Arthur had always been a fan of pointing out time compression in media, wherever he saw it. There was a part in The Dark Knight Rises, Batman escapes from this big pit somewhere in either India or Morocco, and then has to travel back to Gotham City. He probably has enough time to do this, so it’s not a plot hole per se, but the way that it’s cut just compresses all that down to maintain a sense of urgency, so we don’t have to sit around watching Batman steal, lie, and sneak his way across the world to get back, which would completely ruin the pacing of the film and destroy the tension that was being built up. Arthur loved pointing that out; it was his go-to example. The other one he brought up a lot was (sigh) Harry Potter, where the first book takes more than a hundred pages to cover roughly a week, then finishes out the year in the last half of the book. Per Arthur, there was a time warp in effect whenever a character was doing something that was going to continue on for some time, uninterrupted.
By the third day at S&S, I was hoping that I could somehow skip ahead to all the bullshit that was undoubtedly waiting for me at the end. There were too many people, too many things that I was probably never going to need to know, and far too much that was unpleasant. Any fantasies that I’d had about this place being a “college experience” were in the past.
I double-checked with the bursar that the paperwork Malus had put forward would still be valid, and he confirmed that there wouldn’t be a problem on that count, which meant that my day was down to three classes.
Jiph, the rhannu girl from student council who had been on my case, was gone from Ermaretor’s class, replaced by yet another student aide. The lesson was nothing special, other than the fact that it was the first one that taught anything practical about still magic, and it was grounded more in a discussion of the definition of ‘change’ as it applied to the magic than it was actual practical examples of the magic as used by mages.
Leister was his usual chipper self, though there was even more math, and while he went over it all, as well as why it was important, it felt like I was never going to use any of it in combat, which was the primary place that I expected to use vibration magic. Further, mathematics didn’t have that much to do with how vibration magic was actually practiced, given that vibration mages weren’t running equations. The fundamental relationships between oscillators were important, sure, but the actual math … well, not so much. Also, I didn’t take the Mathematics skill, which left me just bog-standard Juniper on the subject. Still, if you were going to prohibit any actual practice for two years, I could see where this would be one of the things you’d teach.
For his part, Oberlin continued on with combat lessons, still deep in vibration magic, this time going into what defenses were available to a vibration mage. The short version was “none”, but the longer version was that there were some slender fraction of attacks which a vibration mage could no-sell, and another small handful that they could partially defend against, but for the kinds of attacks that you were likely to run into in the real world … well, most of them were kinetic or energy based, bullets, swords, arrows, lightning bolts, nothing that a vibration mage could really do a damned thing about by virtue of being a vibration mage. That was Oberlin’s opportunity to segue into “mundane combat”, which covered a number of diverse topics, including the trade-offs in armor, how to find cover in a hurry, how to flee from close quarters combat, and a few other things.
He stopped me for a talk after class.
“How goes it?” he asked.
“Fine,” I replied. “Ready to be done here.”
“Getting close?” he asked.
“Two days after today,” I replied.
“I meant the investigation,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “Leads?”
“Fuck all,” I replied. “We can talk in your office.”
A short trip later, we were sitting together, still more exposed than I would have liked, but with at least a little privacy.
“Alright,” I said. “I’ll start with what you probably know. The single death was initially ruled an anomaly, supposedly an unforeseen interaction between the heavy wards down there, the area-of-effect entads, and her personal history. As of yesterday, they’ve revised that diagnosis to having been a variable time-delayed poison that didn’t come up on their, ah, post-mortem tests.” Aerb didn’t actually have toxicology screenings, which was where my mind had been going. “There are also the disappearances, some of which have now been ruled to be deaths using the same variable time-delay poison. Demographically, the disappearances are all over the place, one instructor, a handful of upperclassmen, and a handful of staff. They tend to be more important than not, but their actual role at S&S runs the gamut, so no help there. No obvious trends with regard to species.” We’d spent a good deal of time trying to solve those cases, and come up short, mostly because they were extremely cold.
“They’re pinning it on my ethics instructor,” I said. “I can’t tell whether or not that’s because it’s someone at the top wanting to find a scapegoat, or whether she really is involved somehow. It’s at least a tacit admission that something greater than a single death has been going on here. Beyond that, I’m pretty sure that the meditation class is compromised in some way, though how, exactly, is really unclear. I was planning to attend again.”
“Meditation class?” asked Oberlin.
“It’s extracurricular,” I replied. “Ermaretor asked that I attend, which means that she’s probably in on it.”
Oberlin swore and leaned back in his chair, crossing his four arms across his chest. “You’re going to have to pull at threads,” he said. “Sooner than later. If they’ve got a scapegoat, that might mean that they’re cleaning up after the fact. Anything else?”
“Very little that I could find,” I replied. “Given that they’re pinned on someone now, I would guess that the local police have information I don’t, even if it’s entirely fabricated, but that doesn’t help too much.” I paused, not sure how much to trust Oberlin. “In your time at Uniquities, did you ever encounter a flaming man who could be seen during meditation?”
“A very specific question,” he replied with a raised eyebrow. “Memetic?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I was hoping that you did.”
“Explain,” said Oberlin.
I told him, in brief, about the meditation class and what I’d experienced, leaving off most of the speculation that had come from Raven on the matter. As I was speaking, he closed his eyes, and when I was finished, he let out a long, low sigh.
“Fuck,” he said. “It’s Herald.”
“You’re familiar with this entity?” I asked. “It’s … a known quantity?”
“Yes and no,” replied Oberlin. “First contact was ninety years ago, a small cult outside Terrenar. They were trying to bring about the end of creation. Their emblem was a burning man.”
“Why were they trying to do that?” I asked.
Oberlin waved a hand. “Not important.”
“Seems important,” I replied with a frown.
“You’re familiar with oblivion doctrine?” he asked. “It holds that oblivion is better than eternal torment in the hells?”
“Sure,” I said. That was pretty much standard around the Empire.
“There are people who take it a step too far,” said Oberlin. “They stare into the infernoscope and decide that it would be better if all creation were destroyed, rather than have the hells continue existing. They crop up at different times, with different names. The cult was one of those, and their method of choice was to try to bring forth the biggest, baddest thing they could find. There was never much risk of them actually succeeding, mind, but you don’t let babies play with guns, even if you know they’re not loaded. Satisfied?”
“Sure,” I said. “Just thought it might be relevant.”
“It’s not,” said Oberlin. “The second time we encountered the symbol of the man on fire, he was part of a demonic cult. They were out of Five Spires, urban, with a cluster of star mages creating a planar depression that facilitated possessions. Nothing world ending, we don’t think, though they were making an honest effort there at the end. There was discussion of the man on fire in their notebooks, and a handful of drawings. That time there were survivors we were able to talk to. They talked about him showing up in their dreams.”
“Okay,” I said. “So … how many examples are we dealing with?”
“I haven’t been with Uniquites for a while,” said Oberlin. “It was around twenty times, when I left. Always associated with something unsavory, never actually appears on the ground that we can tell. Likely geographically confined, but it’s hard to say how big the range is. We’d call it memetic, but it doesn’t seem to spread like that, and we’d call it some class of infohazard, but that’s not clear either. He shows up when bad things are going to happen, sometimes, not always.”
“He’s a leading indicator, not a trailing one?” I asked. “And the memory thing?”
“Leading indicator, sure,” replied Oberlin. “The memory thing … if this entity was responsible for altering memories or personalities, or if it does anything other than just showing up, then we don’t know about it. If it had an ability like that, it might explain how little information we have about it.”
“Crap,” I said. “So you’re saying that’s a dead end? And if this is a leading indicator, why isn’t it known, like … on the most wanted?”
“You think we should have plastered the empire with information about a suspected infohazard?” asked Oberlin with a raised eyebrow.
“I … no,” I said. “But if my group of very well informed people have never heard anything, that’s a problem.”
“So far as Figaro Finch has told me, you’re operating well outside the law, even more than Uniquities normally does,” said Oberlin. “But at least we know it’s something. So far, the phenomena related to the man on fire have been dealt with, sometimes with casualties, sometimes with mass casualties, but always dealt with. If it’s part of the same pattern, then there are limits on how bad it can be.”
I had been trying my best to rein in Amaryllis’ obsession with narrative, instead electing to live my life on Aerb in the ways in which I would prefer to live it, narrative be damned. Tabletop games weren’t governed by narrative, at least not how I played them, they were governed by a DM adapting to the player’s choices, making things fun and engaging for them depending on what they decided to do. The Dungeon Master wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and clearly there were things that he had planned, but the seams were showing, and they reinforced my belief in how he was running the game. Narrative, schmarrative.
Still, hearing someone unironically say “How bad could it be?” had me wincing.
“I’m really worried that we’re not going to find anything until it blows up in our face,” I said. “It really seems like something is going on down in the temple, between the construction there and the disappearances. I’ve got one chance to go down there, three days from now, and going in blind seems like it’s not the greatest idea.”
“Steel yourself, because it might be necessary,” replied Oberlin.
“I’d like private training,” I said. “I know we talked about it before, but --”
“A suspected, if not completely confirmed soul mage wants me on his home turf, subjected to magics under his control,” said Oberlin. “I didn’t get where I did in life by taking that kind of risk.”
“Okay,” I said. “I had to try.” I wasn’t sure how much help Oberlin would actually be, given that I was at or near the cap for most of my skills. I still thought that there were techniques or ideas that he could add in somehow though, and some of the stuff he’d been talking about in class did seem helpful. “If I go down into the temple, which I’m still planning to, you’re on call.”
“You’re not allowed equipment or entads down there,” said Oberlin. “There are wards against skin magic. They take it very seriously. You won’t have a way to contact me.”
“I’ll try to figure something out,” I replied. “And if I’m alone … well, I might be able to handle myself, hopefully not against the unknown power of the Herald.”
“You misheard,” said Oberlin. “Not Herald. Harold.”
“The … the name of the flaming man in armor is Harold?” I asked.
“Yes,” nodded Oberlin. “Uniquities used to use a naming scheme designed to reduce exposure to memetic and infohazardous effects.”
“And this threat is named Harold?” I asked.
Oberlin nodded, watching me.
“Okay,” I said. “Harold.”
“It’s better protocol than using whatever name an entity gives itself, trust me on that,” said Oberlin. “Be careful.”
“I will,” I replied.
When I got to the meditation class, there was no one there, and not even a sign explaining where it had gone. I stayed there, thinking maybe I’d gotten the time wrong, until Sonee showed up.
“What’s up?” she asked, looking around the empty room.
“No idea,” I said. “Did I miss a memo?”
“If you did, then I missed it too,” she replied. She undid her hair tie and looked around the room as she redid it. “But I can’t see any reason that no one else would show up. This was supposed to be every day, right?”
“Supposed to be,” I said, frowning.
“Can I ask why you were here in the first place?” asked Sonee.
“Magus Ermaretor suggested that I might like it,” I said. “That’s pretty much it.”
“Ah,” she replied. “I’d wondered. Most of the people in class I could look at them and kind of get it. Some species are worse at certain kinds of thinking.”
“But … not rhannu, I didn’t think,” I said. (I kept thinking about how I would be able to get her alone for long enough. It was only slightly less creepy with context.)
“No,” replied Sonee. She finished with her bun. “I just thought that meditation might help me. I’m rod track, not temple track, and I’ve already got my bop on the head years ago. Well, years ago, and then years before that, and before that.”
“And you come here with each new life?” I asked.
“They’re not really new lives,” said Sonee. “I mean, that’s as close to the right language as Anglish has for it, but we usually talk about splits and treat it like one big continuous life, even though it’s not. It’s more like, I don’t know, you have half the memories of your mother, and a quarter of the memories of your grandmother, and an eighth and so on.” She looked me over for a moment, then looked around the room. “Weird that no one else is showing up,” she said. “I can understand the teacher being a no-show, but then where’s everyone else?” She turned back to me. “If we give this five more minutes and we’re still the only ones, do you want to go some place?”
This was either serendipitous, or I was being set up in some way.
“Sure,” I said. “Maybe go look for someone who knows what’s going on?”
“I was thinking coffee and baked goods, personally,” replied Sonee. “Wait, do humans like coffee or tea? Or something else?”
“Both,” I said. I laughed a little at that. “I’m still not used to people asking me what humans are like.”
“Oh?” asked Sonee. “Are you from a human ethnostate?”
“No,” I replied. “Just Anglecynn. Not Caledwich though, just a small town out in the middle of nowhere, with only a handful of other species.”
“And you’re liking the big city?” asked Sonee.
“Well enough,” I replied with a nod. I looked at the door. No one had come in. “Has that been five minutes?”
“Close enough for me,” Sonee said with a shrug.
We walked together and did some idle chattering, and I sent off a surreptitious message to Amaryllis to keep her in the loop. The fact that the meditation class had seemingly evaporated had me on edge, and I was trying to find some undercurrent to the things she said, or some indication that she was intentionally lying. We went to one of the eateries that were near Canis Hall, then found a small table together (buttered coffee for me, thistle tea for her).
“So, yeah, it’s about three years, on average, to get back to basics, not all that much different than a human going from infant to toddler,” Sonee was saying. “But we’re the same size, which can make it tough to handle us, especially if we’re missing something big. Like, Jiph got pretty much all the impulse control, and I got the biggest chunk of language, so after the split she was a calm, patient near-mute, and I was this wild motormouth.”
“Hence the meditation?” I asked.
“Kind of,” replied Sonee. “We -- rhannu -- we have our own ways of thinking about the split, you know? Like, there are things that are foundational, which maintain through the split, and there are things that you learned, which you don’t get. And I think our prime form, before the split, she was this woman who worked really hard at the impulse control thing, trying her best to rein in her appetites, to be in control of herself, or whatever. And so you might say that we had naturally bad impulse control, but a really highly learned management of it. And you might also say that Jiph got the management aspect, leaving me with nothing. But that’s the thing, because she’s the one that’s constantly upset with me, like I’m not the one that got the short end of the stick.”
“Sounds tough,” I said. “I have a dwarven friend, clonal, who had a pretty bad experience with his father, for what sound like similar reasons. The whole ‘why can’t you be like me’ part of it, anyway.”
“Oooo, interesting,” said Sonee, eyes lighting up. “An old dwarf friend from back in Anglecynn, or a new one from S&S?”
“Old one,” I said. “Agkrioglian, if that means anything to you.”
“Nope,” she replied. “I knew Groglir a few splits ago, but never really kept up with it. Not many dwarves around here, in case you hadn’t noticed, mostly because S&S doesn’t teach the kind of magic that’s too useful when you’re living underground. There’s a dwarfhold in Li’o, actually, but a lot of what they do is just help with the temple, I think, mining and building. I mean, it’s a whole city, so it does a lot of city things, probably, I’m just saying as it relates to S&S.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Juniper!” called a familiar voice from nearby.
I looked over and gave a wave to Valencia, who was grinning from ear to ear. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, not her usual fare, with a bookbag slung over one shoulder. Her contacts were in place, ensuring that her red eyes were purple. Bringing her out into the open like this was a risk, one that we were partly taking because no one liked the idea of her being cooped up in the house for two weeks. As soon as she’d shown up, I felt a bit better, because her social skills were amazing, but a different tension took hold of me, as I worried that a passing warder with warder’s sight would see her, or some other invisible tell would mark her as non-anima. That was what contingencies were for, I supposed.
“Sonee, this is my friend Valencia,” I said, gesturing to her. “Valencia, this is Sonee.”
“Ah, but not your friend Sonee,” said Valencia, shaking Sonee’s hand. “Or does it just need more time?”
“‘Acquaintance Sonee’ sounded weird in my head,” I said.
“Do you mind if I sit?” asked Valencia, pointing to a chair and looking at Sonee. “It’s been a long day.”
“Of course,” nodded Sonee. “Are you two old friends or new?”
“New,” said Valencia. “We actually met on the train over, hence me ribbing him about us being friends.” She looked over at me. “Though I’ve always thought that when you come to new places you have to declare your friends early.”
Sonee nodded at that. If she was put off by Valencia’s joining us, she wasn’t showing it. “Which track are you on? Juniper mentioned that he was dual-tracked.”
“Juniper’s an overachiever,” said Valencia with a little laugh. “Or he will be, if he achieves the things he’s set out to do. Me, I’m planning to be a vibration mage: higher demand, and it pays better.”
“Tsk,” said Sonee. “Not in it for the love of the craft?”
“I have my crafts that I love,” said Valencia. “But unfortunately, the things you love aren’t always good career choices. If I had my way, I would be a dancer.”
“Oh, you could definitely make a career at that,” said Sonee. “But it’s one of those things where you’d run yourself ragged trying to be in the top one percent that actually get paid something, and you’d end up working jobs on the side, and it would be a mess. Trust me, I speak from experience.”
“You were a dancer?” asked Valencia, sitting back and widening her eyes.
“In a former life,” nodded Sonee. “Ribbon dancing, specifically, though I was never the best.”
“I love ribbon dancing,” said Valencia. “Can you still?”
“I’m rusty,” replied Sonee, looking a little abashed. “I’m rhannu, I don’t know if you know our species?”
Valencia shook her head, frowning, and Sonee glanced at me. “Well, we split off instead of doing the baby thing, and I was a dancer two splits ago, so I have a fourth of my skills, and the way I have them, it’s worse than being a novice. I’d pick it up again, but as I was saying, there are a lot of downsides to taking it as a career.”
“Well, I’d love to pick your brain sometime,” said Valencia. “Are you busy tonight? Juniper and I were going to have dinner back at our place.”
“You have a place together?” asked Sonee, looking between the two of us.
“Temporarily,” Valencia said. “We both suffered from a mix-up in getting campus housing, so we’re in a little place. It’s a bad neighborhood, and it’s small, and I saw a mouse yesterday -- I’m really selling it, aren’t I? -- but it’s the first place on our own for either of us. And Juniper is an amazing cook.”
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Well,” said Sonee, swirling her tea. “In that case, I have one request. I’d like to do some meditation before we eat.”
Valencia grinned. “Sounds like a plan.”
Sonee took a single step into Bethel and collapsed, caught before she hit the floor by an invisible force. The room we came into was no longer the cozy chairs around the warm fireplace, but clearly student housing, bereft of much decoration, with hand-me-down couches, tables, and chairs, and a few boxes to suggest that we hadn’t yet finished unpacking. All for show, obviously.
“Not how I wanted to handle this,” I said with a sigh.
“Oh?” asked Bethel as she appeared beside me. “You said that you wanted to look at her soul.”
“I do,” I said. “But I was hoping that we could figure out a way of doing it without knocking her out. It was done safely?”
Bethel looked affronted and waved a hand to lift Sonee up off the floor and over to the couch. Somewhere in the vast house, a weight was falling down, with the momentum transferred perfectly to Sonee’s body in such a way to prevent damage.
“I blocked her carotid artery,” said Bethel. “It’s the fastest, easiest way to knock someone out. I’m doing bioregulation right now to keep her under. You’re welcome.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“She was compromised,” said Valencia, shrugging off her bookbag and walking over to stare at Sonee. “Not consciously though, at least that I could see. She wasn’t an actor playing a part, she was behaving within her own set parameters. The difference was that those parameters kept changing.”
“Changing?” I asked. “Meaning what, that she was a different person every few minutes?”
“I don’t know,” said Valencia. “It’s outside the realm of infernal experience. Whatever the explanation is, I think the closest analogy would be to soul magic. It was like something was clicking inside of her to change her internal states. The most obvious was when I first arrived. She was annoyed by my being there, because she was having fun flirting with you, and then there was a sudden, jarring change in her disposition.”
“That’s explainable,” I said. “I mean, maybe she just realized she was being -- wait, flirting?”
“Are you seriously going to second guess me when you couldn’t even see that she was interested?” asked Valencia. “Do you think that I don’t know the difference between a person realizing that she was being unreasonable, and a completely unexplained change in her outlook? It wasn’t a change of mind, it was something else, something changing her mind for her, with none of the internal signals of natural change visible to me.”
“That’s a big clue,” said Amaryllis, who had been shadowing us and had just stepped in. She took off her helmet and lifted her head slightly. “Bethel, can you help with this?”
Ten seconds passed, and the armor was removed all at once, vanished into the glove’s extradimensional compartment, leaving Amaryllis in a tank top and panties, a slight sheen of sweat on her. She looked down for a moment. “I was wearing pants,” she said, keeping her voice mild.
“Were you?” asked Bethel. “My mistake.” She smiled at Amaryllis and made no move to rectify the error.
Amaryllis sighed and pulled a blanket from off the back of the couch, wrapping it around her as a makeshift skirt. “If whatever force we’re dealing with can reach into her head and change memories, it might be able to accomplish the same thing to make changes to her disposition.”
“I was spending the walk back here exploring the phenomenon,” said Valencia. “It only happened a few times, but always consistent with getting us to engage in meditation with her.”
I hadn’t noticed any of that. “Well, okay,” I said. “If it can reach into her head and monkey around without her knowing, that’s … well, horrifying and bad for us, in that order, especially if it’s got eyes on her in some way. And depending on how many people it can do the same thing for, and which of those people it has, and how strong it is -- I’m stalling, it’s bad, that’s all, and it’s time for me to look into her soul.”
“Nothing with warder’s sight, incidentally,” said Bethel. “I’ll have Grakhuil consult when he gets here. He and Solace are currently indisposed. Shall I call in the others as well?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’m hoping that I find something in her soul or spirit that won’t kill me outright. Hopefully we can find some kind of answer or antidote.” I sat down beside Sonee, placed my hand on her forearm, and felt the blood flowing beneath her skin, which I’d found to be the easiest entry point into a person’s soul.
The naked floating image of her body greeted me, which made the whole thing feel more exploitative than it already did, and I moved away to look at other things, starting with her values. There was nothing even remotely suspect there, just a list of names and concepts. Pleasure and Continuity were at the top of the list, nearly tied with one another, and just below those, Expression and Jiph. It all painted a picture, but it was none of my damned business, so I continued on, looking for something else.
Her relationships looked normal (and confirmed some attraction to me). Her skills looked normal (Vibrational Magic and Dancing being the highest, at 16 and 21, respectively). I felt more and more terrible the more I looked, because I really did think it was an invasion of privacy against someone who was, by all appearances, an unwitting puppet and innocent bystander. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to fix whatever was wrong with her, but I was also worried that even if we did fix her, she’d go home having a vague uneasiness about having fainted in the home of a stranger and lost time, during which gods-know-what had happened.
I found nothing out of the ordinary. Her family tree looked weird, but that was a result of being rhannu, not anything having to do with Harold. Other than the things I thought must have been related to her species, she seemed like a perfectly normal college student to me.
When I moved up to her spirit, I saw it, hundreds of bright orange lines looping and swirling, descending down from on high, where they gathered together in a thick bundle that faded out into nowhere. It was a representation of something, though it was impossible to say what. When I looked down at the places the orange threads were connected to the more normal parts of her spirit, I saw that the connections were perpendicular, which would indicate … well, I didn’t know. In the threading metaphor, it seemed like it might be process injection, or man-in-the-middle, or something like that, a way of capturing information from those threads and replacing it as need be, all in a way that was beyond my current abilities with Spirit (and, frankly, my understanding of the spirit).
I had no idea what to do. I could strangle all of the bright orange threads, like I had strangled my own threads to deal with both the memes and the level up stuff, but if changes had been made to Sonee by someone or something at a remove, then all I would be doing would be making those changes permanent, if the counterforce couldn’t just revert what I had done.
“She’s infected,” I said, pulling out of her spirit and back into the real world. The room had filled with people while I was looking around; Raven, Pallida, Heshnel, Solace, and Grak had all joined. “Which means that it’s likely everyone in the meditation class is infected, and probably dozens if not hundreds of others. I can maybe lock her into the state she’s in now, but whatever changes have happened … I don’t know.”
“There’s another person who knows spirit?” asked Solace, frowning. She was standing close by Grak, and I brushed aside the thought that had been planted in my head when Bethel had said ‘indisposed’, because she still looked like she was five years old, and krin didn’t necessarily mean anything beyond cuddling.
“It wouldn’t have to be another person who knows spirit,” said Raven. “In the same way that phenomena affect the soul without being soul magic, there are phenomena that affect the spirit without being spiritual magic. As the only living practitioner of spirit that we know of, Juniper would be the only one capable of fixing it.”
“Oh,” I said. “I have other news. I spoke with Oberlin. Apparently the entity is known to them, though there’s not all that much that binds separate appearances, other than tangential connection to world-ending threats and altered states.”
“I’d have heard of it,” said Raven with a frown. “I know all the extant threats, at least those that have active history.”
“Not if it never actually ended the world,” I replied. “If Uniquities just quietly dealt with it, or the entity’s plans fell through for other reasons, it wouldn’t necessarily reach the Library’s attention. How common is book circumvention?”
“Meaning?” asked Raven, furrowing her eyebrows.
“Meaning … how common is it for organizations to bind their materials such that they don’t count as books and can’t be spied on by the Infinite Library?” I asked.
“Uncommon,” said Raven, frowning. “But not unknown. The Second Empire was a government of factions. There were those in the know about the Library who wanted to keep things from their nominal colleagues. Politics.”
“So this man on fire never showed up in a vision of the future and never needed to be stopped?” asked Pallida. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing for us? He’s so inept at ending the world that he was stopped by Uniquities?”
“His name is Harold, by the way,” I said.
“The herald of what?” asked Raven.
“No, Harold,” I said. “Like, just the name Harold. At least, that’s the name that Uniquities gave him. I’m partial to it.”
“Because it’s dumb?” asked Pallida.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Easier to face.” I looked down at Sonee. “If I’m not going to try an intervention, which I don’t think I am because of the unknowns involved, then you should all clear out and we should wake her up. The less lost time, the better.”
“Could you tell whether Harold has eyes and ears here?” asked Amaryllis. I glanced down and realized that she was still wearing her blanket skirt, completely unselfconsciously.
“I couldn’t,” I said. “But what Valencia said about the way that Sonee’s mind changed implies that someone or something was changing it in response to stimulus, and there didn’t seem to be a mechanism for doing that internally. My guess is that the entity has at least some access, but I don’t know how complete it is.”
“We’ll assume that he does, then,” said Amaryllis.
“We still don’t have a plan,” said Raven.
“We don’t have a grasp on the threat,” said Grak. “There can be no plan without that.”
“Call in Uniquities,” said Valencia. “They have the expertise.”
“Except that I’m getting the feeling that we’re the feet on the ground for Uniquities,” I said. “Figaro Finch knew that something was going on here, and he set me up to deal with it. I’ll send him a letter, express, but if this extends to the ruling council of mages in Li’o, then I’m not sure what the Empire could actually do about it, legally speaking, since this is a sovereign city-state.”
“There are provisions in place for the event that a member polity is compromised in some way,” said Amaryllis. “That said, Article 86 has never been invoked, and invocation would almost certainly be catastrophic for imperial cohesion, though I don’t know whether it would cause disintegration, economic collapse, or outright civil war.”
“Meaning that any aid from Uniquities will be covert aid,” said Valencia.
“And from a narrative perspective, it seems unlikely that our role here is to call in the cavalry and then leave,” said Amaryllis.
“While I agree that the Dungeon Master probably has some bullshit planned,” I replied, “I’m not going to throw up my hands and just say that it’s probably pointless to do the smart thing.”
“That wasn’t what I was saying,” replied Amaryllis. “I can be the one to draft the letter, if you’d like.”
“Good, thank you,” I replied. “And as I was saying, we should probably wake Sonee up and then escort her home, to minimize how much the adversary knows, and minimize what trauma this is causing her.”
“She’s perfectly safe,” said Bethel.
“I meant more on the mental end of things,” I said. “It’s a violation.”
Bethel frowned at that. <Are you pressing my buttons?> she asked.
<No,> I said. <I’m expressing my reservations at this whole thing, that’s all. If you see some parallels to what was done to you, maybe that’s something that you should think more deeply about.>
<Watch your tongue,> replied Bethel.
“Alright, let’s clear out,” said Amaryllis. “Val, you’re good to go back out? No troubles?”
“None,” replied Valencia with a sigh. “It was so wonderful to see the city and the school. Someday.” She didn’t finish the thought or say what she hoped would happen someday. Maybe she was just hoping that she wouldn’t have to worry so much that someone’s magic would tag her as a threat.
Everyone left, leaving me and Valencia alone with Sonee.
“She’s been out for twenty minutes, but we’ll say less,” Valencia said to me. “She doesn’t have a watch and there isn’t one in the room, and if it’s too much time, which it frankly was, then it raises questions about why we didn’t go for help or do something about the fact that she mysteriously passed out.”
“She’s still going to want us to meditate though, right?” I asked.
“We can fake that, if we have to,” replied Valencia. “Harold would know, but there’s not much that can be done about that.”
“Sure,” I said. I looked over to Bethel. “Now, please.”
It took Sonee some time to wake up. She stirred slowly, then blinked a few times, glazed-over eyes looking around the room.
“Oh, thank the gods you’re awake,” said Valencia, kneeling down beside Sonee and looking every inch the concerned host. There were traces of panic in the way that she looked Sonee over.
“Wha’ happened?” she asked. She sat up in the couch and stretched out.
“We don’t know,” said Valencia. She ran her fingers through her hair. “You were walking in and just collapsed. Joon caught you before you fell, but I was so worried, is this like a medical thing? Or something to do with rhannu?”
“I don’t think it’s a rhannu thing,” I said.
“No,” said Sonee. She rubbed her head. “I feel fine. Maybe a little groggy. How long was I out?”
“Ten minutes,” said Valencia.
“Val’s been freaking out,” I said. “We checked your pulse, and everything was fine, you were still breathing. You should probably go see a doctor though. I was looking for some smelling salts. My mom packed me a first aid kit, but I couldn’t find it, sorry.”
“It’s okay,” replied Sonee. “I feel completely fine. Better than fine, actually, maybe I just needed a nap.” She laughed a little at that, then looked at our concerned faces. “Really, I am fine.”
“We’re taking you home,” said Valencia, voice firm. “We would have called an ambulance, but we don’t have phone service hooked up yet, and it’s kind of not that great a neighborhood, so I didn’t want to go knocking on any doors, and --”
“It’s fine,” said Sonee. “Really, it is. Thanks for looking after me. I could stay, if --”
“No,” said Valencia. “No, we’re going to get you home, no more walking either, we’ll figure out a way to get a cab here, then send you home. Juniper can pay for it, and he’ll go with you.”
“Are you sure?” asked Sonee, looking at me.
“I have money,” I said. “You wouldn’t think it to look at this place, but yes, it’s no trouble, and after that scare, we want to get you home safe and sound.”
Sonee let out a breath. “Okay,” she said. “Walk me to the corner and we can hail a cab. I feel fine, but if I fall, I want you to be there to catch me.”
We went out together, the three of us, and eventually found a cab on next street over. I thought that the chivalrous thing to do would be to go with her, then walk back home, but I wanted to put distance between us, given what I had seen in her spirit and how little I really knew about it.
“I think that went well,” said Valencia as we watched the cab leave. “She began to shift toward leaving, rather than shifting toward capturing us.”
“But … why?” I asked. “The entity was cutting its losses?”
“I don’t know,” said Valencia. “I’m having a hard time modeling Harold. The infernals I’ve plucked have no useful information on the subject, and without knowing the general class of entity it is, their expertise is useless, not that they’re particularly strong with creatures who aren’t of the mortal species.”
“Are you doing okay?” I asked. “Sometimes when you don’t talk like yourself, I wonder if you’re okay.”
“I’m fine,” said Valencia. She closed her eyes. “There, danger has passed, devil is gone. Let’s head back and speak to the others.”
“We’re going to have to talk about whether or not I’m going down into the temple, if things remain the same,” I said. “If we can’t make headway, if we don’t know what we’re working against … either the temple is the key to it all, or it’s the key to me gaining power, but either way I’ll probably want to be down there.”
The bottle remained opaque to her. It wasn’t the entad itself, nor the huge and impressive wards that had been anchored to the inside of it with the entity Thargox’s help. No, it was the locus, which was doing something to stop her sensorium. The block was baffling, and seemed as though it was never the same twice. It took all of Bethel’s restraint not to see this as an act of war that would require retaliation. Thankfully, no one had asked her whether she could see into the bottle, nor had they requested her assistance going into or out of the bottle, which meant that she could let this stand and still keep face, rather than make a big deal about it. The locus shouldn’t have been able to block her. It shouldn’t even have known what it was blocking. But then again, it was a locus, and they were known for very casually not making much sense. The bottle, at least, was Grak, Solace, and Juniper accounted for, though it was well possible that Solace could use the magic of the locus to leave the bottle undetected. The only method of tracking that Bethel had any luck with was the entads, which still provided her their powers, and whose locations she could still sense.
The tuung were studying under the tutelage of the teachers that Amaryllis had hired. It was daytime, so far as that wing was concerned. Everyone there was ignorant of what was going on outside the wing, to the extent that they had no idea they were even in Li’o. So far as the teachers knew, they were still on the Isle of Poran, undergoing compressed time. Bethel had agreed to wait on putting everyone in that wing under the effects of the chamber, so that they could essentially be stored without much worry or need for interventions. She’d been mildly surprised that the whole enterprise hadn’t collapsed in the first fortnight, but the tuung children were coming along nicely, with relatively few problems. Whether they would be the dedicated workforce that Amaryllis wanted … well, they had been in the future as portrayed by A Cypress Waits, which was something.
Most of the rest of Bethel’s inhabitants were asleep, with two exceptions.
Raven never slept. Because she didn’t sleep, she didn’t dream, which produced another blind spot for Bethel, though not a serious one. Raven was reading, as she often did when she was alone, with cats blinking in and out of existence thanks to that unruly part of Bethel. Her subject of choice this time was Uther Penndraig, as it had been the last few nights, and her reading was as seemingly disorganized as it had been then, a few paragraphs from one book, then a few paragraphs from another, without much rhyme or reason. Bethel had read over Raven’s shoulder for a bit, but it was boring, because the really interesting things must have been going on exclusively in Raven’s head. So far as Bethel could determine, Raven was trying to reconcile her image of Uther with the one that was being revealed to her, but it was hard to say which direction her thoughts were going. Seeing her dreams would have been helpful.
The other exception was Amaryllis, who lay awake in her room, staring at the ceiling. Bethel had added some flourishes to the ceiling, little stars made from moulded glass, which would cast off light from a fireplace. There was no fire going in Amaryllis’ room at the moment, so the stars were nearly invisible, but it was easy enough for Bethel to pretend that her work was being appreciated.
<Why did you take my pants?> asked Amaryllis.
<Is that what you’re thinking of, little one?> asked Bethel. <All the day’s events and your brief moment of near-nudity is what occupies you?>
<I’m trying to understand you,> said Amaryllis.
<I thought it would be amusing,> replied Bethel. <It’s my understanding that Fenn did something similar? You still wear that ‘Princess!’ shirt.> It was sitting in Sable’s storage, which Bethel could access, more faded than it had been when Bethel had first seen it.
<It’s not the same,> said Amaryllis. She sounded melancholy. <Did you do it because of Juniper?>
Bethel considered not responding. Sometimes she did that, when conversations bored her, or when she didn’t like the direction that they were going. It was so easy to stop talking to someone, and left them with so little recourse, so little understanding of what she was thinking, and that could be entertaining in its own right. Amaryllis was too patient though, too unflappable, and there was little to be gained from subjecting her to silence.
<I enjoy seeing his reactions,> replied Bethel. <Like an insect, trapped in a bottle, prodded with a stick.>
<What a performative answer,> replied Amaryllis. <You like him.>
The real problem, so far as Bethel was concerned, was that Raven was the only one in the house who was exhibiting proper fear. Oh, certainly Bethel would rather be loved than feared, but fear came easily, and love did not. There had been a time when Amaryllis felt fear, even if she was good at hiding the outward signs, but perhaps because she had seen that it had worked for Juniper, she was becoming more and more flippant, more casual in her disregard.
<I like him,> said Bethel. <You, I could do without.> She wasn’t entirely sure that was true. With Amaryllis gone, the tuung could be flushed out in the wilderness somewhere, but the group would be left lurching, and it wasn’t clear what Juniper would do. He would survive, and he would still need a house … but maybe it would feel a little less like a home.
<And was his reaction to your liking?> asked Amaryllis.
<Very much so,> replied Bethel. <Did you know he refused me?>
<Refused you?> asked Amaryllis. Her heart began to beat faster, and she did the same trick that Juniper sometimes used, stilling the motion of her blood with blood magic. There was no point to it; it would have been obvious just from watching the flow of their blood, even if Bethel didn’t have a warder’s sight to look at the magic of the blood in active use.
“Do you mind if I sit?” asked Bethel as she created an image of a woman next to Amaryllis. She relished the way that Amaryllis flinched at the sudden presence, but of course being startled was fleeting, and Amaryllis handled it with her usual aplomb.
“Not at all,” said Amaryllis, sitting up in her bed and looking over the form that Bethel had chosen.
Bethel was projecting her default, changed in a few ways to suit the circumstances. She’d chosen a height similar to Amaryllis, and a build similar too, with clothes the same as what Amaryllis was wearing, a tanktop and underwear, hopefully just similar enough to be unsettling. Bethel kept her usual face though, with cedar skin and ropey hair, though there were tweaks there too. It was just enough to remind Amaryllis that Bethel was perfectly -- perfectly -- capable of making a duplicate.
“So?” asked Amaryllis, after a moment of silence.
“So what?” asked Bethel. She was paying attention to the illusion, the breathing that she had to mimic, the slight movements of the eyes, minor shifts in position, all so it would look just right. She exerted force onto the sheets she was projecting the illusion above, to keep them pressed down as though someone were sitting on them. Elsewhere within her, a weight on a chain was steadily dropping, deprived of its momentum to transfer more than the simple five pounds of force.
“He refused you,” said Amaryllis. “What was the offer? And what context?”
Bethel altered the illusion, so that it was examining its perfect nails. Amaryllis was on edge, and it felt good to let her sweat. “He’s been experiencing some sexual frustration,” said Bethel. She looked up at Amaryllis. “Well, you can understand, can’t you? It’s been some time since Fenn’s unfortunate passing, and men have their needs. His appetites have been returning to him. You’ve noticed that he’s eating his fill again, haven’t you? Taking better care of himself?”
“What did you do?” asked Amaryllis.
Bethel projected a laugh. “Nothing,” she said. “I asked him whether or not he would like me to sate him.”
“As me,” said Amaryllis.
“How utterly narcissistic of you,” replied Bethel. “I went as myself. And as I’ve said, he declined me, very sweetly.”
Amaryllis shook her head. “Why are you telling me this?” she asked.
“For the fun of it, I suppose,” said Bethel. “I’ve grown fond of him, I think, and I would like to see him happy.”
“This is all in pursuit of that?” asked Amaryllis. “How does it help to make him happy to see me debased?”
“Debased?” laughed Bethel.
“The removal of my clothes,” said Amaryllis.
“He’s seen you naked,” said Bethel. “He saw you give birth.” Humans.
“It was a deprivation of autonomy,” said Amaryllis. “Whether he enjoyed it or not, and I suspect that he didn’t, or if he did, it was with an appropriate amount of guilt -- that’s immaterial, because you were taking a choice away from me, humiliating me, because hurting me like that brought you enjoyment.”
Bethel sat back. She could kill Amaryllis so easily. There might legitimately be half a hundred ways to end the small human’s life. It would depend on how you counted, but there were at least six methods involving wards, ten or so involving five pounds of force applied to her in various ways (easy enough to pad out the list with more there, if need be), innumerable poisons from either Earth or the Everflask or her miasma, space warping, time warping, suffocation, drowning, or any number of items pulled from Sable’s space. She would spend some time, later, making a complete list, a full book that she could give to someone who had drawn her ire, just to let them know.
“Do you not find it fun to hurt people?” asked Bethel.
Amaryllis softened slightly, her hackles lowering. “I have,” she said. “It’s not part of my temperament, but … when we had to use the crown, we each had afflictions. Mine was aggression, or something similar, and the idea that anyone lives their whole life like that, a ball of anger, taking so much pleasure from even the thought of hurting someone, I had some cause to re-evaluate what I believe about people.” She sighed. “I attacked Juniper. At the time, it felt so good, so justified, and he had agreed to it, I had consent, and he could heal without spending any of our resources, but now, looking back, I have to think of it as the actions of another person.”
“Amaryllis Penndraig, not being able to imagine hurting someone?” asked Bethel.
“I didn’t have a reason,” said Amaryllis, casting a dark look at Bethel. “I’ve killed people, but it came with a sense of duty, or the satisfaction of a job well done, or a battle finished, a war won. With Juniper, I didn’t hurt him because there was a purpose to it, I just wanted to hurt someone, and he was there to be hurt. When you ask me whether I’ve ever found it fun to hurt people, that’s what I think about, that moment. And if that’s how you feel toward me, toward any of us, then I don’t know what there is to do. If it were something else, I could reason with you, I could try to be your friend, I could show you love and affection, see your good points, like he does, but if you want to hurt me in the ways that you’ve been doing it, the jump scares and invasions, then I just don’t know how we’re ever going to reconcile any of it.”
Bethel focused her sensorium on Amaryllis, looking her over with all her manifold senses.
“Perhaps we won’t,” said Bethel. “Perhaps this will be how things are, until the end of your life, however near or far that might be.”
Amaryllis drew her legs to her chest and hugged her knees, one of the positions that humans took when they were feeling hopeless. Bethel felt a small twinge of sympathy, though she also assumed that Amaryllis was carrying on with some plot, rather than actually feeling downtrodden. Bethel was very good at telling when people were lying, simply by tracking their vitals in real time, but it was an imperfect art. Perhaps this was a false negative.
“I’d like to be left alone,” said Amaryllis.
“Well,” said Bethel. “I would like to stay.”
Amaryllis nodded slightly, then crawled across the bed and got under the covers.
“I’m sorry,” said Bethel. That was her second apology in as many weeks, not a habit that she wanted to get into.
Amaryllis let out a breath. “It’s not enough to mean it,” she said.
“It’s not?” asked Bethel. She forced her illusion into a confused frown.
“When I have disagreements with Juniper, it’s often like he knows exactly what a good person would do, and he simply fails to do it,” said Amaryllis. “Sometimes he comes to the realization later, sometimes it’s in the moment, but it’s inconsistent, and -- it’s not enough to say sorry, and it’s not enough to mean it, you have to stop doing the thing that you’re apologizing for. You have to figure yourself out, and then you need to change whatever is causing the problem. Juniper says that he made a mistake, that he should have come with us, that he should have owned his past. If he does eventually go to Sporsan and resolves that quest, fine, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not going to run into the exact same problem again down the line.”
“It’s so hard to trust a Penndraig,” said Bethel. “Especially you, manipulative little girl. You say these things, and I’m left to wonder whether this is an honest outpouring of emotion and thought, whether these are lies you wish me to propagate to others, or whether you mean to manipulate me with your weakness and struggles.”
Amaryllis closed her eyes and laid her bed, staying still for so long that Bethel might have thought she’d simply gone to sleep, save for the fact that her heart rate hadn’t slowed.
“Narratively, this is all pointless,” said Amaryllis. “I can’t change your mind. I can’t help you to change and grow. This is all to stage left while Juniper talks to the locus, or plays Ranks with Grak. Or maybe this is the intermission, with the curtains drawn, while Juniper sleeps.”
“You don’t really see the world that way,” said Bethel.
“No,” said Amaryllis. “No, I don’t, but when I run straight into metaphorical walls, or come up against intractable problems like this, a part of me just thinks, oh, well, he’s the protagonist, maybe the Dungeon Master set this up for him, maybe nothing that I do will actually matter unless it’s done where it furthers his plot.”
“Would it cheer you up if I told you that you had helped to make a marginal change in my way of thinking?” asked Bethel.
Amaryllis opened her eyes, then sat up so she could look at the illusion in the gloom. Eye contact was important for most of the mortal species, as was a sense of presence. It was so handy to have a notional body when speaking with them.
“Is that true?” asked Amaryllis.
“It’s hard to tell,” said Bethel. “Juniper has said to me that he hardly ever knows why he does the things that he does, and any examination of his actions after the fact will always reek of bias and revised history. I don’t think that I’m so different from him in that regard.”
“Well, at any rate, thank you for trying to cheer me up,” said Amaryllis.
“It was only a hypothetical,” sniffed Bethel, but she altered the illusion to convey that it wasn’t merely that, and in return, Amaryllis gave the illusion a small, gratified smile. “You should rest. There are games afoot, and enemies in the shadows.”
“As always,” said Amaryllis.
Bethel added to the illusion, billowing smoke from it, and deconstructed the whole thing in an artful way that she was sure wouldn’t be wholly appreciated for its complexity and nuance. But she stayed, for a time, and kept her attention on Amaryllis, until the little Penndraig was finally asleep.
And then, of course, it was time to spy on her dreams.