Raven felt an overwhelming rush of sheer physicality as Juniper began to burn through the giant monster’s bone, a sensation doubtlessly provided by the Anklet of Reactive Radiance. It was raw physical power, an immense amount of it, whose like she’d only felt perhaps a dozen times before (Uther’s many adventures being what they were). She saw Juniper darting forward, to Valencia, the only one of them not covered in Prince’s Invulnerability, and knew that disaster was incoming. With a fine instinct honed by decades of adventuring, Raven moved without thinking, toward Pallida, who was standing stock-still.
Raven grabbed Pallida’s arm, then took a stretched-out, glacially slow moment to look around and see what it was that Juniper was responding to. Her eyes found the enormous head of Mome Rath, his hundreds of eyes, his serpentine neck, and a look she dimly recognized as anger. The eyes lit up, the world exploded around her.
She kept her tight grip on Pallida, helped, perhaps, by the bone that Juniper was burning, or by the fact that Prince’s Invulnerability wouldn’t allow a tight grip to be undone if it would require such wrenching force that the protected individual might be hurt. The two of them went flying through the air, and Raven tried to keep her eyes open, alert to the world around her. In her experience, it was far too easy to go into pure reaction at a time like this, which was normally fine, if you were in a situation that you were trained for. When in the great wild worlds of adventure though, instincts couldn’t always be trusted, because sometimes they would lead down the wrong path. It meant balancing on a knife’s edge sometimes, trusting instinct because that was the only way you’d be able to respond fast enough, and keeping alert enough that instinct could be overridden.
They arced through the air and then began to fall. Raven felt it when Prince’s Invulnerability wore off, as the winds suddenly began to buffet them hard enough to hurt, and bits of detritus pinged against her armor. They had been spinning, but her cape had stretched itself out to put an end to that, because her Shadow’s Cloak was a good, loyal entad, one that often acted on its own when there were threats against Raven.
“We’re falling,” said Pallida, quite uselessly. She was shouting to be heard over the wind of their descent. “Don’t let go.”
“I won’t,” replied Raven. The thought hadn’t even crossed her mind. She looked behind her, at her cloak, which was doing its best to slow their fall. “Landing will be hard.” It was unlikely that they were going to die, but it wasn’t going to be the cushioned landing that a tattoo could have provided.
Uther had Thoughts about falling as a method of injury or death, as Uther had Thoughts about almost everything. Uther had thrown one of his early enemies from the top of a castle, back in the era of the Dark King, only to have learned later that same day that there existed a simple but expensive spell that might have been tattooed on him. Uther hadn’t quite flown into a rage, but he had castigated a young Everett for not knowing about it, and when the ensuing manhunt produced nothing, it had meant a long chain of events that eventually ended with the villain getting his head stomped in by a giant. After that whole affair had reached its conclusion, Uther had declared that anyone worth their salt would survive a fall, no matter how fatal and unrecoverable it seemed to be. It wasn’t quite the first instance of narrative thinking, but it was a rather stark one.
And then, much later on, when the normally circumspect and secretive Uther had progressed to becoming nearly impossible to talk to, after Vervain had died (or been killed, whichever way one chose to phrase it), it was then that Uther changed his tune. When heinous individuals came to his attention, the kind that he could kill with a snap of his fingers, he became more elaborate about their deaths, less direct. The practice of trial by adversity dated to long before Uther, but he had brought it back, a tradition used in place of an execution. He sometimes said that he liked for someone to be able to prove themselves worthwhile, but it was a twisted form of worthiness. Half the time, he would sit them down for a talk afterward about how they had survived, and what they might accomplish. Memorably, Uther had thrown a thief from the top of a tower and declared it a trial by adversity after the fact.
In retrospect, perhaps that was his views on narrative taking hold. He had gone from being irate that a villain had escaped, to actively encouraging escape, knowing that there was some margin for error in these methods, a way of creating plot threads from nothing. Raven had read through Degenerate Cycles, his last real book, but she hadn’t fully put the pieces together until she was falling through the air.
Midway down, Raven had a rush of memories, all brief, all recent, all laid on top of each other, with Juniper the only variable. He had used a unicorn bone, it seemed, attempting to save Valencia from the might of Mome Rath.
They hit the ground one after the other, Pallida first, Raven second, both rolling to redirect their momentum, both standing up and stretching out to make sure that they weren’t too injured.
“Just like the good old days, isn’t it?” asked Pallida, looking up at the collosal body of Mome Rath, still standing, but swaying slightly. “Probably too much to hope that’s a lethal hit.”
“It wouldn’t have killed itself,” said Raven, staring up, trying futilely to get some understanding of what had happened.
“Healed back most of what Bethel did,” said Pallida with a nod. “Prince’s saved us?”
“Yes,” said Raven.
“Acceptable use of my funds, I suppose,” said Pallida with a sniff.
They watched as Bethel zipped through the sky, fully enlarged. Another counterattack from Mome Rath was a possibility, and she was all out of wishes. How many thousands were inside of her now? How many of them civilians?
After Uther had gone, Raven had gotten used to casualties, to hard choices, to operating without a safety net: that was what being the Head Librarix had entailed. It was tempting, now that she knew who Juniper was, to fall back into the old habit she’d had, the one where she consoled herself that Uther would fix things, that he would win, as he always did … but that was Uther’s unique brand of magic, and if it was ever to be true for Juniper, Raven couldn’t see it just yet. With Juniper, there was a chance he could fail.
Bethel sliced through Mome Rath, moving as fast as she could, the anticipated counterattack never coming. When she came out the other side, the spray of flesh and blood was visible from the ground.
“He was burning its bones,” said Raven. “I think that might have been --”
Mome Rath lurched as its many knees gave out beneath it. The creature was so big it appeared to be falling in slow motion, the alarming kind of way that very large things sometimes moved, so full of energy that a shockwave was surely coming, or if not that, then at least death and destruction for people close by. Raven had seen mountains lurch, oceans briefly rise into the sky, and in one case, watched a floating island drop to the ground. Mome Rath falling down wasn’t so serious a problem as those, but it was nonetheless breathtaking in the way those things had been. It crashed to the ground and sent a fierce wind their way, one strong enough that Raven had to strain against the wind.
“The deathblow, yeah,” said Pallida. “Good on our boy.”
Raven stayed silent, waiting for the creature to rise. When it failed to, she let out the breath she’d been holding in. “Without our help.”
“More or less,” said Pallida with a nod. “That’s always how it was in the old days, wasn’t it?”
Raven looked at her. “I don’t want to talk about the old days.”
“Don’t you?” asked Pallida. “I’ll grant that I wasn’t there for as much of them as you were, nor do I remember them as well, given a lot of my involvement was when I was younger or older, but my recollection was that you loved to talk about the old days, back when the adventures were fresh. And even now, when we have the big meetings, it’s practically the only thing out of your mouth.”
“I don’t want to fight,” said Raven.
“Who’s looking to fight?” asked Pallida. She swung her trident around for a moment, gazing at the tip, then planted the butt of it in the soft earth. They were standing in what was probably a small park, with bits of flesh and gore around them.
“You’re always looking to fight,” said Raven. “Always on the defensive, always looking to get your jabs in. You weren’t always like this.”
“Eh,” said Pallida. She looked around. “Do you think they’ll pick us up?”
“I don’t know,” said Raven.
They sat in awkward silence for a moment. Raven’s cloak fluttered behind her, in a wind of its own, patiently waiting to be useful.
“It’s always easier to be nice and good when things are going your way,” Pallida finally said. “Maybe I’m not, in this lifetime, but there were times when I was the best thief in the world, the best of anyone at infiltration, exfiltration, recovery of goods, I was an explorer of forbidden places, a spy, a saboteur … and the thing was, when that was who I was, it was always easy to just be cock of the walk, to let my deeds speak for themselves, but when I’ve got a life like this, and people ask me what I’ve done lately, and all I have to answer with is that I haven’t, I’ve just been sitting around waiting for various things, living off the largesse of past lives … I don’t expect you to understand.”
“You feel worthless,” said Raven. “Worthless and small, like you don’t stack up to others.” She looked at the corpse of Mome Rath. There had been creatures on it. It was probably too hopeful to think that they were all dead. Maybe mopping up would be her role in this. She grimaced.
“Yeah,” said Pallida.
“What was your excuse, five hundred years ago?” asked Raven. “You had deeds to your name, at fifteen. Uther had sent you on a half dozen missions that he couldn’t have accomplished by himself, the three of us,” she choked up slightly. “We had our own adventures, separate from him. We had done things. Maybe not so much as Uther had, but in any other age, we’d have been legends, we were legends in our own right. You didn’t have an excuse.”
“We were in love, Raven,” said Pallida. She’d been keeping her inky armor down, so that her pink skin was visible, face clear, but she turned away and let the armor cover her fully. “Seventeen hundred years and you’ve never been in love? Never felt that pull toward another person? It’s not some excuse, it’s -- how could you deny it, if you’d felt what I felt? How could you fault someone for rushing headlong into a bad decision?”
Raven stayed silent. It was the season for old wounds, it seemed. In more than a hundred years at the Infinite Library, she had eventually come to think of Uther only once or twice a day, and then usually when he was relevant to their ongoing work. Granted, that was often, but nothing like it was now among the Council of Arches, with people who had known Uther personally. And there was Arthur, and old stories from Juniper, with new context brought to his adventures, new tidbits that were either mentioned in Amaryllis’ notes or brought up directly by Juniper. If Uther was Arthur, then so many of the things that Uther had seen on Aerb were echoes of the games he’d played.
There had been one too many unpleasant trips down memory lane.
“The worst part,” began Raven. “The worst part about your relationship with Dahlia was that it left me out in the cold. I had kept wondering why the two of you were doing things without me, why we had lost that sisterly solidarity. I would come back to camp needing someone to talk to about the horrors I’d seen, or if not that, then at least someone to be there for me, someone to distract me, or take my mind off what I’d seen. And you weren’t, neither of you, because you had cut me out of your lives.”
Pallida looked off at the horizon and twirled her trident for a moment. “Yeah,” she said.
“Yeah?” asked Raven.
“What do you want me to say?” asked Pallida. “We were shitty friends. I should have told you that I had a thing for Helio, I should have told you when we first kissed, I should have let all the petty drama of it wash over you so that you could forget about the stench of death or the feel of someone dying in your arms, I just … I wanted something for myself, something that I didn’t have to share. And look, it’s lifetimes ago, barely remembered. I have a policy of not apologizing for things that happened in past lives, because if I was going to do that, I would have to apologize for, I don’t know, everything under the sun. I’m sorry. It’s a mealy-mouthed apology, because I’m not even saying that I wouldn’t do it again, but maybe I would try harder to puzzle out a way through that mess, if -- incoming.”
Giant bats were flying toward them, with razor sharp fangs, not quite so many of them as to constitute a cloud, but enough that they were an identifiable mass.
At least that was a problem that would be easier to deal with than the personal.
“What the fuck, Finch?” I asked. “You came here ahead of Mome Rath?”
“Who?” asked Finch, raising an eyebrow.
“Mome Rath,” I said. “The big thing with a hundred legs that I just put down?”
“We don’t have time for this,” said Finch. He looked past me, to where Bethel was standing. “Bethel, are we going to be stationary for a while?”
“We can be,” said Bethel with a nod. “There are still dead and wounded all over the place, including lying under the enormous corpse. Better that you make things quick. You’re thinking of employing the time out?”
“I am,” nodded Finch. He signaled to one of the gimmals standing behind him, using a quick gestural language that only used one hand. I watched closely, hoping to acquire it, but had no immediate luck. “Who’s going to be in it?” he asked.
“You, myself, Valencia, Malus, if that’s her name,” I said. “The gimmals too, if they have something to contribute. Bethel will be part of it, if she’s able, but I’m doubtful.”
Finch nodded, then signed more to one of the gimmal, which still didn’t trigger a ping for me, despite my active will. A one-handed sign language would be handy, even if the gimmal language was sure to have some peculiarities to it given their gravity sense and the fact they only had one arm. The gimmal responded to Finch’s signs by holding his hand forward, then moving himself around in a small circle, roughly ten feet wide. As he went, his hand began glowing blue, building in intensity and covering more of his arm, until it was glowing through the seams in the shimmerplate. I stepped inside it without being asked to; I had seen the spell used once before, back in Silmar City, under extremely different circumstances. When the spell was completed, we were cast into darkness.
“Alright,” I said as I lit my hand up. “Now we should have time.”
(I should note that at this point, I had been awake for something like a hundred and seventy hours, which included the Spelunker’s Stroll, two fights with Harold, dissociative meditation, another fight against three people who’d been sent to kill me, and all the business with Mome Rath. I had leveled up, which was a convenient cure for almost everything that ailed me, but it was still a very long time to be awake, and I was starting to feel the drag of it. I’d opted not to get Kenner’s Eye when we’d been tattoo shopping, something that I was deeply regretting now, given that Still Magic was sitting stock still at just above 100 points until the next time I slept. I wasn’t tired, but I was wanting for sleep.)
“Tell me what the fuck is going on,” said Finch.
“Fucking you first,” I said with an exasperated sigh.
“May I?” asked Valencia. She looked intimidating in the torchlight of my hand, spiked red armor and crown of thorns giving her a particularly savage look.
“Sure,” I said.
“Malus Lartin was a deep cover operative placed as a teacher at Sound and Silence by the Empire of Common Cause under the direction of Uniquities.” That much, at least, I had figured out, but I doubted that I would get any credit for catching on after she’d shown up in shimmerplate. “Her role was to write covert reports on what was happening here, as well as to be a first responder in the event of some emergency that the magocracy couldn’t or wouldn’t handle. That’s all in addition to other, less defensible covert missions that Uniquities would sometimes send her on as part of their attempts at wrangling power across Aerb.”
“She cheats,” Finch said to Malus, who was looking at Valencia with alarm.
“Be that as it may,” said Valencia. “At some point in the past six months, Malus -- that is her real name, by the way -- realized that something was happening, and sent back a report -- a series of reports -- which eventually found their way to Finch. Based on what I know of how Uniquities operates, Finch was read in on Malus and they began trying to gain more information about what was happening. Threat level would have been low enough at that point that it would be handled through cryptographically secure express mail. Eventually, the threat level was raised, at which point Finch decided that he needed -- wait, no.”
She had been watching Finch in the dim light of my flaming hand. “Got something?” I asked.
“Finch knows more than the last time I looked at him,” said Valencia. She turned to me. “Or maybe I just wasn’t looking closely enough.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “What does he know?”
“Uther was unique,” said Valencia. “Maybe the most unique individual in the entire history of Aerb. Our recent friends weren’t the only ones who noticed that. They weren’t the only ones who made plans, in the event that someone else like him came along.” She looked back at Finch. “I’m … not sure exactly when Juniper got flagged.”
“He’s confirmed now,” said Finch. “Or as close to confirmed as we think we’re going to get.”
“And that’s why you sent me in,” I said. “Without so much as a whiff of information or support.”
“No support?” asked Finch. “You had a seasoned veteran of Uniquities and one of the deadliest vibration mages on the plane, and in theory, you’d have had Malus too. You had your own team. And besides all that, you weren’t even supposed to be doing anything, you were deniable backup in case things went pear-shaped, off accomplishing your own goals that I’d fervently hoped wouldn’t intersect with those of Uniquities.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “And how did that turn out?”
“We don’t know,” said Finch. “Because like I said, Harold is still out there, and I’ve got a newsflash for you, we still need to get him.”
“Harold, an entity that you told me fucking nothing about,” I said.
“Harold, who I didn’t know about until you went to that meditation class,” said Finch. “So there was no way I could have told you, even if I’d wanted to. And once you were exposed, you and yours were suspect, because there’s no way to tell whether or not Harold’s got to someone.”
“Tell me what you know,” I said. “If you want my help going after him, I need more than that stale report that Oberlin gave me. Finch, we sent you an emergency letter and you stonewalled us.”
Finch stared at me. “We don’t know how Harold works,” he said. “It’s something like soul magic, but the anolia can’t pick up on it, and there are no other methods we know of to detect it. Harold changes people. So far as we can tell, he can do small, subtle changes to one of them at a time, or big, ham-fisted changes to all of them at once. Did you happen to catch the makeshift choir out there?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Big, ham-fisted changes,” said Finch. “But now that the big guy was summoned, you might have noticed that the choir has stopped, and all the people singing their little one-note song have returned to whatever it was they were doing.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” I said. “I was dealing with bigger things.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Finch. “But the people Harold has his hooks into are to the winds now, capable of being steered by him at any moment, so long as both he and they stay in Li’o. And given that Harold is who he is, he’s going to use them again, more aggressively this time, and my best guess right now is that he’s going to summon another one of those things that you’re so proud of having killed.”
I almost, almost said something boastful and dumb like ‘well then I’ll just kill the second, and the third’, but I wasn’t so awash in my victory that I could forget the sheer destruction that Mome Rath had brought down on Li’o and the athenaeum. When his body had come down, it had flattened buildings, and before that, he had been doing targeted destruction. Li’o might recover, eventually, but I had no idea what the death toll was sitting at. More worryingly, the hells toll was also probably pretty high, given how total the destruction was, and how difficult it would be to get to some of the bodies.
“And who is he?” I asked. “What does Harold actually want? I’ve heard what he had to say, but it was, frankly, nonsense.”
“You talked to him through one of his puppets?” asked Finch.
“No,” I said. “I talked to him when he tried to get in my head. It didn’t take.”
“Then you know a thousand hells more than I do,” said Finch. “I spoke with him once, shortly before he was ported out. Seemed like a snot to me, typical end-of-the-world cultist but with a heap more power behind him, grabbing onto someone’s head to force out words. Tried to recruit me.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too. He talked about the World Lords, which Mome Rath seemed to be one of, and told me that he was trying to bring about the end of the world. Not sure how he thought Mome Rath was going to do that.”
“What’s a World Lord?” asked Valencia, staring hard at Finch. I briefly looked at Malus, who had her eyes fixed on Finch.
“Really starting to not like you very much,” said Finch, frowning at Valencia. “Fine. One of Uniquities' many duties is containing the World Lords. If three of them get out at any given time, it’s supposedly game over for Aerb and every plane with even a remote attachment to it, hells included. No real details on the mechanism, and obviously no proof that’s true. The identity and nature of the World Lords is classified beyond belief, and most of it is guesswork, but there’s already one of them, living in an exclusion zone.”
“Fel Seed,” I said.
Finch stared at me. “Not a lucky guess?” he asked.
“An educated guess,” I replied. I closed my eyes and let out a sigh. “That makes Mome Rath especially dangerous.”
“Why?” asked Finch, raising an eyebrow.
“If you go more than a mile from him, you forget about him,” I said. “Can’t think about him, can’t remember him, probably some other stuff, none of it confirmed too well, but I’m pretty confident in it. I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to remember the corpse, but maybe not even that if another is summoned. He seemed intent on destroying the city, but if you’re right, then maybe the worst case would be that he went off into the countryside where everyone would forget about him. And then we would be one World Lord away from total destruction. If you’re right.”
“So you’ll help?” asked Finch.
“I was always going to help,” I said.
Finch had some stories about Harold, told as quickly as they could be, before our limited supply of oxygen ran out. Valencia interjected a few times, when he was being loose with the truth, and sometimes he would correct himself, while other times he would mutter something about classifications or information hygiene, then continue on.
Harold had been a thorn in Uniquities’ side for a long time, and building information on him had been difficult. It had been as Oberlin said, little hints and clues here and there, the motif of the flaming man appearing incidentally in various, seemingly unconnected places. Every time there was some evidence of Harold, it was more information added to the pile, more information about how he operated, who he was, what he wanted, and what his limits were.
In brief, Harold operated like a more powerful soul mage, one that anolia couldn’t detect, and one that could operate without needing touch. His modus operandi appeared to be infiltrating or co-opting cults of various persuasions until they were working towards his goals, which very much appeared to be the end of the world, though the justifications for it by cult adherents varied, leaving Harold himself somewhat opaque. Like many soul mages, Harold had a solid core of carefully cultivated and meticulously sculpted supporters, people who moved around with him when he inevitably fled from one failed attempt at ending the world to the other.
There were a few scary things about Harold, from Finch’s perspective. The first was that he left virtually no trace of himself. When he bugged out, he bugged out hard, completely ditching whatever project had been in the works. Since his normal mode of operation was to not have anyone actually know that he was there, there was very little sign when he left. Second, his geographic range appeared to be pretty damned big, all things considered, which meant that he could potentially settle in with a cult that was on the other side of the city from the place where he was physically present, which in turn meant even less sign of him. And third, maybe most importantly, Harold never stopped. There was no gap in his activity whatsoever: as soon as he’d fled from one failed plan, he was on to the next, starting the same day, if that was feasible. He didn’t take breaks, and he didn’t seem to have needs, or at least not anything that would slow him down. He was just incredibly bloody-minded about the whole world ending thing.
Fortunately, Harold didn’t seem to be very smart. He didn’t tend to iterate on plans that were inches away from working, and he very rarely aimed at local destruction of any kind, nor did he put much effort into weakening the institutions or people that were constantly trying to stop him. That wasn’t to say that he lacked a faculty for long-term planning, but there were ways in which his various plots to destroy the world could have been enormously improved by having a human advisor.
“He used to run at the first sign of trouble,” said Finch. “That he’s not doing that now should be incredibly concerning to everyone. Maybe he knows that he’s blown, maybe he’s reached some critical mass of people, maybe he’s finally taking the advice of someone smarter than him, I have no idea, but if thousands of singers were enough to summon the big guy, what’s to say that he can’t do it again?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Or, maybe just the total number of people he’s got available.”
“And if I were Harold, I would be building back up to full strength,” said Finch. “He can work on anyone with a sufficient disconnect from reality, and if he does have a mortal advisor, they probably would have told him to do some things that he should have done years ago. Putting drugs into the tap water, kidnapping people and forcing them into altered states, all kinds of things. We’re pretty sure that he’s rate limited in what he’s able to do, but --”
“How do you know?” asked Valencia.
“What do you mean?” asked Finch.
“You’re uncertain that it’s true,” said Valencia. “I wanted to know what led you to that conclusion.”
“We fought him,” said Finch. “Last time he tried some shit like this, he got close, close enough that we were breaking down doors in order to stop the ritual-in-progress. It wasn’t the singing, it was some other attack on the world, rune magic, near the Lexian forge. As we went in, we were facing down singular threats, one after the other, low-tier mages, sometimes twos and threes, but usually not. The clairvoyance team assigned to the operation said it was a sudden change, individuals called to action. Could be something else, but yes, our after-action analysis was that he was turning them into soldiers, one by one, as quickly as he could.”
“All shit you could have told me before I went to S&S,” I said.
“Again,” huffed Finch. “I didn’t know that it was Harold until you found out that it was. And there was no way that I was bringing you in on this, not when it’s so far outside of your demonstrated training and abilities.”
“It’s also against protocol,” said Valencia. She turned to me. “If they thought you were the next Uther, they would keep you at arm’s length, because institutions rarely survived contact with Uther untouched.”
“Yeah, if he were here, he would tear Uniquities to the ground, no doubt,” I said. “Deep cover agents working against the athenaeum, ill-considered nation-building projects, subverting international diplomacy and the rule of law, operating outside the purview of the consent of the governed? Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that he’d let stand.”
“Uther was no saint,” said Finch.
“I know,” I said. “But I’m probably more familiar with his biography than you are.”
Finch snorted. “I very much doubt that,” he replied.
It wasn’t really the time for retorts, so I let it drop. “Point being, if we’re going to be working together on this Harold thing, I need to know that you’re not keeping anything from me.”
“There are things that I know that would literally melt your brain,” said Finch. He tapped the side of his head. “There are things in this mind that would make the very world scream in agony. You literally can’t know everything that I know.”
“Fine,” I said. “Infohazards and other memetic threats aside then. We’re on the level?”
“As much as we need to be,” nodded Finch, which seemed like about as much assurance as I was going to get from him.
“He doesn’t trust you,” said Valencia. “But he trusts you enough that you should be able to accomplish this together.” She looked at me. “He’s on the side of good.”
“Good,” I said. “Then we should get out of this bubble and go track him down. I assume you have a way to do that?”
Finch shifted uncomfortably. “Yes,” he said.
“He’s consulting with Doris Finch,” said Valencia.
“How in the hells did you know that?” asked Finch, staring at her. “I can buy that you have powers, incredible powers, but I’m not that transparent, your special ability doesn’t make you that good at connecting the dots.”
“Special ability?” asked Malus, looking between us.
“Long story,” I said. “Finch, you’re using Doris’ probabilistic vision thing?”
Finch grit his teeth, then nodded.
“And it can help us to find Harold?” I asked.
Finch nodded again.
“One of his cultivated associates, actually,” said Valencia. Finch gave her a nasty look. “In the interests of disclosure.”
“Fine,” I said. “We can have a long conversation about all that at a later date, so long as Doris is willing to play ball.”
Finch grunted once, then gave a quick gesture to the gimmal who had cast the spell. The blackness around us dropped, and I was back in the command room again.
“Need me to kill him?” asked Bethel.
“No,” I said. “Finch, do you have coordinates?”
“I have a spread,” said Finch. “One second.”
“Oh, allow me,” said Bethel. She splayed out a hand to her left, and just within the bounding box of her illusion, a map of the city of Li’o appeared, with a section of it colored in like a heatmap, red in one particular building, with orange surrounding it, the whole block in yellow, and everything else in blue. “I can have you there in twenty seconds.”
“The people Harold has are his captives,” I said. “I’d really prefer to keep them all alive, if possible.”
Bethel gave me a slight frown. <Can you do this without me?>
<Yes,> I said, hesitating only slightly. <If we have to. Not feeling up to it?>
<Are you trying to goad me?> asked Bethel, her tone quizzical.
<No,> I replied. <Just wondering. I know you’ve been operating outside your normal parameters.>
<I’m not a robot, Juniper,> replied Bethel. <But yes, I have thousands of strangers inside of me at the moment. I’m trying to track and watch them all. It’s unpleasant.>
“Everything okay?” asked Finch as Bethel and I carried on our silent conversation.
“Perfectly fine,” I said. “Just having a chat.”
“They do that sometimes,” said Valencia. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
<I understand,> I said. <You’ve been doing good work. I’m pretty sure that you got the killing blow on Mome Rath. And as for Harold, I’ve got more power right now than I’ve ever had. Any word on the others? Pallida, Raven? Amaryllis?>
<Pallida and Raven, yes,> replied Bethel. <I’ll fetch them shortly. Amaryllis, no.>
<Fuck,> I said. “Give me a sec.”
I went down into my soul and was relieved to see that the thread was still there. I raced down along it and looked at her soul for a moment, then down into her spirit to make sure that it was okay. So far as I could see, she was just as she’d been when I had tamped down on the paralyzing meme. All that was comforting, in a way, but it didn’t explain why she wasn’t responding to Parson’s Voice.
“Alright,” I said, coming to. “Amaryllis is presumed alive. As soon as Raven and Pallida come in, we’ll hit Harold’s compound hard and fast.” I looked to Bethel. “You’re grabbing them soon?”
“Hrm,” Bethel replied. “It would appear they’ve run into trouble with the remains of Mome Rath.”
“Remains?” I asked.
“The creatures that inhabited it,” said Bethel. “They’re strangers in a strange land, one they might adapt to.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “Fuck.”
“Creatures?” asked Finch.
“Mome Rath wasn’t just a giant beast,” I said. “He was an ecosystem all his own, and some of the things living on him are tough enough to tear through shimmerplate, if that gives you any idea what kind of problem Li’o is going to be dealing with.”
“How contagious?” asked Finch, narrowing his eyes. “Li’o is pretty much toast, but could these creatures spread? Breed?”
“No idea,” I said.
Pallida fought with her trident, and Raven with her sword. They were both world-class fighters, both with top-of-the-line entads. There were, unfortunately, a lot of the bats, and they moved rather fast.
The bats weren’t coordinated, which was a relief, and they didn’t seem to have the force necessary to bite through Raven’s banded armor, though she could feel it flex (worrying, given what forces it was capable of withstanding). Unfortunately, there were too many of them, and their bite gripped tightly, which meant that Raven soon had bats clamping down onto her arms and legs, beating their wings, pulling at her and putting her off-balance, even as her sword cut its way through more of them. Her amulet protected her head and face, her cloak whipped around and strangled any that tried to get behind her, but her hands were unprotected, and eventually one of the bats sank its teeth in, piercing straight through her palm.
Pallida was there in an instant, stabbing through the bat with her trident, heedless of the danger to herself. They fought back to back for a moment, clearing each other, slicing and stabbing in a coordinated way, inches from injuring each other. In truth, that was how they had always been best, when they were working together with purpose, instead of talking. They probably would never have become friends if not for the fact that they were permanently beset on all sides by enemies that needed to be dealt with, but those had been their circumstances.
After two dozen of the bats were dead, no more seemed to be coming, and Pallida speared through the last of those that were hanging onto Raven.
“Just like the old days, eh?” asked Pallida, panting slightly and allowing her armor to come down and show her face. “You took a hit there -- here, I’ve got a fairy.” She reached into the inky black armor and pulled forward a dead marzipan fairy, from the jar that Uther had used once upon a time until it was superseded by better entads and more powerful magics. Raven ate it down, swallowing as few times as possible: marzipan healing had some bad associations.
Not long after, before their breathing had returned to normal, Bethel descended down from the sky, extending long ropes that wrapped around them, and, ten seconds later, put them inside.