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“Alright,” said Arthur as we sat in the theater, waiting for the movie to start. “Dumbest possible cinematic universes, go go go.”

It was his third time seeing Captain America: Civil War, and my second. I had been feeling weird about our friendship, mostly because I was seeing Tiff behind his back. Every time it was just me and Arthur, I felt like I was utterly transparent, like he would just somehow figure it out and stop me, or confront me. I had gone over the conversation what felt like a hundred times, mounting imagined defenses to his imagined objections, preparing for the gamut of emotions he might possibly display.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“I mean,” Arthur continued, then stopped. “Which part of it is giving you trouble?”

“‘Possible’, I guess?” I asked. “Like, I could easily imagine a cinematic universe where, say, Failure to Launch crosses over with Ghostbusters and, uh, Night Court or something. And that wouldn’t even be that bad.”

“Alright, fine, fine,” said Arthur. “Assume that they have to all be connected to each other somehow, either by genre, theme, plot, characters, or something like that.”

“Fast food,” I said. “Burger King, Ronald McDonald, Wendy, uh, the Colonel -- why is it that so many fast food places have human mascots?”

“That’s not even that dumb though,” said Arthur. “Like, I would watch the shit out of that. Did you ever see that anime cosplay version of the Colonel facing down Ronald McDonald?”

“Yeah, probably,” I said. I leaned back in my seat. The local movie theater in Bumblefuck had terrible seats, but at least we had a theater. “I think we have different definitions of dumb, if you think that’s not dumb.”

“I think whatever you say is a dumb cinematic universe, I’m going to imagine the ways that it could be good,” said Arthur with a shrug. He ate more of his popcorn. “Got more?”

“Uh,” I said. “Okay, so Alan Moore did the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, right?”

“With Sean Connery?” asked Arthur with a frown.

“Ah, no,” I said. “I mean, yes, but Alan Moore does comic books, not movies. The comic books were actually, you know, good.”

“Ah,” said Arthur. “Wish they were easier to get my hands on.”

(It was always mildly surprising to me when I had read or watched something that Arthur hadn’t. He had an annoying way of playing it off sometimes, either putting me down for wasting my time on something that was objectively garbage, or making some excuse for himself, which was never wanted or needed.)

“Point being, that was an attempt to fit together a lot of the Victorian canon. Jekyll and Hyde, the Invisible Man, Dracula, stuff like that. So like, that, but for the worst possible time period. Needs research though. Of the top of my head, there aren’t many eras that have a distinctly terrible yet identifiable set of people or creatures to put into a cinematic universe.”

“So where steampunk, cyberpunk, et cetera borrow from an era’s aesthetic, you would borrow from their fictional characters?” asked Arthur. “I guess I can dig it. Seems like it would mostly end up lame rather than dumb.”

“Sure,” I said. “Or, hey, maybe we could do an author’s works? Like, Harry Potter meets up with Cormoran Strike, meets … whatever else she did?” I was starting to get into the groove of it. Arthur, being Arthur, surely had something in his back pocket, some incredibly dumb potential cinematic universe, which was the whole reason that he’d brought the subject up.

“I think that’s it,” said Arthur. “Hrm, you know, Stephen King is almost there, all on his own, that’s part of the conceit. Doesn’t really flow as well into movies that have a big team up at the end.”

“Discworld?” I asked. “But there was never really a crossover, they just existed in the same universe.”

“There were crossovers,” said Arthur. “But yeah, minor ones. And those aren’t dumb cinematic universes. I like where your head is at, with authors.”

“C.S. Lewis?” I asked. “Mix up Perelandra with Narnia and The Screwtape Letters somehow? That’s almost not insane.” (The Chronicles of Narnia were the only bit of fantasy that my mother had ever read, unless you counted the Left Behind series or a few dozen paranormal romance books that she kept hidden in her bedside table. C.S. Lewis had been my first fantasy author, and I’d always had a soft spot for him, more than Tolkien.)

“You’d need more,” said Arthur. “And I agree, it would probably work best to pick someone who’s got a lot of different works, if you’re going dumb. Hard to think of though, because so many of them just get into a rut writing the same thing over and over. Oh, Sanderson is another who’s basically done all the work for himself. We’re pretty much never getting movies though.”

“Alright,” I said. “You want dumb? How about a cinematic universe from a single poem?”

He grinned at me. “And how does that work?”

When we’d come into the theater, we’d been pretty much the only ones, but it had begun to fill, and I suddenly felt self-conscious about who could hear us and what they would think. “Nevermind, it’s dumb.”

“Joon,” he said.

“The Jabberwocky cinematic universe,” I said, trying to keep my voice low.

Arthur laughed at that. “For real?”

“Right,” I said. “So, vorpal sword is obviously our version of the infinity stone, right? And from there, we just need monsters that get their heads cut off. Like, horrible villains that are set up in their own movies, or monster protagonists.”

Arthur took some time to think about that. He seemed off his game, and a part of me instantly wondered whether he’d found out about me and Tiff, whether his hesitance and slowness was because he was putting up a front. It was probably paranoia, the kind that had been fucking with our friendship for months. “Alright,” he said. “Sell me on them.”

“Them?” I asked, not tracking. “Like, you want my Feigian outline of a dozen movies in phase one?”

“Jabberwocky is nonsense,” said Arthur. “Not nonsense, but, you know. So what does it look like, in your head?”

“Okay,” I said. “Here’s my pitch. Movie one is all about the vorpal sword, basically as it is in D&D, a thing that cuts off heads, which is more terrifying than I think the game or the community gives it credit for. Maybe first third is seeking the vorpal sword and then killing some monstrosity with it, and the back two thirds are about in-fighting among the initial band of adventurers?”

“That sounds terrible,” said Arthur. “Undercutting narrative for the sake of it.”

“Reservoir Dogs,” I said. “A heist movie that’s mostly about things falling apart after the heist. Anyway, movie two is -- give me a name from the poem?”

“Mome Rath,” said Arthur. “Though I guess it’s unclear whether ‘mome’ is an adjective or not.”

“Sure,” I said. “So movie two is all about the Mome Rath, this giant, skyscraper-sized beast, one that no one can think of unless he’s there.”

“Wait, memetic?” asked Arthur.

“Antimemetic,” I said. “Totally different. He’s got hair like fingers, he’s got --”

“What the fuck are you even on about with hair like fingers?” asked Arthur with a laugh. He could be loud. Previews hadn’t started yet, and some people looked at us. “Prehensile hair?”

“No,” I said. I held up a finger. “Okay, picture this finger as three links of a chain. Extrapolate that out for like, ten yards, then multiply it by a thousand. He’s got a full head of hair, like fingers.” I stopped for a moment as a thought caught up to me. “But like, randomly rotating the angle of each knuckle in his finger-hair, I guess, so that it doesn’t all go one direction.”

“Gross,” said Arthur. “Is this for a game? Is this spoilers?”

“Nah,” I said. “At least, probably not. If I use it, try to act excited.”

“I always do,” said Arthur.

“Anyway, the antimeme stuff is the best part, because that’s what the movie is built around. People remember their cities being destroyed, but they’ve got no idea what happened, no one knows what did it, or has any explanation, there’s nothing on the video cameras or whatever they’ve got to record things, it scrubs itself from reality unless you’re less than, say, a mile from it, and so on.” I paused as I tried to think through this. I was using my improv brain, a subset of my brain that had been finely honed by panicked attempts at keeping marginally ahead of the players when I was out of material for the night. “So the first third of the movie is about investigating these phenomena, and in the last two thirds, they have to fight it, but they have to make do with what they have, because if they get too far away, they’ll simply forget that the threat exists, not just forget, but they won’t be able to puzzle it out from the evidence that’s sitting in their notebooks.”

“Too much SCP for you,” said Arthur, shaking his head.

“Maybe,” I said. “But think about the stakes there, a giant kaiju, and the twist is that if you leave, you’ll forget about it, and you just have to depend on everyone else in its field to figure something out? Can’t direct resources to fight it, can’t call in help, can’t go grab your special whats-it that might do the job?”

“And you have like six more of those, right?” asked Arthur.

“Oh, sure,” I lied, planning to think on my feet, not really worrying about being called out, because after years of gaming, Arthur would never do that to me. “Previews are about to start though. Don’t you want to give your pitch for worst cinematic universe?”

“Nah,” said Arthur. “After. Yours was already so ridiculous and disconnected from the base material that I think you might have me beat.”

But after the movie was over, we’d both forgotten about the subject, or maybe Arthur had just wanted to talk about something else. I sketched out a bit more of Mome Rath when I got home, along with some of the other giant beasts that might inhabit a Jabberwocky world, after I’d read through the poem a few more times and read some of the flavor text around the vorpal sword. It was idle worldbuilding for the sake of it, mostly because I didn’t have any real D&D prep that needed to be done. And yeah, maybe the dismissive way that Arthur had been talking about it had me feeling upset with him, and maybe I just wanted to show that I could do something with the idea. Not Jabberwocky like the poem was, but a world that was to the poem what the vorpal blade had been in D&D, an extension of the concept. I was hopeful that Tiff would get it, if no one else.

Five days after we’d been talking in the movie theater, Arthur got in his car accident.

I never did end up using Mome Rath though. He hadn’t made it into the worldbuilding doc, and so he was just sort of forgotten, like a little joke to myself, the antimeme that didn’t even show up in god’s description of all reality.

And maybe I did forget about him for real when I came to Aerb, but it was hard to say whether that was some latent antimemetic effect, or whether he just didn’t end up sticking right. All that he’d ever existed as was that one conversation with Arthur. I’d remembered the conversation, just not Mome Rath, a detail that had escaped me. It was hard to tell how much I should have expected myself to remember it, nine months after the fact. But in either case, as soon as I saw Mome Rath, the memory had come flooding back.

“Antimeme,” I said to Amaryllis as I ran toward it. “If we leave the area, we’ll forget about it, and we won’t be able to tell anyone. Phones and entads won’t work.”

[Juniper,] she began.

“We can’t call in the cavalry,” I said. “This is one of mine, and basically the only interesting thing about it is that it’s anti-call-in-the-cavalry, at least how I drew it up. It’s Mome Rath.”

There was silence from the other end for a moment as I kept running. Running toward the big scary thing, or at least one leg of it, the leg that had crashed down into the Canis building. Mome Rath wasn’t just forgotten, it was an incomplete creation, never fully fleshed out beyond a few physical details I’d given it. Would I just leave him at being a big antimeme? Probably not, but I would have to figure out what its weaknesses were on the fly.

[Where are you?] asked Amaryllis. Her voice was calm and steady.

“It’s got a leg in the Canis Building,” I said. “I’m going to climb. Almost there.” Its leg was as thick as a redwood, but because of the proportions, it still looked like a creature on stilts.

[Juniper, we should leave,] said Amaryllis. [Or you should wait for us.]

“No one will be able to stop it,” I said. “There should be uncompromised people left in Li’o, mages with some fight left in them. We need Grak up here for analysis and to make some wards. Might be able to ward against the memory effect?”

[I’ll check,] she said. [We’re on our way up. Don’t do anything rash.]

I had reached the leg that was sticking through the building and was staring straight up. Mome Rath was enormous, maybe the biggest thing that I had ever seen in person, and I was just going to, what, stab it in the face until it died?

Yeah, that seemed like what I was going to do.

(It was what Uther would have done. It was what Raven would expect me to do. Hells, it was probably what the fucking narrative wanted, a test that the Dungeon Master had set for me, for all that I gave a damn about that. But it wasn’t any of that pushing me forward, it was the fact that thousands of people were going to die if this thing wasn’t stopped, and the very real possibility that I was the only one capable of stopping it. It was the same uncomfortable feeling that I’d had when we’d almost left Valencia behind at Speculation and Scrutiny, but here, I hoped, more founded.)

(And I could see a path where I would wait around until Bethel got to the surface, then ensconce myself in a war council, where we would have endless debates and debriefs while people died by the thousands. Maybe it was seven agonizing days down in the temple that had me wanting to get moving sooner than later, or maybe it was just the knowledge that if the forthcoming climb was worthless, little would be lost.)

I ducked into the Canis Building, whose edifice had been smashed and whose doors were hanging open, and darted forward toward the leg, blades at the ready. I had to clamber over rocks and broken beams of wood to do it, then across one of the claws that was dug into the basement of the building. My heart was thumping in my chest. Mome Rath had lots of legs, which meant that if he was moving at a sedate pace, each would stay in place for a little while, but I wasn’t sure how long that would be. I rushed up to the face of the leg, which was covered in what looked like ultra thick slabs of bark, and sank my blade in, wiggling it slightly to make sure that it would hold. What I really needed, for a climb like this, was hooks and spikes, particularly to give my feet something to hold onto, but all I had was my Gardner’s Plate, and then, only in an emergency. With my left hand, I used the Needler to stab in, though it had a more difficult time sinking into the foot-bark.

I began my climb. The probability blade made me wish that I still had the Anyblade, which could have been used to hook and grip, wedging itself into a hole that it made. The probability blade, by contrast, was constrained in its purpose, with something of a mind of its own, that mind being primarily driven by conventional swordsmanship, cutting, stabbing, disarming, and parrying. Climbing? Not so much.

I made it five feet up, using only the strength of my arms and awkward footholds where I could find them, before I realized that I wasn’t using the Needler to its full power. I leaned back slightly, holding onto the sword for support, and began throwing the Needler upward. Each time I did, a copy of it stuck into the side of the leg, ready to be blown up with a twist of the handle. Instead, they made for handholds and footholds, awkwardly placed and not stuck in that tightly, but good enough to make the climb significantly easier, ready for me to plunge in deeper when I got to them.

(On a game-mechanical level, there was a Climbing skill, which Mary had, and I didn’t. I had half her skill, which left me in the low 30s, because Climbing was apparently one of the things that was canonically part of her character by whatever metric the game was using to decide what it meant for my companions to ‘keep up’ with me. Per Reimer, there were a few cases where skills overlapped, with the less relevant ones getting a percentage penalty to their roll, but adding to the main skill if both were present as a kind of synergy bonus. It seemed like a horrifying pain in the ass from a bookkeeping perspective, but apparently the bonuses were only invoked in special situations where life was on the line. The upshot was that my effective climbing skill was masterclass, better than maybe any other skill I possessed, on top of some of the fundamentals of climbing that Amaryllis had taught me in the time chamber, when we’d done bouldering together.)

When I was a hundred feet up, the leg moved. It was dizzying to look down, and dizzying to look up, and blades weren’t the best handholds and footholds, which meant that I nearly fell. But the acceleration was slow, befitting the sheer amount of mass being moved, and I clung to the weapons I’d sunk into him, bracing myself. I had left a lot of Needler copies in him, but detonating them all seemed like it was unlikely to do anything.

The leg stopped moving much more suddenly than it had started, with the claws below me bashing straight through one of the campus buildings that I had never been in, housing for freshmen, if my memory of the map could be trusted. I was nearly thrown free from the sudden stop, but managed to shoot the vines out from my Gardner’s Plate in time to give me some extra support. I retracted the many vines back in as quickly as I could once I’d regained my handholds, because vine-time was a precious resource. After a handful of minutes of being out, they needed time to rest, and I didn’t have the ten minutes it would take.

(How many people had died in the last ten minutes? How many would die in the next ten? Hanging on the side of an enormous kaiju wasn’t the time to be thinking about that, but goddamn it this all needed to be stopped, as soon as possible, and holy shit recovering the bodies of the dead was incredibly important, lest hundreds be cast down into the hells, and I wasn’t even thinking about it, but those two I killed down in the temple were probably going to be tortured forever because I didn’t tell anyone they were there.)

My stomach churning, I continued on my way, stopping every once in a while to throw more copies of the Needler for desperately needed holds on the swaying leg. I finally reached the first of three knees and took a moment to catch my breath at a place with far easier holds; Mome Rath was fucking tall.

[We’re on the surface,] said Amaryllis. [Where are you?]

“On one of the legs,” I said. “A hundred fifty feet up, maybe two hundred, not sure.” I looked down at the ground, and my Range Finder virtue pinged. “Two hundred and twenty three feet,” I said.

[What’s your plan?] she asked.

“Keep moving,” I said. “Hit its weak points for massive damage. It should be just like Shadow of the Colossus.” A game that I’ve never played, mind you. “It would be nice if Bethel could, you know, fly up here and cut through it like a scythe.”

I continued on up, not waiting for a response, depending mostly on my superior climbing skill to carry me along. I had no real clue what I was going to do when I got to the top. How much would it actually matter if I destroyed his eyes? Did he even have a brain? Was he physical in name only? I was pretty sure that I could feel some amount of skin magic where I touched him, not that I had the ability to do anything with that magic. A brief attempt at accessing whatever passed for his soul had proved fruitless, without so much as a whiff of progress.

[Do you have a quest?] asked Amaryllis as I continued my climb.

“No,” I replied back. “Busy right now.”

[We’re flying up to you,] said Amaryllis.

I stopped climbing and looked out at the ground below me, trying to spot them. Eventually I saw a speck that was pitifully small by the standards of Mome Rath, but growing with every passing second, not because it was getting closer, but because Bethel was reconfiguring herself. She was increasing in size, spreading out, until she was a sharp and pointed thing, more similar to an oversized fighter jet than to a house. At her maximum size, she was as big as the Palace of Versailles, though I could think of no immediate reason why she would want to be that large.

She moved on Mome Rath, firing lightning and cannonballs at him, getting closer and aiming directly for his face. He roared in pain and anger, rearing back slightly, such that he was only supported by a small handful of his legs. Despite that reaction, he didn’t seem to be overly affected by the assault.

I had been thinking of Mome Rath as a large, lumbering beast, slow but heavily armored, incapable of proving much of a threat to anyone fast enough to get out of his way, a destroyer of cities and creator of refugees, all in fitting with how I had designed him. That notion was laid to rest when he used his triple-jointed, reared-back legs to strike out. The scale of things, given how large Bethel had chosen to go, must have made it seem slower than it actually was, but it still seemed lightning fast, as claws went through the air so quickly I heard the crack of a sonic boom, too fast for even the raw speed of the Egress to dodge.

Instead, the claws went through Bethel, passing through her immaterial bulk, thanks to one of a few dozen entads that she contained within her. There was a thirty minute per day limit on that one, I was pretty sure, time that couldn’t be sliced into smaller chunks, and the clock had started ticking, which put even more pressure on us to get this thing done.

I continued on with my climb, pushing ahead, trusting to Bethel that she was going to work things out, slightly heartened by the fact that she was apparently suppressing her drives to wreak havoc. Our whole group was in there, all of our entadic power, all of it focused into Bethel. I halfway wished that I were getting more from their end, but I had my own climb to focus on.

[We were hoping that we could get this done while immaterial,] said Amaryllis. Her voice was tight. [Seems not. All of the best options require ramming. In combination, they might be enough. We’re having a disagreement over whether to get you. Are you okay?]

“Yes,” I said. “Do it,” though she certainly didn’t need for me to make the call, and my guess was that it was Bethel who was running the show.

Raven had a sword that was made of frozen time, a sword which was inside of Bethel at the moment. Amaryllis had the flickerblade, whose entire blade could disappear and then remove matter from existence when it reappeared, and that sword, too, was in Bethel. And on top of that, Pallida’s trident. It was no mistake that Bethel had taken a shape that was at least vaguely like the point of a spear.

Bethel zipped forward at full speed, straight toward the center of Mome Rath’s immense mass above his dozens of legs. He shot his claws forward, toward her, and where they struck, they were cut, huge pieces falling down toward the city below. Before they could land, she struck center mass, and Mome Rath was split open at what passed for his belly, with Bethel partially wedged inside of him. His weight came down onto his legs again, from the raised up position he’d been in, crushing more buildings beneath him, and as he settled down, a black liquid dropped from the wound, whole Olympic swimming pools of the stuff. Bethel was clearly trying to push in harder, to open up the wound, and I saw a whole section of her blink out of existence, then blink back in, just like the flickerblade did, simply removing chunks of Mome Rath from existence.

Half of his legs folded up and inward, sharp claws pointed toward Bethel. They all struck at once, with the built up power I’d seen before, and the rumbling crack of multiple sonic booms reached my ears. Bethel was strong, incredibly strong, but I was worried about how much damage she could actually take.

[Retreating,] came Amaryllis’ voice. [She had to use one of her wishes.]

It took me a moment to realize what she was talking about. One of Bethel’s entads, on the list that we’d gotten, allowed her three wishes each day, with the caveat that they could only be used to undo the effects of an attack on her just after it was launched. It was a get out of jail free card, one that had just been used. I watched as Bethel flew out from the wound she’d made, dodging attacks so quick I could barely see them in motion.

[Second wish used,] said Amaryllis as Bethel got clear. She was shrinking as she went, back down to a smaller size, with less of a surface to attack. [We don’t have a clear picture of what defenses are on top, but we might be able to avoid the legs if we attack there. Per Bethel’s report, that first attack left us at ninety percent casualties before she wished it undone.] Her words were clipped, her tone terse. [Thoughts?]

[I’m leaving the city,] said Heshnel. [I will regroup with you in Karatern, if you survive. This isn’t my fight.] I had nearly forgotten that he was on comms with us.

“I’m going to keep climbing,” I said. “There’s got to be a way to stop this thing.”

[Let me know,] said Amaryllis, again speaking so quickly and efficiently that it was impossible to read emotion from her.

“Start on search and rescue,” I said.

[On it,] replied Amaryllis. [We’ll leave killing Mome Rath to you.] It was hard not to read that as bitterly sarcastic.


Amaryllis tried to keep herself calm.

“I might be able to kill it,” said Bethel. “It doesn’t appear to be immortal. Flesh and blood, to a warder’s sight.”

She was standing in front of a dais, in a room that she’d apparently created for this express purpose. In front of her, within the bounding box of her illusion, was a recreation of what was going on outside, Mome Rath a huge, dominating figure above the city of Li’o, dozens of knobbly legs stretching downward.

Amaryllis was deep in consideration. Simply taking things on their base merits, they should all run. Mome Rath was too big, with no obvious way to kill it, with unknown capabilities that appeared to include striking out with claws that could move arbitrarily fast. But on the design level, Juniper was correct, Mome Rath likely had been designed to be beaten by a small group of people, in accordance with tabletop design principles. And on the narrative level, Juniper was the one to do it; the Dungeon Master would have conspired to make the entire thing about Juniper, in some fashion, because this was Juniper’s story, above and beyond anyone else’s.

So on balance, as she had thought from the first moment Heshnel had made his report, the answer was that they should fight it, even if they could simply run away. Of course, that answer wasn’t the same as the answer to the question of what her outward facing opinion should be. Juniper had asked her to think more on the level of base reality, hadn’t he? And putting forward a conservative position had, in the past, tended to spur him toward recklessness in a way that could be infuriating. In this particular case, setting herself on the object-level course seemed as though it would pay narrative-level dividends.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “You took two lethal hits when you cut him.”

“And I can take another, before the wishes give out,” said Bethel.

“You took two last time,” said Amaryllis, trying to keep her voice even.

“And I suppose that void artillery would pose too much of a risk to Juniper?” asked Bethel. “Fenn’s bow has seven charges.”

“This isn’t the sort of situation where void is good,” said Amaryllis. “You could make a hole, but it wouldn’t be all that big. You’d be better off with raw kinetics, if you want to use the bow charges.” She turned to Grak, who had just returned from what Bethel had called the observation deck. “Status?”

“Novel magic, from the dark end of the spectrum,” he said. “Wardable.”

“It would be a bad time to bunker down,” said Raven. “What did Juniper say?”

“He wanted us on search and rescue,” said Amaryllis. “Picking up the wounded, or even the still living.”

“I want to kill it,” said Bethel, staring down at her display as though there was nothing else in the world that mattered. “This creature has affronted me.”

“Juniper will kill it on his own,” said Raven.

“Juniper isn’t playing by Arthur’s rules,” said Pallida. She put an emphasis on the A in Arthur, and I saw the faintest hint of a reaction from Raven. “We all agree on that, don’t we?”

“No,” said Raven, jaw set.

“Not the time,” said Amaryllis. “Bethel, you know that I can’t stop you from attacking, but I want you to reconsider, because if you take a real hit, one like the ones that you wished away, we could all die.”

“I would survive,” said Bethel, still staring at the display. “Do you think it would be prudent to cut off its legs? Or to direct an attack at the top of it?” The display showed Bethel rising higher, twisting up into the sky, to just below the cloud cover. For all her movement, there was no sign of it from within her, one of the secondary powers of the Egress, which was currently sitting inside of a garage within Bethel.

“We don’t know what defenses it has on top,” said Amaryllis. “Do you think it’s just armor? Or something more?” The sheer speed of the claws was absolutely mind-boggling, well faster than sound, so much mass moving so quickly that it should have torn the creature apart. The fact that it could endure stresses like that, even if it was with its innate magic, spoke to how ungodly powerful it was. “I know how Juniper thinks, and I sure as hell know how he DMs. There will be complications of some kind if we try to hit it from an angle.”

“Meta-narrative,” Bethel began.

“No,” said Amaryllis, taking the risk of interrupting. “It’s nothing to do with narrative, it’s design speculation based on what we know of the designer. Juniper and I have talked for hundreds of hours about what went into making these things.” She pressed her fingers to the tattoo on her throat before anyone could interrupt. “Juniper, when does Mome Rath date to?”

[Five days before Arthur’s death,] he eventually replied.

Amaryllis neatly slotted that into her mental timeline. It was incredibly worrying, because it implied that antimemetic threats had been retroactively wiped from Juniper’s memory the moment he’d arrived on Aerb. Juniper had never shared the memetic threats he’d created, for fear that they were dormant in his mind, and if the antimemetic nature of Mome Rath was any indication, there was the equivalent of several tons of undetonated ordnance in his mind (one of the many reasons that she’d kept every trip into his soul as brief and constrained as possible).

“Search and rescue,” said Amaryllis, speaking to Bethel. “I don’t want to risk all our lives just to find out what surprises the creature has. Target the destroyed buildings farthest from the creature, use ropes as tendrils to touch people, transfer them inside, I’ll be down in whatever medical bay you create, providing healing to the wounded and extracting the souls of the dead.”

For a moment, Bethel looked like she would object, and Amaryllis steeled herself for either an argument or for diplomatically backing down, depending on her displayed mood. Instead, Bethel nodded once.

“I’ll participate in the healing,” said Solace, and before she could say more, she completely disappeared. Amaryllis followed soon after her, a slice of blackness separating her time in the command room from her time in the med bay.

“She’s becoming more confident,” said Solace as she looked over the medical supplies in clear disdain. The place was enormous, in Bethel’s usual style, with hundreds of beds laid out and ready for intensive triage, nevermind that they didn’t have the workforce to staff it all. There were hundreds of bones ready for Amaryllis to use, most of their stockpile that they’d bought in bulk.

“We’re going to have to call in the tuung,” said Amaryllis. “The oldest of them will be capable of helping. It will be good field experience for them.”

<On it,> replied Bethel.

There was another slice of matte black, and then Amaryllis was standing in the wing that housed the tuung, in the entrance. Bethel could alter her shape and warp space at her leisure, which meant that banking years was much more easily accomplished, but the years weren’t free, not so much so that the tuung wing could be as large as Amaryllis would like it to be. The tuung and their teachers weren’t actually in time dilation, but it had been decided that they would be kept in the dark, in part because there had been no particular reason to inform them, not when it would all hopefully be a singular blip in their young lives.

“Aurora Protocol!” she shouted, trusting her voice to carry across the place. In an ideal world, there would be sound wards to keep some semblance of silence, but Bethel moved around with some frequency, and wards anchored to some particular moving thing (rather than the default reference frame of Aerb) were incredibly difficult, beyond Grak’s ability, at least at scale and for the desired durations. Amaryllis tried her best to have a royal bearing, and removed her helmet, tucking it beneath one arm. There was a fine mist in the air, mimicking the tuung’s natural environment. She hoped she looked the part of their leader; she checked in every year, always with attention paid both to her appearance and to the impression she was making.

The tuung came forward, with the teachers and staff behind them. Aurora Protocol was one of the general ones, only really signalling that there was going to be a non-combat deployment. Amaryllis took a moment to look out on the tuung, trying to make an evaluation of them. They were halfway through their physical development, and so far as she had been able to tell, maybe a third of the way through their social development. If compared to humans, they weren’t quite teenagers, but tuung matured much faster. The group was mixed male and female, and thankfully, the females hadn’t yet developed the ability to infect the males with their scent (which was bound to happen, and would need to be treated as the highest crime that a tuung could commit).

They had never set foot outside of Bethel. The small, cramped quarters had been their home for their entire lives. Amaryllis had provided them with conditions as good as possible, with free time and entertainment, gourmet food, and every other luxury that could reasonably be fit into the complex, but it was still a small world, and for all that they could read about the real world or ask their teachers about it, they had been looking at Aerb through a pinhole.

“We’re facing an emergency for which we need manpower,” said Amaryllis. “We’re expecting hundreds or possibly thousands of casualties from a wide range of species. You’ll be working triage, carrying out simple orders but often acting under your own recognizance, especially in terms of setting up ad hoc command structures.” She hoped that the vocabulary would be intelligible to them; it should have been, by the standards that she’d set for their age. “The threat we’re responding to is ongoing. There’s a danger out there.” And in here, even if you stay. “Do I have any volunteers?”

Amaryllis felt a keen delight as every single tuung raised their hand.

Moments later, they had been placed into the medical bay, which was already filling with screaming, moaning people. Every trace of joy was washed away from her in a single cold moment, and she moved into action, giving instructions to the tuung, making things up as she went along, recruiting people who didn’t seem too badly hurt, trying to build some kind of structure to the proceedings with only vague outlines, made months ago, to go off of.

She didn’t have time to wonder what was going to happen with Mome Rath.

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Alexander Wales

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