apparently they hadn’t been able to deal with their afflictions on short notice. I had learned from The Book of Blood how he had survived the poison; apparently a general immunity to poison was one of the dark elf’s primary traits.
“So, how many guns do you have?” asked Pallida.
“Less than you’d think,” I replied. I paused slightly. “I’m sorry about yesterday,” I said. “You made your pledge, and I brushed you off, and I shouldn’t have done that. I wasn’t thinking right, for obvious reasons.”
Pallida waved a hand. “Uther was the same way, though I think he didn’t understand how seriously I meant it.”
“She had broken into his house to steal from him,” said Heshnel.
“In my defense, he had way too much stuff,” replied Pallida. She turned to me. “Obviously I was forgiven, in time.” She stammered slightly. “And, obviously, what happened to Fenn was more serious than stealing some magic, I don’t mean to put them on the same level, it’s just --”
“It’s fine,” I said, forcing myself to relax. “I’ve had some time to process. More than just a day.” Less than I probably need.
“Well, I come bearing gifts,” said Pallida, pointing behind her toward where the ship was sitting. “I don’t know if you want them now or later.”
“Later,” I said. “Unless you have some means of instant resurrection, which I gather you don’t. If there are any proverbial guns you have, that it would be better for me to know about, I’d like to know about them now. We didn’t get to that stage before we were interrupted yesterday.”
Bethel was no doubt bringing her sensorium to bear on them, which would include a warder’s analysis in conference with Grak. I considered them duly warned that they were under surveillance, albeit once they were already in range.
“My armor is wardproof,” said Pallida. “When I’m enveloped, I’m wardproof too. I assume that’s something you’d want to know about.”
“I have a number of buds,” replied Heshnel, pointing to his lapel where they were all neatly lined up. “My specialty is in connection, as was my mentor’s, though I have a number of combat and utility strains, a few of them descended from Vervain’s stock. There are thirty buds. Shall I list them now?”
“No,” I said, trying not to look at his disfigured face, and also to not not look at it.
“Aside from that, my cloak is capable of obscuring me from notice,” said Heshnel. “I wear a necklace that can keep my head perfectly preserved and capable of speech in the event of my death. My skin is embedded with the Seven Psalms, rendering me difficult to physically injure unless such efforts are taken eight times.” He paused slightly. “I think those are the ones you would find most relevant, if you don’t want the complete list.”
“No weapons?” I asked.
Heshnel gestured toward the buds with a raised eyebrow.
“Point taken,” I replied.
“I have the Twenty-blade,” said Gemma, gesturing to her hip. “The sheath can apply poison with a thought, and stores several dozen. That aside, there's an amulet to return bullets and arrows fired at me, a belt that helps track the path of blades, and a bracelet that consumes poisons. That last was a gift from Dehla, given the night before you were attacked. I assume it was meant to spare my life.” She slipped it from her wrist and handed it to me. “I don’t wish to wear it any longer.”
I stared at it for a moment.
“Safe,” a voice whispered in my ear. “And warded against anyhow.”
I took the bracelet and slipped it on. “Thank you,” I said. “We’re all in this together.”
“That remains to be seen,” replied Gemma with a slight bob of her head.
“Does it?” I asked.
“I did not pledge to you,” she replied. “Breaking guest right falls somewhat on my shoulders, but the burden is not absolute.”
“To be clear, you had no part in the attack?” I asked.
“No. I fought to defend you,” replied Gemma. She didn’t seem upset by the question, but it was hard to tell, because the facial features of an anthropomorphic fox were far different from that of a human.
“I don’t mean to challenge your honor,” I said. “I just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page.”
“I sort of doubt that,” said Pallida with a small, rueful laugh. “I don’t even know what book we’re reading from.”
“There’s one more thing,” I said. “We have Raven with us.”
Pallida tilted her head back, exposing her pink throat, and let out a groan. “How much does she know?”
“As much as you,” I replied. “Maybe a bit more, given her status. There are certainly things that she’s not telling us.” We hadn’t had the promised debriefing with her; it was meant to be in the early morning, but they’d decided to come even earlier. I looked between the three of them. It had been clear from the way that Raven talked about Uther that she would be at odds with them, given that their plan had seemed to be to nuke Uther the moment he showed up. I wasn’t sure that we could all be allies, let alone friends, but I didn’t really know how deep the bad blood went. The Infinite Library was supposed to be ‘neutral’ in Heshnel’s words, and by rights that should extend to Raven, who was the head librarian, but I wasn’t sure all that would hold with the return of an Uther-like entity on the horizon. “We’re all going to have a talk. Is that a problem?”
“No,” replied Pallida. “Can I give you my side of the story first?”
I hesitated, not really sure that was necessary. Everyone else was back at the house, listening to Bethel relay the conversation. Raven was sequestered, and hadn’t even been informed when Bethel’s sensorium first picked up the Egress coming down through the sky. Amaryllis had been against me going out there alone after how Bethel had handled things with Raven, but I’d argued that Raven was a special case unlikely to be repeated, and Amaryllis didn’t really have a choice but to relent.
“Okay,” I said. “In brief?”
“You want me to give you the short version of thirty years of history?” asked Pallida, raising an eyebrow.
“You were dead for some of that, weren’t you?” I asked. I resisted the urge to fold my arms across my chest.
“I was a toddler for some of it, sure,” said Pallida, waving a hand. “All I’m saying is that when we get in there, she’s going to say some stuff, and then I’ll say some stuff, and you won’t have context, and the short version is what you’d get then anyway. Unless she already told you?”
“No,” I said.
“This is important to her,” said Heshnel.
“Go ahead,” I said. “Give me the context.”
Pallida cleared her throat. “Really didn’t think that I would have to be telling this story today,” she said. “It starts … hells, I guess when I broke into Uther’s vault.” She paused. “How much history do you know?”
“Enough,” I said. “I’ve read his biographies.”
“Well, this was after the Dark King and before the Seventeen Swords,” said Pallida. “I made my plans, paid off the right people, slipped past his wards, and got into his vault, only to find that he was waiting for me in a comfortable chair with a crossbow pointed straight at my heart.” She sighed. “Sorry, I’ll skip ahead a bit. I found myself in his service, traveled with him occasionally when he called on me, and put my particular skills to use on interesting problems. It wasn’t a bad life until Uther asked me to break into the wrong man’s castle, where I was caught and beheaded.”
“And that was the first time you died in his service,” I said slowly.
Pallida nodded. “I was reborn, suffered through a childhood with a mother that detested me for not being the human daughter she’d wanted, then ran away at five years old to go find Uther again. Renacim weren’t well-known in Anglecynn in those days, and the cooperatives didn’t have the reach they do now -- irrelevant stuff, I am trying to be brief here. The point is, I eventually joined back up with Uther and his people. I’m not good for much when I’m five years old, though I’m a fair sight better than any human that age, so Uther parked me in the Caledwich castle he was spending less and less time in, while he waited for me to come back into the fullness of my usefulness.”
“That was how he saw people,” said Gemma. She nearly snarled as she said it. It was a strangely bitter accusation, given that Gemma had never met the man. I didn’t have all that much information on the Foxguard, except that they were a thing that Uther had started, composed entirely of fox Animalia.
“I didn’t begrudge him that,” said Pallida. “Not then, anyway. He was paying for my tutors, I was growing up with his children, I had the best meals I’d had in lifetimes and a comfy bed … sorry, again, trying to keep it brief. Eventually I joined up with his camp, leaving my friends at his castle behind, and I started doing work for him again, usually the kind that was strictly illegal, highly dangerous, and liable to get me killed again. He saved my life a few times when things went wrong.” She paused a bit at that. “Anyway, Raven and I were about the same age at that time, and we became fast friends. She’d been twelve years old for a hundred years, and it was my thousandth time being twelve, so we had more in common with each other than almost anyone in Uther’s circles.”
“And then you had a falling out,” I said.
Pallida shifted. “Hang on, I’m getting there,” she said. Whatever it was she had to say, she seemed to really think that it would be softened by a long lead-in. I still felt bad about having been a dick about her giving her pledge to me, so I was inclined to listen. “Well, Dahlia went missing, and it was this big, all hands on deck type thing, but eventually it just seemed like she was gone, no ransom, no demands, no evidence at all. Uther was off-kilter, maybe for the first time in his life, furious and sorrowful, taken by moods, not really knowing what to do. Eventually it kind of died down, because there was nothing to be done … and that was when Helio showed up.” She swallowed.
“Uther took him on, maybe because he was missing his daughter, or to make up for the fact that he couldn’t relate to his sons, or … I don’t know what he was thinking, only that Helio joined up with us, and the three of us, Raven, Helio, and myself, all went on some adventures together for a few short weeks, until Uther found out that Helio was really Dahlia, who had run away from home and changed into a boy with the help of a magical belt.” She looked over at the house. “They had a big fight in Uther’s traveling court, all his Knights present, all us hangers-on too, with her, at eleven years old, looking as perfectly defiant as anyone I’ve ever seen, and him consumed by anger. Eventually he settled down though, and allowed her to be part of things.”
“You’re not going to say the line?” asked Heshnel.
Pallida hesitated and pursed her lips. “I’m trying to be brief,” she said. “But, okay, fine.” She sighed. “At this showdown they had, Uther wasn’t quite yelling, but he was livid, talking about all of the worry and anguish she’d caused by sneaking off, treating all of this like a game, and then he started going on about the belt she’d used to become a boy, and he said, ‘Do you understand how illegal that is?’, which was the first thing that gave her pause. She spoke for the first time in a while, because it seemed like he wanted an answer, and she asked him with a firm voice what crime she was guilty of.” Pallida stared at me for a moment and gave me a faint smile, seemingly despite herself.
“And?” I asked.
“‘Male fraud,’” said Pallida, chuckling slightly. “And with his pun delivered, it was like all the tension in the room broke, and all was forgiven.” She turned to look at Heshnel, to see if he was satisfied, and he gave her a little nod. “There was a reason that people liked Uther,” said Pallida, but she looked a little bit sad when she said it. “Anyhow. Dahlia stayed as Helio, and they kept that secret under wraps, since the princess traveling along with her father on his adventures was decidedly not a done thing, even if she hadn’t been so young. Uther seemed to like the deception.”
Pallida seemed lost in thought, like she was reliving memories that were five hundred years old. I wasn’t sure quite how old this body of hers was, but from what The Book of Blood said about renacim, they had memories and skills that were stronger the closer they were to being the same age as in their past life.
“You got into a relationship with Dahlia,” I said.
“Shit,” said Pallida, snapping out of her reverie. “Was that a good guess, or do you already know this story? Did Raven tell you?”
“It was an educated guess,” I replied. “I saw the way you looked at Amaryllis.”
Pallida blushed, her cheeks turning a darker pink. “Well,” she said. “Yes, Dahlia and I went on our adventures together, sometimes with Raven, sometimes without, and Lia and I began to grow up, leaving Raven behind, and … it was Raven who caught us together.” She seemed uncomfortable. “But you see, the thing is, --”
“Sorry,” I said, holding up a hand, then glancing at Gemma and Heshnel to see if I could get some context clues from how they were reacting. “Which part of this is or was scandalous, if any? I think I’m missing cultural context.”
Pallida stared at me for a moment. “Ah,” she said. “Right, well, Dahlia could switch back and forth between being a girl or a boy, but, ah, when Raven caught us, she was the former, rather than the latter.”
I frowned. “And Uther had a problem with that?” I asked.
“Uther had a lot of problems with it,” said Pallida with a grimace. “I’m actually halfway confident that he made up a bunch of philosophy on the spot just to explain how many problems he had with it. The other kings and politicians had always found him a little bit terrifying, because he had this way of arguing with people like it was one of the martial arts he’d mastered. I got the full force of it.”
“But,” I said slowly. “Did he really have a problem with the fact that you were both women?”
“Lia never thought that he did,” said Pallida. “She thought some of it was bunk he was saying because it sounded good, and other parts were, in his opinion, true, but that one she didn’t think he believed. She tore his arguments apart and turned his rhetoric against him, but that was always easier when she was ranting to me, rather than facing him down. All the stoic determination in the world couldn’t make her better at argument than her father was.”
“Ah,” I said, frowning slightly as I thought about that. Homosexuality was frowned upon in the same sense that most interspecies marriages were, but it wasn’t illegal, at least as far as I knew. In Uther’s time though … well, I didn’t imagine that it would really matter. “I don’t suppose he ended it with a pun?”
“He did not,” replied Pallida. She shifted in place, causing her oil-slick armor to display new ribbons of color. “Anyway. I guess we can skip whatever comes afterward, since it’s really not that important. A couple years later, Uther sent me out on a dangerous mission, and I died again. I was about ten years old when the Grand Finale happened, but I was there for it.”
“What happened to Dahlia?” I asked.
“She had donned the Red Mask by that point,” replied Pallida. “She came through the Grand Finale just fine, nothing more than scars to show for it, and lived out the rest of her life in Cidium as one of the city’s protectors. She was a big deal there, but never wanted people to know she was Uther’s daughter, and all the shit her brothers were getting up to back in Anglecynn … she’d never had much stomach for it.” Pallida hesitated again. “Dahlia only ever went for women. Raven might bring that up. She thinks it’s my fault.”
“Okay,” I said with a nod. “I consider myself properly briefed. I’ll ask you for the less brief version another time, maybe even tonight, but for the moment, we need to all sit down and have a discussion about next steps.”
“Heshnel, Pallida,” said Raven with a nod to each of them as they came into the large conference room. She paused slightly as she saw the fox Animalia. “I’m sorry, I haven’t had the pleasure. Foxguard?”
“I am,” replied Gemma with a small bow.
“I wouldn’t have thought a member of the Foxguard would fall in with these sorts of people,” replied Raven.
Gemma shrugged. “I was born into a role, not into every thought I would ever have about what that role meant.”
Raven looked between the three of them as they took their seats. “I’m not sure how comfortable I am with all of this,” Raven said to me.
“Nor I,” replied Heshnel.
“We’re all here for a reason,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper is a continuation of the same phenomenon that caused Uther to be far, far more important than any one person had a right to be. He’s spoken to what we believe to be the creator and ultimate master of Aerb and the other planes. What we need is information, contacts, and resources.”
“I brought resources,” said Pallida. “Entads and money, including the Egress. They’re yours.”
“Uther buried treasures,” said Raven. “Some of them were dug up when it became clear he wasn’t coming back, but others were too dangerous for me to get alone. I can tell you their locations.” She took a breath. “I’m also prepared to bring Juniper into the Infinite Library in the hopes that he can leverage his talent.”
“Just me?” I asked.
“Just you,” replied Raven. “It would allow us to learn what happens in your absence with the remaining pieces left in place.”
“I’m not sure that I like being referred to as a piece,” said Solace with a slight frown.
“Apologies,” said Raven with a nod, “It’s how we tend to think of things in our calculations. I’ll amend my speech.”
“You’re going to try to brainwash him,” said Pallida.
“I imagine we’ll have some time to speak,” replied Raven. “That’s hardly brainwashing. And I would also like to point out that I’ve maintained the Library as strictly neutral during my tenure as head librarian.”
“My girlfriend was murdered yesterday,” I said, voice cold. “I also narrowly avoided being nuked. I’m not going anywhere without all the firepower I have at my disposal.”
“You would get a far less clear picture of the future,” said Raven, frowning at me. “Uther always went alone.”
“I’m not Uther,” I said. “I don’t have Knights, I have companions. I listen to their advice and don’t keep secrets from them. Uther never told you that he was dream-skewered either. His way of doing things isn’t going to be mine.”
Raven swallowed. “His way of doing things saved the world a few dozen times over. That’s not an exaggeration.”
“I’ll have to talk to him about that,” I replied.
“Excuse me?” asked Pallida, eyes wide. “Is he -- Raven, is he alive ?”
“That’s unclear,” replied Raven.
“I have reason to believe that I can find and recover him,” I said. “At the very least, I should be able to ask him some questions and get some answers.” The text of the quest was a bit vague, but I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t get to the end and have it say, ‘oh, actually he died five hundred years ago and his soul is completely beyond recovery, sorry’. Then again, the game had erased all traces of Fenn, with her companion quest disappearing completely from the logs.
“You didn’t reveal that to us,” said Heshnel, his voice soft. I tried not to look at him too closely. I wasn’t sure that it was in my ability to fix his face, but until someone did, it was off-putting, especially because of the casual way he seemed to wear the deformity.
“If Uther had come back in the time of need, you would have tried to take him to Blue Fields and nuke him, right?” I asked. “As, perhaps, one part of a bigger plan?”
Heshnel glanced at Raven, then nodded.
“How can you possibly think that was what Vervain would have wanted?” asked Raven, her tone sharp.
“It’s clear now that Vervain was blinded to Uther in some ways,” said Heshnel. “You all were.”
“You are ,” said Pallida.
“I’m the only one left,” said Raven, looking slightly haunted.
“Unless the man himself still lives, or is recoverable,” said Heshnel.
“We think that he is,” said Amaryllis. “Unfortunately, there might be some minor problems. Raven, would you care to offer some illumination?”
Raven frowned slightly. “I’ve gone a very long time without sharing what I’ve found with anyone,” she said. “It’s information that I plan to guard jealously, especially given that it might mean my life.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “We’ll get the specifics later.” I really didn’t want to press Raven on the point, because it was the one scrap of leverage she still had left while in this house. “The short version is that Uther Penndraig is likely somewhere in the Fel Seed exclusion zone. If he’s not, then that’s where we’ll get information on the next step.”
Pallida was staring at me with her mouth slightly open, and Heshnel had a grimace on his face.
“For what it’s worth, I consider any plan to enter into Fel Seed’s domain utter insanity,” said Amaryllis. “I’ll do it, if I believe there’s no other choice, but going there to rescue my ancestor, who might well be insane, broken, or powerless for all we know, reeks of poor decision-making.”
“I’m leaning toward waiting,” I said. We’d talked about it some in the chamber together. I’d given her the low-down on Fel Seed as I had designed him, plus the changes that I'd made during the course of the session, and she’d asked her clarifying questions, but the long and short of it was that she ended up believing me when I told her that Fel Seed had no weaknesses known to me. “We need more information on the threats Aerb is facing though. We’re stumbling around blind right now, and apparently the Library has had us as the culprits for the end of the world three times now.”
“Rule of three,” said Raven with a nod. “I should have seen it.”
“How did they end the world?” asked Heshnel.
“Widespread proliferation of a proscribed technology was the first one,” said Raven. “Synthetics were the second. The third was a proscribed contract with an entity, though that’s largely a guess on our part, given its location. It might have been someone else.” She shrugged. “I can’t tell you more about the entity. Five people know about it, and sometimes that seems like four people too many.”
“How did we learn about it then, if no one knows?” I asked. I wished that she’d shared this last night, but it had already been late when she’d arrived, and we’d spent a lot of time talking then too, all about things that had seemed important.
“That’s unclear,” Raven sighed. “All five of us were inside the Library, which means that either it was independently discovered on the outside, or someone had let it leak.”
“More secrets from the Library,” said Heshnel, with a slight note of disdain.
Raven made no response to that.
I turned to Heshnel. “Our briefing yesterday was interrupted. There are still things that we need to know, if knowing about them doesn’t drive us into insanity, blow up the world, or otherwise cause some catastrophic failure.” I looked back at Raven. “Either of you can give us that briefing now.”
Raven eyed Heshnel. “I suppose we’ll start with exclusion breaks,” she said. “We see them written about in the Library sometimes, though it’s never happened in the real world. We don’t typically take action on them, with the exception of co-opting the imperial monitoring stations. They’re always far into the future, one of the default end states of civilization or life, and there’s virtually nothing that we could actually do about threat containment. I mention it primarily because if you find some way of breaking the exclusionary principle, it’s entirely possible that you would accidentally end the world.”
“Oh,” I said. I hesitated. “I’ve broken the exclusionary principle twice. Both times minor, though.”
Raven stared at me, eyes wide beneath her black bangs. “How?” she asked.
“I was misinformed,” I said. “See, I thought that the exclusionary principle was more of a guideline than a rule, and no one corrected me until it was too late.”
No one laughed. Fenn would have loved that.
“More seriously,” I continued, “I don’t know. My power, and presumably Uther’s as well, ties into the exclusionary principle, and is capable of selectively ignoring it in special circumstances. I suppose technically one of those two instances was because of a gift the Aerbian over-entity gave to me.”
“You could break containment on the exclusion zones,” said Raven, staring at me.
“I don’t actually know how,” I said. “But it’s probably possible.”
“You could break containment on the exclusion zones and you want to go face to face with Fel Seed!” she said, raising her voice and standing up slightly from her chair.
“Is it possible that Fel Seed could take the ability?” asked Amaryllis. “Did anyone ever take Uther’s Knack or otherwise gain the use of his ability?”
Raven settled back in her seat. “No,” she said. “But that’s not the point. The point is that Fel Seed escaping the exclusion zone would almost certainly result in the end of civilized life on Aerb. All that would remain are his brides and his flesh-beasts. It’s not a thing to risk if you don’t have a plan, and I know that you don’t have a plan, because you heard about Uther being there yesterday, you have no idea where in the zone he is, and all of my plans were too risky when I was planning to risk my own life and the lives of others, not the entirety of Aerb. ” My experience of Raven had been that she was fairly reserved, forthright but deferential, even when she’d gotten her fingers cut off, but this, finally, seemed to have lit a fire in her.
“There are some details that need to be worked out,” said Amaryllis with a small nod. “Before we make plans, we need to know the threats. You may continue.”
Raven pursed her lips, as though there were a hundred things she needed to say about the whole Fel Seed thing. Instead, she swallowed her words.
“There are five primary problems facing Aerb as a whole which are unknown to the Empire at large,” said Raven. “We can start with the problem in the hells, since it’s the most pressing one at the moment and the one we’re least capable of solving. Infernal unification has happened in seven timelines, with complete infernal depopulation in the hells in another two, and the cause for unification is assumed to be whatever effect would otherwise result in depopulation. Unification leads to an assault on Aerb that mortal civilization can’t withstand. Because we have no worldly idea what’s actually happening there --”
“It’s her,” said Pallida, pointing out Valencia. “She can kill infernals with her mind.”
Raven stopped and stared at Valencia. “How?” she finally asked.
“Uther gave his companions some measure of power, didn’t he?” asked Valencia. “Killing infernals at range is one aspect of mine.”
Raven didn’t seem to know how to respond to that. “We were exemplars in our fields,” she finally said. “At the start it just seemed like he was collecting people who were far above average, but later on …” she trailed off, as though not knowing how to phrase it. “We were powerful, yes, we had some fraction of his Knack, somehow, though he couldn’t or didn’t say how. Nothing like what you’re suggesting. A trillion infernals dead by your hand?”
“Not yet,” said Valencia. “I’ve been improving though.”
“We need a moratorium on infernal killing,” said Amaryllis, speaking with the iron will of command, a power that she used rarely and was probably ineffective against Valencia if she was using an infernal for this meeting. “A true moratorium, no more using them for anything until we have a handle on this.”
“I won’t be able to listen to what they’re saying if I can’t kill them,” said Valencia. “It’s useful for tracking rumors and public information about myself.”
“You can see down there?” asked Raven. “You’re an intelligence asset too?”
“She’s likened the effect to soul scaphism,” said Heshnel.
“Apparently we win a quarter of the time,” I said. “That’s better odds than I would have given us. Not that we were planning on trying anyway, given the obvious unknowns if the infernals began fighting for their lives.”
“They won’t, after the display yesterday?” asked Heshnel.
“Valencia killed a few hundred in a stadium in one of the upper-middle hells,” I said. “It was very public.”
Raven closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said when she opened her eyes. “Do the infernals know the who, what, or where? I’m assuming not.”
“Consider it irrelevant for now,” said Amaryllis. “Mutual debriefing is important, and we will get to it, but we don’t want to get endlessly sidetracked delivering information to each other in the least efficient possible way.”
Raven frowned. “Fine.” She took a moment to compose herself. I wondered whether she was thinking about the sheer power the house was ready to direct her way if she put her foot down. She didn’t so much as glance at where Bethel was seated (actually seated this time, not just an empty chair for spooking purposes). “Moving on,” she said, then took a breath. “It’s widely known that Aerb is flat, but what few realize is that it has two sides, the one we live on, and the one roughly eight thousand miles below us, where the force of gravity is inverted. There exists a singular shortcut between the two sides within an exclusion zone called the Gates of Leron, and the Other Side has been locked out of Aerb for five centuries with defenses that Uther put in place. The last I heard, they sent a raiding party to probe at the Gates, but that’s information from outside the Library, not from any books we’ve read. Of course, if you’re breaking exclusion zones, then perhaps we have to be worried after all.”
“The Other Side is not of immediate concern,” said Heshnel. “If they keep exerting force, or find their way past Uther’s defenses, we might need to worry.”
I looked over and saw Amaryllis with a deep-set frown on her face. “May I ask why, exactly, this isn’t an issue that’s being handled by the broader international community?”
“The Other Side has different magic than we do,” said Raven. “They can use theirs here, and we can use ours there. They have their own mortal species, some with bloodline magics, and their own billion-some entads. Our worry is that they have, or might eventually develop, a way to get here that isn’t the Gates of Leron, and that such an event is much more likely to happen if more people know about them.”
“Based on the Library?” asked Amaryllis.
“Partially,” said Raven. “Uther had made a few trips there, over the years, and spent some time thinking about the vectors given what he’d seen of their resources and capabilities. Most entads don’t work across that kind of distance, but a rare few do, and meme-class entads were one of them. Uther had a brooch that would allow him to teleport to the last person to say his name. It was how he ended up on the Other Side in the first place, and once he got back home, he never used it again for fear he would wind up there.” She hesitated, chewing her words. “We have several pathways to the Other Side, tools that Uther kept stockpiled in case we needed to return there without compromising the integrity of the Gates. I don’t believe that it will be necessary, and I don’t know enough of your capabilities to say whether it would be wise, but the fact that they sent a raiding party is worrisome.”
“The fact that so many worrisome things are happening at once was our sign to regroup,” said Heshnel.
“Is the Boundless Pit a vector they could approach through?” I asked.
“No,” said Raven. “It’s boundless. Vervain always said that cosmic topology gave him a headache, and he was our expert on the subject.”
“Until Uther killed him,” said Heshnel. “Killed him, without so much as saying why.”
“For another time,” said Amaryllis. “I doubt that we can solve this by talking about it, if it hasn’t already been solved.” She nodded to Raven. “You may continue. The Outer Reaches next, if you please.”
Raven looked over to Heshnel, who shook his head with the smallest possible motion he could manage.
“I’m sorry,” said Raven. “It’s memetic in nature.”
“And you can’t even describe the nature of the threat?” I asked. “You can’t even describe the effect that makes talking about the threat itself dangerous? Because you all seem to know, and you all seem to be alive.”
“We’re protected,” said Raven. “Uther was the one who protected us. It’s not impossible that you might be able to match that feat, but Uther could only do it after having surpassed yet another master, and all the masters who would teach you are now dead.”
“Vervain among them,” said Heshnel.
“Yes,” said Raven, lips thin.
“So there’s a lost magic that I’ll need to find first,” I said. “Alright, I’ll put that on my to-do list.” I silently waited for the game to give me some smarmy quest text about it, but it was keeping up the silence that had become somewhat typical since Fenn had died. I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved that I hadn’t gotten a quest.
“Is that it?” asked Amaryllis. “Five threats? The hells, the Outer Reaches, the Other Side, and all the things that we’re apparently prohibited from doing, plus the Void Beast as a problem that the international community will deal with?”
Quest Accepted: Tragedy of the Commons - Following the discovery of the Void Beast, void weapons and tools were made illegal under international law, usable only with expensive permits or in situations that called for it. For a time, this was sufficient. Now the Void Beast stirs once again, and imperial regulatory schemes won’t be enough.
“Er,” I said. “About that. Scenario two.”
“What does that mean?” asked Raven, alarm in her voice.
“Which part?” Amaryllis asked me.
“Void Beast,” I said. “To quote, ‘imperial regulatory schemes won’t be enough’.”
“Fuck,” said Amaryllis.
“What’s happening?” asked Raven.
“A message from the entity you’re linked to?” asked Heshnel with a raised eyebrow.
I glanced at Amaryllis. “Yes,” I said. “Amaryllis, is it time for our end of things?”
Amaryllis twisted her mouth in a small pout. It was information that she didn’t want to part with. “Juniper’s ability exists on a higher level than magic. We’re not entirely certain that Uther’s ability was the same, but there are, at the very least, a number of points of commonality.” She reached out with her gloved hand (it was still hard not to think of Sable as Fenn’s glove) and produced four folders. Bethel’s unseen force pushed each of these folders across the table. “I’m not entirely comfortable sharing this with you, but Juniper has argued in favor of transparency. This is what he sees when he closes his eyes for three seconds.”
Our four guests began looking through the papers. There had been some redactions (most notably the character biographies) and there was some information omitted but not redacted, but it was as much as we’d told anyone.
“Uther had this power?” asked Pallida, looking quickly through the sheets. Raven was taking her time, one page after another, reading quickly but from the way her eyes were scanning, completely.
“We don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “It’s possible. If he did, he obviously never told anyone.” She looked to Raven. “Did he?”
“I don’t know,” said Raven, not looking up from the papers she was reading, and apparently able to split focus without a problem. “He never explained the Knack, only that he’d had it since shortly after his family had been slaughtered by the Dark King. I don’t know whether he told Vervain or any of the others, only that he never told me. Something like this --” she paused, stopping on something in the paper momentarily before her eyes started moving back and forth again. “This page titled ‘Skills’ appears to contain a list of magics, some known to me and others unknown, including exclusions, but not all of them ... what’s Essentialism?”
“It was a name once used for soul magic, early in its history,” said Heshnel.
“You’re a soul mage?” asked Raven, looking up from the papers.
“Each of those skills is associated with a number,” I said. “The numbers have been redacted. Some of those skills aren’t available to me without a cost. The ones that are excluded could theoretically be used if I were in an exclusion zone, but we haven’t tried, and we don’t know what the result would be.”
“You didn’t answer the question,” said Raven.
“Yes, I’m a soul mage,” I said. “It’s one of a handful of magics I’ve attained some level of mastery over.” I assumed that Pallida and the others already knew, given what I had done to save the other members of my party. (Most of them, anyway.)
“He’s not of the old breed,” said Solace, looking over at the dark elf as she said that. I wonder how reformed Heshnel Elec really is. I also wonder how complete the removal of his soul magic was.
“We can save some of the inevitable questions for later,” said Amaryllis. “Most of the redactions I’ve made have been in the direction of not leaking any strengths or weaknesses.” She took a breath. “Part of the reason that I’m showing this to you is that we need help with a rather particular problem, one that it’s entirely possible Uther grappled with and circumvented. When Juniper accomplishes tasks on that list, titled ‘Quests’, or otherwise accomplishes something meaningful to the outside entity, he eventually sees a change in that number, called ‘Level’. This is accompanied by a strong rush of pleasure, which has been increasing in power with every level he attains, is accompanied by violent tendencies and a blackout, and which is extremely addictive. From the outside, there are physical signs, including a slight gravitational effect and a rush of golden light. The last time he attained a level, the compulsion was beyond his power to fix without outside intervention. Unfortunately, he’s getting stronger with every level, and there’s no guarantee that the outside interventions will remain viable, especially if it happens when he’s by himself. In the event that occurs, it’s likely that he’ll go rogue.”
A silence fell over the room.
“That didn’t happen to Uther,” Raven finally said. “If it did, then it was fixed before I joined his group.”
“What’s the nature of the outside intervention?” asked Heshnel. He narrowed one eyebrow; the other was missing from the disfigured side of his face.
“Soul magic,” I said. “I need a soul mage to reduce down the value, because as of last time, I won’t do it on my own.”
“You have a second soul mage?” asked Heshnel. “Beside yourself?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s need to know, given that the practice is frowned upon.”
“How proficient are you or they with soul magic?” asked Heshnel, leaning forward slightly. “How complete has the Knack’s gift been?”
“I’m proficient,” I said. “There are other disciplines that I would probably benefit from bringing to bear on the problem, if I knew what they were, because some of the skills listed there have synergies that aren’t listed until the right conditions are met.” I shrugged. “At this point I don’t think that soul magic is going to be the answer, or at least not by itself, and there’s no soul mage that I actually trust to work on my soul.”
“Aside from the one you already have working on your soul,” said Gemma. There was just the barest hint of upward inflection, making it almost, but not quite a question.
“I believe I may know of someone who can help,” said Heshnel. “He was a soul mage during the time of the Second Empire, my mentor in that art, spared when Manifest claimed the Imperial City. He wasn’t simply a soul mage, but a researcher, and an extremely proficient one at that. It would take some doing, but he’s likely still alive, living out a life sentence in a sentient prison he was put in by the counter-imperialists. I had heard he managed to retain his abilities, in part because of the respect the soul mages held for him.”
I stared at Heshnel, not knowing what to say, because I was ninety percent certain that the man he was talking about was --
“Fallatehr Whiteshell was my father,” said Valencia. I had almost forgotten she was at the table with us. There was something faraway in her eyes. My mind went to the cage she’d been pulled out of when we first met her. With everything that had happened with her, it was sometimes hard to remember the conditions that she’d been suffering in until just before we met her. I felt a pang of empathy for her.
“Was?” asked Heshnel, focusing in on that word.
“Father to a teenage non-anima?” asked Gemma.
“A what? ” asked Raven.
“Former non-anima,” I said with a wave of my hand.
“No,” said Valencia, turning to me with a scowl. “I still don’t have a soul.”
“I was just trying to clarify,” I said, but really, it wasn’t that, I’d just put my foot in my mouth. We’d had a whole conversation about her being insistent on terminology, and I had fucked up. I turned to Raven as I used blood magic to make sure that I wasn’t blushing. “She’s still non-anima, in the sense that she doesn’t have a soul, but she’s not at risk of infernal possession. The opposite, actually, as we’ve said. Once she’s killed them she can take them in and use their memories and skills.” Raven relaxed slightly, but I could tell she was still on edge.
“Fallatehr,” said Heshnel, insistent. “He’s dead? And within the last handful of years?”
I decided to bite the bullet and do my best not to mince words. “We met with him. He killed one of our party members, he used his magic to make grossly unethical alterations to Grakhuil and Amaryllis, then attempted to do the same to me. This came along with a fair bit of coercion and blackmail on his part.” I hesitated for a moment. “I don’t know who he was when you knew him, but the man we met didn’t allow us the possibility of a working relationship, not one that would leave our minds and souls intact. I had to kill him.”
Heshnel’s lips had gone thin. “Where did you meet him?”
“We went to the prison on Sulid Isle,” I said. “He was there with twenty or so people whose souls he had altered beyond recognition. He had intentionally created Valencia as a non-anima, and was keeping her locked in a cage. We still tried to work with him, for a time. He was the one who taught me soul magic in the first place.”
“A mentor, dead by your hand,” said Heshnel, voice tight.
“I hardly think the comparison is fair,” said Amaryllis. “We had known Fallatehr for less than a day when he turned on us, and --”
“There’s no evidence whatsoever that Vervain ever turned on Uther,” said Heshnel. He’d raised his voice to talk over her. The ruined side of his face was pulsing, and had begun weeping a white fluid.
“I never said that he did,” replied Amaryllis. “You’re letting your emotions get the better of you. I understand that there’s quite a bit of history here, much of which we’re ignorant of, but --”
“No one should ever have told you it was Uther who killed Vervain,” Raven said, raising her voice. “Whatever reason Uther had, we only have the choice to accept what he did or not. You didn’t know him like I knew him, he wouldn’t have done anything to any of us unless it was necessary. He --”
“Did he ever tell you what it meant?” asked Heshnel. “He killed Vervain, admitted it to everyone, said that it had to be done, and after, that giant monument to the man at the Vervainium … a paragraph of accomplishments, but above it, writ large, four cryptic letters. I asked him, and he just gave me a sad smile.”
“He said that it was the final word on Vervain,” replied Raven. “A message that might make the gods laugh at a private joke. I asked for more. We all did. He had a way of shutting people down and barrelling on to the next adventure.” She leaned forward slightly. “Heshnel, there was a time when Uther was your ally, when you would have died for him, and even after Vervain was gone, you believed in Uther. And I know that it was hard when he left, that we all had to fight tooth and nail, I know that he didn’t leave any clues behind, but to forsake him so completely,” she threw up her hands. “We owe him more than that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, once there was a frosty silence between the two of them. “Can someone fill me in on what Vervain’s grave actually said?”
“I’m curious too,” said Amaryllis, frowning slightly. It seemed like the kind of detail that she would have known, and maybe she was upset with herself for not having it in her memory banks. ‘What’s written on Vervain’s monument in the Vervainium?’ did seem a little obscure though, so maybe she was just annoyed that she was expected to know.
“The bottom part is an ode to what he did,” said Heshnel. “I thought it was magnanimous of Uther, when I first saw it. Vervain was his mentor, first and foremost, and that would be what history would remember him as. Yet the list of accomplishments omitted any mention of Uther or the others, focusing solely on what Vervain himself had done. When I found out what had happened to Vervain, it took on a darker tone, because perhaps Uther was trying to drive some distance between them after the fact, not admitting that Vervain had made Uther into what he became. And yet the epigraph is overshadowed by four letters, set on the plinth as large as all of Vervain’s accomplishments. D-M-P-C.”