“Assume people know what they’re doing” is often a pretty poor heuristic, but I didn’t really have much of a choice as far as meditation went. The instructions I’d been given were vague, describing the pillar and saying that I should keep it in mind for the duration. Because that was all I’d been instructed on, it was logical to assume that the people running the temple knew what they were doing, and that it was hard if not impossible to fail the week-long ordeal. Yet as the time passed, I kept going back to worrying that maybe I was too much of an outlier, or maybe they were wrong.
I stared at the conceptual pillar from all different directions, and spent all my time doing that. All my needs were taken care of, and it wasn’t like there was much else to do. I tried to keep on edge, waiting for either Harold’s return or some shenanigans related to my body. Nothing came though, and it was hard to stay on my toes, even with the alertness entad that I knew was affecting me.
Instead, I ended up meditating on the pillar, just like everyone else was doing.
Skill unlocked: Still Magic!
Achievement unlocked: Holdfast
It took five and a half days instead of seven. I wasn’t sure where the discrepancy came from, whether it was my unique ability to do things faster, my experience with meditation, or whether the game system broke things into discrete chunks that allowed it to happen faster, or possibly if there was just some buffer built into the procedures that they followed in the temple. I couldn’t find it in me to care though, given that I had a new power to play with, one that might come in handy in the very near future.
“I could do an extract,” said Bethel, when I went to visit her.
“Could you?” I asked.
She nodded. “The anti-entad ward is too powerful for Grak or I to break, even working together, but it’s anchored relative to Aerb, rather than relative to the temple, an oversight that we could exploit by hollowing out the ground beneath the temple and dropping it. From there, it would only take ten seconds to bring you out.”
“That’s a last resort,” I said. “They would know it was me, since I’m in the register, and I would be the only one missing.”
“I could turn everyone into a thin red mist,” Bethel mused. “Or, more gently, I could abduct everyone, put them into cells, and then randomly distribute them around the countryside, so that no one would have any idea who was the real target.”
“That -- yes,” I said. “That’s a possibility. It’s still a last resort.”
“I thought that you wanted me in the field?” asked Bethel, narrowing her eyes.
“I did and I do,” I said. “I’m just concerned with fallout. Things haven’t come to a head here yet, and I might be able to get out without causing hundreds of thousands of obols worth of damage and making what’s effectively an attack on one of the stronger world powers.”
Bethel sighed. “Fine, fine, we’ll keep being nice to our enemies.”
“Can you see into the temple?” I asked.
“Not the temple, nor the immediate environs,” said Bethel. “The anti-entad wards are ludicrously extensive and well-made. I’ve been working with Grak, but he expects us to fail.”
“Meaning that if things go south, I have to come here to call on you?” I asked. “Which might not be possible. Time-to-entry for my own soul is down to half a minute, maybe less, but that’s not feasible in an emergency. I’ll keep you updated, when I can.”
“Good luck,” nodded Bethel.
I backed out again, stared at the pillar for half a second until I realized that it was pointless, then tried focusing on my new skill. All I had access to was the small coffin I was stuck in, but that contained my body, and that was enough. My first act of still magic was attempting to stop my chest from rising and falling with every breath that I took, which turned out to be a lot more painful than I had expected it to be. I was still extremely thankful that no one had warded against still magic.
Skill increased: Still Magic lvl 20! (Skill can no longer be increased by amateur training.)
New Virtue: Proportional Halting!
Proportional Halting: If the change you are attempting to still exceeds your current maximum capacity, the object/force/concept will be stilled proportional to your Still Magic level or to your current maximum capacity, whichever is greater, over the common stilling interval.
I hit the soft cap on Still Magic and Vibrational Magic without too much trouble, focusing entirely on the things that I could affect, which basically meant my body. I wasn’t paralyzed, though lord knows they probably would have done it if they had an entad that could do it safely and effectively, and the only real trouble was the fact that I was still suffering from mild dissociation, apparently beyond my ability to adapt to it.
And after all that, I waited, and then waited some more. The meditation had been boring, in some sense, but also easy, in another, a kind of nothingness of the mind. More than that, there had been a purpose to it, which made it easy to clear my mind and go on ahead with it. Now that the magic was unlocked though, there was no point to the pillar, and the thought of losing myself staring at the pillar some more seemed like such a waste that I actively pushed myself away from it.
It was when I was checking over my character sheet that I saw something out of place: a glowing +2 was floating in the upper right corner of the screen. I stared at it for a long moment, trying to make sense of it. I got two points for every level, plus an extra five for level 10, and I was absolutely certain that I had distributed everything. Yet here were two more, waiting to be spent. The game layer didn’t give me a log to look at, which was incredibly annoying and meant that I could miss things like quest updates or skill increases, especially if I was in soul or spirit trance, as I’d been when I was fighting back against Harold.
The logical conclusion was that I had leveled up without realizing it.
That was exactly what I wanted, but it left me feeling a little bit hollow, because there was none of the ceremony that was supposed to accompany the level, to say nothing of the pleasure that usually came with it. It was only satisfying in a numbers-go-up sense, and not even really that much, because it wasn’t like there were any decisions to be made about where the points were going to go, because the revised character sheet was more or less set in stone, and the only question was when I would pull the trigger on changing out new skills. I put the two extra points into MEN, though a part of me wanted SOC instead.
And then I waited to be let out.
Eventually, my coffin was moved, taken out of its place on the rack by the attendants and transported out into the room that surrounded the temple proper. I felt a wave of relief when I was out of range of the dissociation entad, as my fingers finally felt like fingers, both connected to the concept of fingerness, and under my subconscious control without me really having to think about it. I flexed and stretched, relishing the fact that my body was more or less mine again, the way it had always been.
When I’d gotten into the coffin, I had been in a side area, one where people were fitted to different containers (with a wide enough variety for all the mortal species). When I was taken out, it was to elsewhere. I could see the men above me through the glass lid of the coffin, stone-faced as they carried me. It seemed to me that there was no reason not to let me out as soon as I was out of the temple, but I didn’t know what their protocols would be like, nor their logic. Optimistically, they were taking me to some place where a medical team looked over initiates and made sure that the week of laying still in the coffins hadn’t given any lasting injury or otherwise had a negative impact.
Pessimistically, they were taking me somewhere to kill me without any witnesses.
It was hard to see from within the coffin, given that the sides were opaque and the glass at the top only let me see directly up. I was watching as I was moved, and started to get a bad feeling when I saw that I had been moved through a doorway. Based on the schematics of the complex that Pallida had stolen, I was in one of the small rooms to the side of the temple proper, out of the bigger room that contained the temple itself. If they were going to do it, this was the time.
As soon as they set me down, I pushed up on the lid, hard, prepared to give an apology if I was in the wrong, prepared to fight if they so much as hinted at training a gun on me. The lid went up without any trouble at all, and I was up and rolling right after it, moving out of the place that I’d been in. I heard the telltale thwip of a void weapon and tried to get my bearings to see who had fired it.
There were three people in the room with me. One of them was a woman, by the small room’s door, vitric, blue hands already crackling with electricity. The other two were men, one humanish, the other a tall mezin. He was the one holding the void pistol, a somewhat crude affair, but still capable of putting holes in things.
I jumped to my feet and grabbed for the pistol, trying to bring myself in closer to the mezin in the hopes that it would make the vitric less likely to shoot me full of lightning. As I tried to wrest the pistol from him before it could cycle, I felt every muscle in my body spasm as the room flashed a bright blue. Half the charge must have gone to the mezin, because he was shaking too, and as soon as I had control of my body again, I pulled him in close to me, taking his weight and tripping him so that he would go down, putting more space between me and the vitric. Unfortunately, the human had moved around the table they’d set the coffin on, and I learned, to my chagrin, that he wasn’t actually human.
His fingernails extended into three-inch claws and his muscles bulged within his shirt, shifting and warping him, and showing a fraction of his true power. It was an awkward fight in a small room, and while I hadn’t forgotten that the human -- actually parovartako -- was there, I wasn’t really ready for him. His claws sliced cleanly through my face as I backed away, causing a jolt of pain and significant amounts of blood to start gushing out of my body. On instinct, I tried to use blood magic, only to find that within the wards it wasn’t working. Less on instinct and more on a prayer, I tried using bone magic to heal the wound, but that wasn’t working either. I was blind in one eye, and he was still coming.
I made nearly impossible dodges, twice, ducking beneath his claws. I was trying to do it while forcing my good eye open and trying to ignore the searing pain of the cut I’d taken to the face. After another failed swipe from him, I grabbed his wrist, trying to gain control and maybe force him into a lock, but he brought his other claws down with startling speed. I yanked on his wrist and he ended up cutting deep into his arm, far less superficially than the cut he’d given me on my face. He howled in pain, but on sheer instinct, I turned away from him, just in time to dodge out of the way of another lightning bolt, which struck him square in the chest.
The mezin had recovered the void pistol and was clicking at the trigger, trying to get it to fire as soon as possible. It fired with a thwip, but I was ready for it, and had my hand up just in time for me to parry the void effect. “Parry” in this case was probably a little generous, since it made a line straight through the meat of my palm, but that was better than getting shot in the head, and the remainder of the void effect didn’t seem to have penetrated my skull, at least on first blush.
I kicked the mezin squarely in his stomach, then punched him in his head as he doubled over, which sent him sprawling to the floor, hopefully unconscious. A glance backwards at the parovartako showed that he was still writhing in pain, so I ran straight at the vitric, who was backing up in alarm, hands raised. I had no idea how much charge she had left in her, but it didn’t really change the calculus much, because lightning aside, I was far stronger than her. A solid strike to her throat was enough to double her over, and I stomped on her head with the sole of my foot, three times in quick succession, as soon as I got her on the ground. A big defeated message showed up.
I picked up the void pistol and shot the parovartako in the head before he could rise to his feet, then carefully watched the other two as a silence settled over the room. I wasn’t sure whether or not I had killed the mezin or the vitric, but both of them were staying down. We had made a considerable amount of noise, and I stayed ducked behind the table, waiting for someone to come. No one did.
I checked the vitric and the mezin. She was dead, but he was still breathing. My right hand hurt like it was on fire and I couldn’t move the fingers with or without pain. My face was still bleeding too, enough that it was a fairly steady flow of blood rolling down my chin and soaking into the robe that I was wearing. If I had any thoughts about escaping the complex by being inconspicuous, they were completely gone. A brief, tentative touch to my forehead was enough for me to feel a hole there, one that was worryingly deep and bleeding profusely, but not actually all that painful.
Harold had compromised some of the temple staff, maybe even most of them, but he hadn’t compromised all of them, or they would have made an attempt on my life in another way. So far as I could tell, that was the only good news. I was wounded and losing blood, and still in a place where the wards were stopping pretty much all of my magic from working, with very few exceptions. Worse, whoever Harold had compromised would probably be showing up shortly to finish the job, or worse, actual site security would get involved, at which point I would probably be fucked.
Using my good hand, I dragged one of the bodies over to block the door, then spent precious seconds being vulnerable to deliver a message to Bethel.
“Things are fucked,” I said. “I was attacked, no extraction options at the moment. Pull the trigger.”
“Wait,” she said, a moment before I was going to go. “Something is happening. Storm overhead.”
“Storm?” I asked.
“Magic,” replied Bethel. “Extremely powerful magic.”
“Shit,” I said. “Okay, get me out.”
“Might be a problem with that,” said Bethel. “The excavation is taking too long. Rock is substantially reinforced. You might be on your own.”
“Fuck,” I said, then stepped back from the soul just in time to see someone trying to force the door open. I snatched up the void pistol as I got to my feet and sighted it at the door, hoping that no one was going to throw a grenade in.
I heard a key slide into the lock, then watched as the door pushed up against the mezin’s body (Claude’s body, given what the game layer had told me, a ‘feature’ that I continued to hate). I held myself still, glancing briefly at the meter that showed my blood loss, which was getting worrisome.
The door opened wide enough for someone to stick their face through, and the only thing that kept me from shooting them was that the very last thing you’d do, if you were making a breach into a hostile environment, was to stick your head through the door and look around. It was a younger man, whose eyes went wide as he took in the bodies on the floor and copious amounts of blood, most of it mine. I was crouched, so it took him some time to see me, but when he did, he pulled his head back with a scream, banging his ear against the door as he stumbled back. I heard the sound of footsteps shortly after that, and sprang forward.
I had no idea why Harold wasn’t taking the opportunity. Was I wrong about how much he could see, or how much control he had? I kicked the body out of the way and nudged the door open further with my shoulder, stepping out into the hallways that I’d only seen the ceiling of. I was still dripping blood, but I had a weapon now, one that was impossible to ward against. All I needed to do was to get to someplace that I could access my storage tattoos, or at the least, somewhere that I could heal myself.
I crept through the hallways on my bare feet, holding the void pistol in my left hand and cradling my right against my stomach, trying to keep it from being jostled as much as possible. The game pinged me a message about blood loss, which I ignored, because there was nothing that I could do about it.
I tensed up when I heard the droning. It wasn’t quite singing, because it was a solid tone, but it definitely sounded like it was made by people. What had Harold said? ‘The chorus is ripe,’ and a ‘world lord’. I started going faster, less worried about being silent or being seen, and put my energy into trying to find the source of the noise. Eventually I reached the room that contained the temple and slowed down, leading with my pistol, ready to shoot.
When I peered into the room, I saw a chaotic scene.
Half of the temple attendants were standing stock still, feet shoulder width apart, heads tilted slightly upward, mouths open, each emitting their own tone, which was creating the unholy racket that I had been hearing.
The other half were standing around, mostly looking confused. I saw a woman trying to shake a man out of his weird behavior, and a man huddling next to the wall with his hands on his ears. The sound wasn’t that loud, not like someone shouting, but I could instantly see the comparison to a choir, especially in the way their subtly different takes on the same tone mingled together.
One of the attendants saw me and rushed over, looking me up and down, her eyes finally landing on my void pistol.
“What the hells happened to you?” she asked. She was human, with a bit of a punk look, brightly colored hair, an undercut, and a handful of piercings. “Do you know what’s going on, why they’re like this?”
“I was attacked,” I said, pointing to the hole in my head. “Why are they doing that?” I asked, looking at the people ‘singing’. I doubted that she knew, but it was worth a shot. I was also pretty sure that I wouldn’t like the answer.
“We need to get you medical attention,” she said. “Medic!” she called, out toward the others. “Shit, I think both our medics are caught up in whatever’s happening.” She bit her nail for a moment, then looked back at me, taking in the claw marks on my face, the hole in my forehead, then the hand I was cradling.
“I can heal myself,” I said. “But there are wards stopping me. Get me to the place set aside for healing?”
“Sure,” she said. She looked around at the people who were stuck in place, droning on. “Gods I hope this isn’t an exclusion.”
The thought hadn’t even occurred to me; I was too focused on Harold and whatever his plans were. A storm overhead, powerful magic … usually the exclusions were spoken of in the abstract, without firsthand accounts of what it had been like. Maybe I had just been avoiding the oral histories or firsthand reports as worth less for my time than a dry accounting. Now though, I really could see it; this might be an exclusion in the making.
At least, if it was something big, dangerous, and viral, we had better hope that it got excluded instead of spreading over the whole world.
The attendant led me down another corridor of the complex, and I kept on testing my magic, trying to move the tattoos around, trying to pull healing from the bones, trying to control my blood. None of it worked until we got to a small medical office, which had most of the paraphernalia that you’d expect to see with both a blood mage and a bone mage. I immediately took hold of my magic and stopped the bleeding, then grabbed a bone off the wall and began an application of PHY-based healing.
“You’re a bone mage?” asked the attendant.
“Multimage,” I said. “When did they start with the yelling?”
“It’s not really yelling,” she began.
“One sec,” I said. “Does skin magic work in here?” But I already knew that it did, because I could feel my tattoos on me once more.
“It should,” she said.
I tapped Parson’s Voice to finally get back in touch with Amaryllis. “I’m alive,” I said. “Safe, for the time being. Harold has done something. About half the people here are standing still and just making a low, continuous tone.”
[Something is happening,] said Amaryllis. [Something bad. Heshnel stayed on the surface, and he’s saying the same thing. Fewer than half though. And there’s a storm that came out of nowhere, which has Raven worried. She thinks that it might be a summoning.]
“A summoning?” I asked. “Of what?”
[Good question,] Amaryllis replied. [Any idea how to stop it?]
Kill everyone making the tone … but I couldn’t bring myself to verbalize the thought, and even if that would have worked, there were logistical issues, given how many converts there were. Had Harold given up on killing me? Had he pulled the trigger on his master plan? Was it already too late?
“I’ll think of something,” I said. “Leaving the comms on, but I’ll be out of range soon.”
“Well?” asked the attendant who had taken me to the medical room. “How are we going to help them?”
“I’m going to try some magic,” I said.
“Bring them in here?” asked the attendant, looking around.
“No,” I said, grabbing another few bones off the wall and draining them as quickly as possible, just so I would be topped off. “It’s a different kind of magic.”
We hustled back down the hallway and I grabbed the first person I saw that was continuing on with the droning, a humanoid with pointed ears that might have been a half-elf, except that those were so rare it would have been weird. I glanced at the attendant, trying to read her.
“Juniper Smith,” I said, holding out a hand.
“Polly Haines,” she said. “You can fix him? Somehow?”
“Maybe,” I replied. “I’m going to be sensory deprived. I’ll need you to watch my back.” I handed her the void pistol. “Shoot anyone who looks like they’re dangerous.”
She handed me the void pistol back. “I’m not going to kill anyone,” she said.
“Fair enough,” I replied, holstering the pistol in the cinch of my robes. “Shake me then, if it looks like I’m going to be killed.”
“Okay,” said Polly. “Good luck.”
I laid my hands on the half-elf and got my bearings, feeling the tendrils of magic coming off him, all manifestations or connections to the soul in one way or another, then dove down in, rising into the spirit as soon as I could, trying not to count the seconds impatiently.
It was the same as with Sonee, the orange lines descending down from above and connecting in to the machinery of his spirit, touching it at hundreds of different places. The difference here was that all the orange lines were completely taut, pulling straight ‘up’ and tugging at the threads they were attached to. I had no idea what that image might be a metaphor for, but it seemed like it was probably bad.
I pushed hard, trying to move myself along the orange lines, pretending that they were a track, or some kind of analog to the connection my own soul had to the souls of my companions. For a moment, there was no particular effect, but then I was set forward in a rush, back toward Harold’s core.
Everything was strained, pulled into a state of absolute tension. The fields of lines were all pulling on an ineffable something, taut and stretched, and every single one of the anchors he had in all the people he’d compromised were the same, pulling, or doing whatever the pulling was a metaphor for. I dove down into the morass of orange lines and began wreaking havoc again, as I’d done before, but there was so much of it to hurt, and my efforts seemed to be making barely more than a dent. After a few minutes of doing that to no obvious effect, I tried to push myself to a different conceptual level, so that I could see what was happening to Harold’s soul, if he had one. If he had a soul though, it was locked off to me.
I pushed myself back out into the real world. More people had arrived, and they were standing around us. The droning on was continuing.
“Well?” asked Polly.
“He’s enraptured,” I said. “Connected to some outside entity that’s trying to do something terrible, possibly world-ending.”
“An exclusion would stop it,” said one of the people standing around. He didn’t seem to be comforted by that theory.
“At the cost of Li’o and the surrounding valley,” I said. “It would put a permanent end to the athenaeum. Come on, we need to get out of here.”
“No,” said Polly. “There are five hundred people inside that temple. Most of them would be trapped if we left.”
“Most of them are singing,” said one of the other attendants. “You can hear it if you go in there.”
“It’s not singing,” said Polly. “It’s … something else.”
“Droning,” I said. “Look, I know there’s an elevator, and I need to go up, as quickly as possible. It’s happening on the surface too.”
“Follow me,” said Polly, moving with purpose, and leaving the other attendants behind.
We turned quickly through the hallways, until we reached a large set of doors. Standing in front of it were two men, both of them droning on. I really had a feeling that I should be doing something about them, but there were so many, both in the temple complex and above it, that all my efforts seemed like they would be futile. How many people had Harold been able to grab from within the temple as they went through initiation? He’d been at this for months, so he probably had what, a few thousand of them just from the temple itself, not even counting however many he’d picked up through things like the meditation classes or kidnapping people to drug them into an altered state?
I had no idea how I was going to stop it.
“You and your people had better work to save them,” said Polly. She poked her head into the elevator and pointed at a thick lever. “Flip that, then wait, the gates will open back up when you’re at the top.” She backed away. “Good luck, mystery man.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Just as a note, you might want to tie up the droners. Whatever they’re doing right now, there’s a risk that they’re not going to be safe to be around when they’re finished.”
“Well,” said Polly. “Good to know.”
With that, I closed the door to the elevator and flipped the lever. It lurched in a way that I would have assumed was unsafe if I hadn’t had some exposure to Aerb’s elevators, and I anxiously waited for my magic to come back online so that I could be in fighting shape once more. Everything came back online all at once, with Amaryllis already talking.
[Repeat, Juniper, when you get this message, do not go to the surface,] said Amaryllis.
“Why?” I asked.
[Oh thank fuck,] she said. [And there’s an entity up there. We’re bailing as soon as you get out.]
“I’m taking the elevator up now,” I said. “Should be a while.”
[We’ll have Bethel go through the rock,] said Amaryllis. [Stop the elevator.]
“What’s up there?” I asked. I moved a storage tattoo over and pulled the vambrace from it, locked that around my arm, then turned the dial to the combat position.
[Something huge,] she replied. [Juniper, I know you might want to, but we can’t fight it. It’s hundreds of feet tall, dropping down from the clouds then going back up. There are dozens of legs and eyes that must be the size of human heads to be visible from street level. Joon, please, I’m telling you now that if there was ever a chance to stop this thing from being called down, we failed at it, and we can’t even begin to think about fighting it. This is bigger than us. The Empire is going to get called in. They’ve got thousands of mages and magic beyond anything that we do.]
“I want to see it,” I said. Something was tickling at the back of my mind, a thought that I couldn’t name, something on the tip of my tongue. I was worried that was a sign of compulsion or compromise, and while I waited for the elevator to reach the top, I dipped into my soul and spirit to give them another glance. There was nothing out of the ordinary there though, and I felt like myself.
When I reached the top, I came out into a security area, which was completely, ominously empty. I had my probability blade drawn and throwing dagger in my left hand, and moved cautiously through the checkpoint. Eventually I reached a more populated area, but it was only filled with people whose droning noise had let me know they were there. They were like the ones down in the temple, fewer of them, certainly, but displaying the same symptoms. I moved around them, cautiously, and went outside, where people were gathered around, looking up at the storm clouds up above.
It was tornado weather, the sky bruised and angry, no rain, but a whistling breeze. It was go-hide-in-the-cellar weather, the kind that always made me think about kneeling in the hallways at school. The clouds were roiling and low to the ground, not like I had ever seen them before, close enough that they were probably covering the tops of the hills that surrounded the valley.
As I was watching, a giant leg came down from the sky, knotted and gnarled, ending in claws as big as cars that dug deep into the earth. A second leg joined it, seeming to come from the clouds themselves, this one piercing straight through Canis Building some distance away. The creature descended slowly, but with the slowness of immense weight, other legs coming down to join the first two, until finally its bulk descended down from the cloud cover. People around me were screaming and running, and all I could do was stare. It had hundreds of eyes, long legs like a water strider, and a coating of short hair that moved without regard for the wind. Its head swept from side to side, and its many-jawed mouth let out inhuman screams in a handful of different pitches.
I looked at it with a distant horror. “Oh, that Mome Rath.”