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Long ago, the Li'o'te Temple had been buried by people who had wanted to put an end to still magic and couldn’t get around the temple’s inviolability. When the still mages had recovered the temple, they had left it where it was, deep underground, and done little more than excavating down to it, largely because it was far more defensible deep underground than it was on the surface. The path to get down to the Temple of Li’o was known as the Spelunker’s Stroll, a long, winding path that was part and parcel of the intentional mysticality of the place, and a keystone of the culture of Sound and Silence.

Before I could go take the Stroll, there was a rather paranoid amount of security to get through.

“You’ll have been warned that there are wards against entads,” said the attendant, giving me a dispassionate and imperious look. “Do you have any on you?”

“No,” I said.

“Strip, please,” said the attendant.

I removed my clothes, until I was standing naked in front of her. I’d been asked if I’d had any preference on what my security would be like, and said that I didn’t. The halfling in front of me, wearing a white coat, was apparently what I got as the default. She had a little stepstool that she was standing on, and I tried not to apply the mental model that was loudly declaring her to be a child (she was, at best guess, in her forties).

“You have tattoos,” she said, looking me over. “Passive and active skin magic is warded against within the complex, taking effect prior to when you’ll exit the Spelunker’s Stroll. Do you anticipate any problems with that?”

“No,” I said. Though, yeah.

“Nothing in those tattoos is necessary for your continued function?” she asked.

“No,” I said. I was pretty sure that she knew what all the tattoos did, as I had a number that were very expensive, but very few that were uncommon.

“The complex is fully warded against active and passive blood magic,” she said. “Do you anticipate that to be a problem?”

“No,” I said, which wasn’t actually true, but I’d taken care of it before I’d come in. Apparently the Hypertension virtue counted as passive magic rather than latent magic, and having magically compressed blood lose its magic was catastrophic to the human body. I’d thankfully done a consult with my favorite warder so as not to be surprised by it, and solved the problem by bleeding out approximately half of my blood supply into plastic bags that we could later use for a transfusion.

“The complex is fully warded against active and passive bone magic,” she said. “Do you anticipate that to be a problem?”

“No,” I said. But actually, yes, because I had cut open my stomach and inserted the three smallest unicorn vertebrae there as a weapon of last resort. I would effectively be worthless as a bone mage down in the temple, but as soon as I was to safety, I would be able to unleash.

“Do you have any other sources of magic available to you, whether latent, active, or passive?” she asked.

“No,” I said. I was really thankful that lie-detecting entads were so incredibly rare, because otherwise I would probably be in a lot of trouble. So far as we’d been able to tell, there was only one thing that would be a real problem.

“We’re going to do anolia inspection now,” said the attendant.

“I have an exemption,” I said.

The attendant looked down at her paperwork, leafing through a few pages. “So you do,” she said, still frowning. She looked up at me. “Why?”

“My soul has a feature which I believe would be harmful to any anolia that looked at it,” I said. “I was exposed to an infohazardous threat which makes my soul toxic to anyone who views it. This provides a natural defense against soul mages, but is equally harmful to anolia. They would instantly be placed into a catatonic state.”

The attendant looked down at the paperwork again, still frowning. “That’s quite novel,” she finally said.

“I had the paperwork checked over twice,” I said. Thanks, Oberlin.

“Very well,” said the attendant, still frowning. “It’s the first time I’ve seen something like this.”

“If there are anolia down in the temple, you should probably warn them,” I said. “I should also say that it’s likely to be infectious, meaning that if anyone does look at my soul and go catatonic, then no one can look at their soul either.”

The attendant narrowed her eyes at me. “And how did you survive this?”

“It’s complicated and classified,” I said.

She tapped her pen against the clipboard several times, thinking this through. In the end, I think it was probably the fact that Oberlin had walked me through the paperwork that did it; she relented, and I was made to put on a robe, with my clothes taken away from me.

Following that, I was passed through some wards, very similar to the ones that we’d gone through in the jail when we’d visited Malus. I felt nothing as I went through, because I was more or less following the rules, smuggled unicorn bones and tattoos aside. Two of the tattoos were for storage, and held the probability blade and the vambrace, which in turn held all my other stuff. I hadn’t tested the probability blade in combat yet, aside from a few skirmishes with Amaryllis and Grak. I was really hoping that I would have the blade if I needed it, and also that I wouldn’t need it.

From there, I was on my way, effectively bereft of the nice and shiny things I’d accumulated, and walking down the Spelunker’s Stroll.

I was to go alone. That much was tradition. There was a small waiting room for initiates, and a stern-looking man who told us when it was our time to go, with nothing for us to do while we patiently waited for him to signal us. So far as I could tell, it was about fifteen minutes between initiates. I had some time to think about how things could (would) go wrong, some time for misgivings, and then, because it was an old habit in times of stress, uncertainty, and boredom, some time to think about worldbuilding.

(It was hard to think about stuff that hadn’t been done on Aerb, simply because Aerb had so much of what I had done before, and so many things that seemed like they had been made in anticipation of what I would do in the future, grown in a vat from the same DNA, if not actually made by me.)

(My waiting room worldbuilding project was a legal system that revolved around armed combat, which was a nice, meaty question that needed a lot of consideration and effectively distracted me from the tension I was feeling. There were a huge variety of legal systems on Aerb, but I contented myself in being mostly ignorant of them, mostly because I didn’t have the time, motive, or inclination to learn about them in depth.)

Eventually, my name was called, and I headed down the Spelunker’s Stroll.

A lot of it was theatrical mysticism, mixed with a lack of OSHA compliance. I walked down rocky steps that had been worn smooth by the footsteps of thousands of others making their descent, and watched as the lights occasionally changed, allowing less and less visibility, until I was making my way from one point of illumination to the other. There were a zillion ways to light a tunnel on Aerb, from glowing glyphs to shining orbs to regular old incandescents, and as the tunnel continued on, eventually I was walking beneath what very much appeared to be bioluminescent anemones, stuck to the ceiling and giving me a friendly wave as I went past.

It was all painfully sculpted, though maybe you wouldn’t get that from it if you had never been to Disneyland. An underground river trickled by, winding on its own course that gave me just a glimpse of it, and I saw it three times as I made the descent, in steadily worsening light. All I could think about was that someone must have had a hell of a time carving it out so that it would be visible to me without actually getting water on the stairs, and they surely had to have some kind of mechanical pump system to keep the flow steady, and there was no way that it was actually connected to the watershed, because this tunnel would flood during heavy rain.

I went through several caverns, which had been placed at strategic intervals, each of them with their own unique theme. One had stalactites hanging down, smeared with luminous green gunk. Another was filled with water, and had all the light coming up from the bottom, illuminating the fish that swam around as I crossed over the wooden bridge. A third was filled with mushrooms of all kinds, some as big as dinner plates. It was all awe-inspiring, in its own way, but I couldn’t suspend disbelief as I looked at it, not for very long. It reminded me of some of the early dungeons I’d designed, when I’d tended to string together a series of set pieces rather than have something holistically created to tell a unique story of a real place.

When I got to the end, two large double doors were waiting for me, rising up fifteen feet. They might have been impressive, if I hadn’t been inside the Infinite Library. I pulled on the handles and opened them up, which led me into a room with columns on either side, and another attendant waiting for me.

“Welcome to the temple complex,” he said, smiling gently. He was ha-lunde, I was pretty sure, judging by his size. “How was your stroll?”

“Good,” I said.

“To the rod first, then,” he said, gesturing to one side of the room.

I ended up in another waiting room, where I was given a pamphlet, and the whole thing started to remind me of Disneyland again, namely the tedium of waiting in line. I saw one of the people that I’d been in the other waiting room with, and wondered whether Spelunker’s Stroll had been meaningful for them. This was, in some sense, the equivalent of a graduation ceremony, a lot of pomp and circumstance to celebrate the fact that we were going to be joining the ranks of the mages, but I sure didn’t feel like I was getting anything out of it.

Eventually my name was called, and I was guided down a hallway, then to another room, which was accessible only through heavy doors, arranged in an airlock configuration that needed authorization from both sides. Two men in full-plate with wicked looking weapons stood in the room, watching me carefully, and I had every reason to think that they were some flavor of mage as well, though which would hopefully remain a mystery. It would be an awful place to fight in, if Harold had compromised them. The third man wore vestments, and held the Rod of Whispers in one hand.

It was a thick rod, about two feet long, tapered toward the ends. It was brightly colored in reds and blues, with a criss-crossing pattern that you might have thought was the work of a master artisan, unless you knew that it was an entad. There was really no reason that it had to be ornate, but the forge frenzy drove people to make entads in very specific ways, and the Rod of Whispers was no different.

I walked forward, with my feet making the only sound in the room, and received my tap on the head.

Skill unlocked: Vibrational Magic!

Achievement unlocked: Oscillancy

And with that, I was a vibration mage. I left the room, went through the airlock again, and let out a breath that I’d been holding. When I felt the attendant touch me on my arm, I nearly jumped; that room had been the perfect place to jump me, at least in my estimation, because two hulking guards draped in entads would probably have been a real problem for me.

I was led back through the room with columns, and into a second waiting room. There really was a lot of waiting to be done, presumably because that allowed for an optimization of throughput at some point further down the way.

While I sat in the waiting room, I tried vibration magic on for size. The temple complex had heavy wards, expensive, permanent, and virtually unbreakable ones, but it wasn’t clear whether or not vibration magic was included in them. I got the answer pretty quickly when I began listening to the sounds around me.

Skill increased: Vibrational Magic lvl 1!

It ranked up pretty quickly, and I mostly ignored the messages after that as I played with my new toy. The oddest thing about it, at least as far as sounds went, was that it was easy to ‘feel’ vibrations going past me, except that I basically only felt them when they were already continuing on. In some ways it was like playing a videogame and realizing that the joystick was set to inverted, so that up was down and down was up: it was a very unintuitive way of conceptualizing sound, such that I was sensing where sounds were going, rather than where they were coming from. It made a little bit of sense, since obviously I had a lot of channels with which to feel vibration, and most of them required that the wave actually hit me, but it was a little disorienting. That disorientation rapidly faded as my skill increased.

I had a new gauge as part of my HUD, labeled ‘Breath’, sitting between my mental exhaustion meter and my blood meter. So that was neat. My first, very minor attempt at altering a vibration caused the meter to tick down just a sliver, and based on what Reimer had said, the bar would grow as I increased in level.

I pushed hard to get to level 10, where, thanks to Reimer, I knew what was waiting for me..

Skill increased: Vibrational Magic lvl 10!

New Virtue: Biorhythms!

Biorhythms: You are in tune with the natural cycles of your body and capable of altering them at the expense of breath, either temporarily or on a permanent basis. This virtue does not prevent any ill effects from e.g. loss of breath or loss of sleep.

As virtues went, it was a level 10 virtue, meaning nothing to write home about, and not really more than a minor superpower. It was still nice to have, especially for altering circadian rhythms, which was a bit of a headache to get back on track given how often we used the time chamber. There were also (per Reimer) some less obvious things that you could do with it, like altering REM cycles in order to get in more dreaming, but I wasn’t sure about the “ill effects”. One of the bigger benefits was being able to control my heartbeat, which seemed like it would be useful in both combat and social situations.

I got up to level 13 by the time they called me over to the temple, meaning approximately equivalent to four years of study in the time it might have taken someone to eat lunch. The levels had gone quickly, maybe because my mental stats were so high, or maybe because I’d had a week of prep work and a pretty good foundation from my instructor.

I was taken to the temple itself, which caused me to go on edge again, because this was another perfect time for an attendant to take me into a room where I would be instantly killed by something nasty. That threat failed to materialize though, and I was led into the large room that the temple was contained within, which was in one sense a relief, but in another sense, was cause for concern, because it meant that I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The Li’o Temple was inviolable, which was a special term that described a whole host of items and structures on Aerb that couldn’t be destroyed, with a big, fat asterisk for void tools and void weapons. The underwater hand whose fingertips made the Zorish Isles was inviolable, and it was a property of a fair few entads too. Inviolability was both a curse and a boon, because it meant that there was little risk of damage, but also little possibility of modification or change.

The Li’o Temple was small. When I thought of temples, I thought of big, open places, the kind with arched roofs and lots of open air, the Acropolis, maybe, or a cathedral. The Li’o Temple wasn’t too much bigger than the average living room. And if you’re wondering to yourself how you fit five hundred people inside a space the size of a living room, then the answer is ‘very carefully, and in a way that would make the fire marshall wince’.

Because of the temple’s inviolability, the doorway was a severe bottleneck, and if you wanted to maximize the number of people inside the temple, that was something to contend with, especially since the decision had been made to do swapping instead of having simple batches of roughly five hundred. The solution that they’d come up with was a more extreme version of the Japanese capsule hotels, with people put into something that very closely resembled a coffin with a porthole window on top, picked from a variety of sizes that ran the gamut of the mortal species. These were then moved in by attendants and stacked into place, with as little room between initiates as possible, and no possibility of getting out without the help of the attendants. It wasn’t the most horrifyingly claustrophobic thing that I could imagine, because I had a good imagination, but it was definitely optimization taken to an unpleasant extreme. This was a part of the Penndraig reforms; before he’d come along, people had been meditating in better conditions, their time in the temple broken up by breaks, in part because they didn’t have the entad support that he provided to make the “packed like sardines” thing workable.

(The first thing that I’d asked about, on hearing this arrangement, was why they didn’t use space-warping entads, miniaturization entads, or something similar. Amaryllis hadn’t known the answer, but she seemed to think that it was so obvious that they had to have tried it, and my idea was dumb, and that I should feel bad for so much as suggesting it, though I might have been reading between the lines a bit when she shot me down.

Even if other magics were off the table, it should have been possible for soul manipulation and healing to (temporarily) replace peoples’ bodies with smaller forms, like turning a human into a halfling, which would have increased potential occupancy by a factor of eight, but the only answer I’d ever gotten was that it hadn’t been done during the time of the Second Empire, and so had probably failed to pass some early test. There was some anti-munchkinry going on, but the exact flavor wasn’t clear, especially since this stacked coffin monstrosity was an abomination of flavor yet also somehow permissible.)

I was nervous. How would I not be? A week stuck in the temple, with no way out except hoping that my bare fists could break through the wood, against people who were better equipped, which was to say, equipped at all, within wards that could have been explicitly keyed against me in ways that were completely sensible for even a non-adversarial power to have done? Yeah, I was having second thoughts. I climbed into the coffin all the same, and was carried into the temple.

Some of the effects I’d felt right away, like the unnatural purity of the air, and the way that every last trace of thirst was eliminated at once. To keep people in a coffin for a week, you needed to take care of basically all of the messy people stuff, the thirst, hunger, heat, air, and waste. But to get them into a coffin and into the proper mindset for seven straight days of meditation, you needed something to assist with that.

It was a dissociative episode. I’d had them once or twice, enough to recognize the sensation. I could still sense things, but the signals were getting confused somewhere along the way, my fingertips touching the cloth bottom of the box that they’d put me in, but the concepts of ‘cloth’ and ‘box’ and ‘fingertip’ not quite connecting to each other, or anything that was going on in my brain. It was like looking down on myself, from within myself, as though everything was happening to someone who wasn’t me, and it might have been unpleasant or scary, if I could properly connect those sensations to anything coherent. Instead, I was drifting, floating free.

I could feel the thing that I was meant to feel, that I was warned I would feel, a conceptual tether sitting in my mind, linked to an obelisk, an idea that was as inviolable as the temple I sat in, waiting there for me to draw closer, to inspect it, to know it.

Except that standing next to the pillar was a man, his armored form wreathed in flames, watching me.

I had enough presence of mind to shut the image out, to focus somewhere else, as much as the tether attached me to the pillar. I was still deep within the dissociative state, my body nearly immaterial to me for all that I could make sense of what I was feeling and seeing, but I could keep my distance from that pillar, and from that man, if I put effort into it. I was swimming in a sea of thoughts, all seeming like they weren’t my own, my control over myself only barely there, but I did have some control, and there was an island of stability in the sea of confusion.

I was trapped, for the duration of a week. The entads that they were using to make meditation in the temple surefire and fast had also made some kind of a place for Harold to do his thing, whatever that happened to be, whatever purpose he was currently driving toward. Harold had probably already done his thing with everyone who was currently in the temple, some unknown number of the staff, and some unknown number of people who had already passed through, thousands of them, it seemed like, with the ability to convert others.

I moved my arm, which didn’t feel like my arm, but instead, like someone else’s arm that I was watching at a remove. My mind could barely make sense of the movement, since the proprioception was shot, but it was movement, which meant that the body in the coffin could possibly escape. The tether was closer to me though, like something that I had a memory of imagining, but still more real and solid than my sense of self.

It was like losing the plot in a movie, or staring at the words in a book and seeing them as separate entities rather than parts of a sentence, let alone a coherent train of thought. When I was in eighth grade, I had trained myself in unhearing English, to force the words to disassemble into their component sounds, unintelligible to my higher brain, which I could manage for a few seconds at a time. It was the first time I’d ever tried anything remotely like meditation, all because I hated listening to my parents fighting, and wanted to unhear it, to transform the thoughts and ideas they were expressing into pure phonemes. Sitting in the box, it was the opposite problem, nothing coming together, nothing connecting, just a bare shred of me in there somewhere, watching it at a remove.

I had no idea what to do, except that I had to do something. Ignoring Harold could only work for so long, given how much mental effort it took. The temple was designed such that meditation couldn’t fail, the overlapping entads being at least somewhat equivalent to a sensory deprivation tank, only more extreme in some respects. And even if I could somehow go a full week, Harold would know, in the same way he’d sent Sonee to try to convert me. If I’d been allowed into this coffin by his confederates or puppets, then it seemed unlikely that I would be let out by them, and for all that Raven seemed to have faith in me to pull some Utherian stunt to get out of trouble, I was thinking that I was kind of fucked.

And when it seems like you’re fucked, that’s the best time to try to change tactics.

I let myself follow the tether toward the conceptual pillar, where Harold was waiting for me. It was hard to make out an expression behind the flames, but it seemed something like stoic determination.

“What do you want?” I asked, sending the thought at him rather than physically speaking (a process that seemed like it would have involved mechanically moving my mouth flaps). I was trying my best to keep my distance from him. I had no idea what would happen if we got into a fight here, or if he ‘touched’ me, or anything like that. I was at a loss for what the rules were. I didn’t know if Harold could speak, or how he was capable of hurting me, or whether I would be able to fight off his attack somehow.

“The End,” said Harold. He had a voice like the crackling of coals, with the timber of a furnace being stoked.

“The end of what?” I asked.

“The End of This World,” answered Harold, staring at me. “The End of Suffering. The End of Pain. The End of Death. The End of Life.”

“How?” I asked.

“The Calling Forth of A World Lord,” Harold answered. He held out one flaming hand to me. “You Will Join.”

Somewhere out there in the real, my body’s throat swallowed. It might have been my imagination, but the dissociation seemed like it was getting a little less oppressive.

“Nah, I’m good, thanks,” I replied. It was a flippancy that I wasn’t really feeling.

“The Horde Has Grown,” said Harold. “The Chorus is Ripe. You Will Join, Or You Will Perish.”

He drew his flaming sword. I had no idea what he was going to do with it, given that he was only in my mind, but I wasn’t really eager to find out. I forced my attention away from the pillar, and Harold with it, until I was back thinking about my body, and how it didn’t seem to be mine anymore.

The dissociation was definitely getting better, or maybe I was getting used to it, but there was an ‘I’ there, firmly in place, even if it was dissociated from other things. Maybe that was the skill check that I needed to get past, reconstructing a mental model of selfhood from the nothing, all so that I could spend a whole week without Harold putting his sword through me, whatever that would do. I had no idea how much time had passed. It felt like ten minutes, or maybe twenty, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to have them pull me out and tell me that a week had gone by.

I dipped down into my soul, and almost immediately, the pressure and tension was relieved. The soul trance, it seemed, had something of a protective effect, for which I was grateful, but that wasn’t the reason that I was there. Instead, I followed one of the lines from my soul, along a channel that no known wards were capable of blocking. When I reached its terminus, I was standing in a small white room.

Bethel (as Tiff) opened the door and looked me over. “I take it things haven’t gone well?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Harold was waiting for me. How long has it been?”

“A few hours since you went in,” said Bethel.

“Well, most of that time was spent waiting,” I said. “So waiting out the week is going to be … I might have to do it in here, with you.”

“Which I assume would mean that you wouldn’t acquire still magic?” asked Bethel.

“Seems likely,” I said. “I did already get vibrational though.”

“What a waste that would be, to spend so much time and come so far just to bow to the enemy,” said Bethel.

“Yeah,” I said. “So your advice is to just rush headlong into combat against an enemy with unknown capabilities on an unstable and novel-to-me battlefield?”

“For all his faults, it’s what Uther would do,” said Bethel, raising an eyebrow.

“To be frank, he’s not really someone whose footsteps I want to follow, except in the literal sense,” I said.

“What I’m saying is that he took what he wanted and plowed on ahead,” said Bethel. “It was monstrous, but it was part of his strength as a monster. You would do well to take that lesson.”

“Well, pass it along to the others,” I said. “If you don’t see me again, it’s probably because I died horribly.”

“We’re close by,” said Bethel. “There were a few problems with our descent, but nothing that I couldn’t handle.”

“No one dead?” I asked.

“No,” sniffed Bethel. “Not even mildly injured. But all that preparation and firepower is worth nothing if you’re not willing to press forward.”

I tried to give that some due consideration. One out of two … well, so far as I was concerned, still magic was the prize that was most worth having, because it offered an overwhelming amount of defense, some of which was going to be absolutely necessary against Fel Seed. In contrast, vibrational magic was mostly another weapon, and not one that had any real lasting power. Unfortunately, that meant that Bethel was right; staying in a soul trance to avoid the forced meditation would, at best, mean that I would spend a week in the temple for nothing. That was better than dying or being mind controlled, obviously, but it reeked of cowardice.

“Alright,” I said. “I guess I’m going to go fight Harold.”

“Excellent,” said Bethel. “Give him some scars to remember you by.”

With that talk done, I steeled myself and left what passed for Bethel’s soul. The sense of dissociation returned, just as strong as it had been, and I allowed myself to follow the tether once more. Harold was still standing there, still on fire, still staring at me.

“You Will Die,” he said, with the kind of conviction I wished I had about anything.

Harold was real, but he wasn’t physical. That made the prospect of attacking him somewhat troublesome, but so far as non-physical attacks went, I did have a few. I was probably one of the better soul mages left on Aerb, and so far as I knew, the only living spirit mage. With that in mind, I reached out to touch him.

The tether was real, but it wasn’t physical, and the same could probably be said about the pillar I was supposed to be meditating at. As for Harold, he wasn’t physically standing next to a mostly conceptual pillar, he was just conceptually or representationally standing next to the conceptual pillar, in the same way that he’d been in my mind when I was meditating. To do what he’d done to Sonee required that he somehow touch her spirit, and I was hoping that it was a bidirectional link.

From a distance, I could feel nothing from him, but as I tried to feel something from him, he drew closer, and the distance between us shortened considerably. I suppressed the urge to run, or to think of something else, and pushed on ahead, trying to get a thread of him somehow, something that I could pull on, in the same way that the magic of a person’s skin was often an effective pathway to their soul. When he was five feet away from me, I finally felt it, a minor disturbance that I could just barely latch myself onto, like trying to pull a penny from a crack in the sidewalk with just my nails. Once I had my grip though, it was simple enough to push forward and see where it led.

It was a mass of red, orange, and brown threads, so numerous that it would have been impossible to count them all, their numbers dwarfing what I had seen in my own spirit, speaking to something more complex than I would ever be. If my spirit was a small town with light but constant traffic going down the streets, then this was a planet-sized city, Coruscant or Ravnica, stretching nearly to the horizons of my disembodied viewpoint. And if the disorganized threads were a vast mess below me, then above me were throbbing lines, wrapped into thick bundles, just like the one that I had seen going into Sonee’s spirit. There were thousands of them, if not tens of thousands, each almost certainly connected to a person.

I dove down into the mass and began changing things, going for the bigger threads first, hoping that they were somehow vital to Harold’s continued functioning. Doing that was dangerous, given how many people he was connected to, and how uncertain it was that I wouldn’t accidentally help him, but I plugged on all the same, strangling threads that looked important, ripping out connections wholesale where I could find them. The architecture of Harold was different, with more connections between the threads, in addition to simply how much more of those connections there were. I had no idea whether or not I was actually doing anything, because I had no outside reference.

After five minutes, I felt a surge of pressure on me, one that lifted me up and pushed my viewpoint away from the damage that I was hopefully doing, spinning me into the notional sky and flinging me backward, until eventually I landed in my own spirit, with its more comforting colors. So far as I could tell, everything looked more or less how it should, which came as a relief, until I realized that the counterattack had only just begun.

Orange threads were descending down toward the threads that made up my spirit. They were going surprisingly slowly, but there were hundreds of them, all twisted together, braided further the more they went up.

I raced between them, closing them off, and for a time, it seemed like I was going fast enough that I would be able to outrace the assault. When one of those threads attached to one of the threads that made up my spirit, that was liable to be a problem, because I was actively using my spirit to fend off the attack, and my spirit was far from being the warren of threads that made up Harold’s. I wasn’t sure which places were most in need of defense, except by trying to track usage patterns as I was in the middle of closing off the orange threads, which was more attention than I thought I could spare.

It slowly became clear that I was, in fact, losing. I hadn’t seen it happen, but whatever Harold was doing to push these threads down toward me, he must have put it into overdrive, because there were four times as many as when I’d begun the defense. They were slow enough that I might have been able to handle the initial batch, but with so many more, some of them would be able to get in an alteration to my spirit, which had a pretty good chance of fucking me up enough that I couldn’t mitigate the damage.

I decided to try a different strategy. Instead of closing off the hostile invaders, I tried feeding them. My spirit was, after all, already marked by a rather different invader, the virulent meme that Raven had exposed me to, and which I had shut down as completely as I could. The lacework that made it up had been left behind though, and that was what I began dragging up to the hungry orange threads. At first it did nothing, but then I thought to expand the meme’s thread slightly, giving it more bandwidth, and when I did, the result was immediate; the orange twisted and writhed, until finally shooting backward.

I did it with another, then another, hoping that the meme was infecting Harold. The assault continued though, too many threads to deal with, and this method far more labor-intensive for what seemed like it wasn’t all that much better of a result. I kept on with it though, hoping that the backchannels would get to him, that there would be damage, or that eventually I would simply prove myself to be poisonous enough that I wasn’t worth the effort.

Twenty applications later, the assault suddenly stopped, with the lines Harold had been sending not so much retreating as disappearing entirely. I watched them, cautiously, unsure whether this was only temporary. Unfortunately, there were different fronts in this battle, and I couldn’t watch them all at once. With a push, I returned to my body and faced the wave of dissociation that came from being within the area of effect of the entad that was meant for forcing meditation. I checked over the body, as best I could, just to make sure that I hadn’t been moved, then followed along the conceptual tether to the pillar.

Harold was nowhere to be seen.

I went back into my soul to look it over, then to my spirit, and finally stepped into Bethel’s soul, where she was waiting for me.

“Well?” she asked.

“I put up a fight,” I said. “Scared him off, maybe, or at least proved that I wasn’t an easy target. I’m hoping I’m not ten minutes away from being taken out of the temple and put to death.”

“Good,” she said with a nod. “I always believed in you, and I can give you the names of those who didn’t.”

“Not really necessary,” I said. “I’m worried he’ll come back, and I’m worried about part two, but for now, the name of the game is still magic.”

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Alexander Wales

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