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A note from Alexander Wales

This is the seventh of seven chapters in this current batch. If you're coming here direct from notifications, be sure to read ch 177, The Erstwhile Manor, first.

The corridors got wider as we went, in a way that was pretty subtle, until eventually I was staring down a hallway looking at a cavernously large room. Zinnia was standing there waiting for us, feet shoulder-width apart, holding a cleaver in one hand and staring at me. In her other hand, she held her wand, and her monocle was fixed in place over her eye. The entad handbag was on the floor by her feet. Her brother was nowhere to be seen, nor were any of the other staff or guards, if there were other staff or guards. Behind her were wide doors, closed, with a collection of pallets beside them. I had a stolen rifle slung over my shoulder and a truncheon in my hand, with the teleporting chakram in the other. The armor I’d made for myself was about half used up, if I had to guess, though I wasn’t sure whether it would lose coherence or run out of wires first.

“How’d you get out?” she asked, raising her voice to let herself be heard across the distance.

“Magic,” I called back. “Give us back Raven and our entads and we’ll leave.”

I saw Zinnia’s hand flex on the cleaver. “You’re never getting out of here,” she said. “Drop your weapons and remove your armor, then lay down on the ground with your hands behind your back. This area is laced through with annihilation wards that will kill you if you approach. If you attack me, or come any closer, I will kill you and let the demons have their way with your souls.”

“Right,” I said. I started walking toward her. “The thing is, if you just go giving in to any old threat, then you end up ruled by threats.” I was really, really afraid of running smack into one of those wards she’d mentioned, and pushed against my various magics to see whether I was through some critical threshold or not, because I really didn’t want to go into this fight so cripplingly handicapped as I was.

When she realized that I intended to keep going, Zinnia reared back and threw her cleaver at me as hard as she could. I parried it with the truncheon, easily, given the distance between us and the difficulties inherent in throwing something like that, then turned back to her, thinking that there was about even odds that it was a distraction.

Unfortunately for me, the balance of probability was the other way, and I wasn’t quite fast enough to dodge the cleaver as it rocketed toward me from where it had clattered to the floor. It caught me in my left arm, snapping one of the threads that made up my armor, though the snapping attack the armor was supposed to do had either missed or was ineffective against the entad cleaver. I wasn’t sure how well it had stopped the attack, given that I couldn’t feel pain anymore. When the cleaver came at me a third time, launched through the air as though flicked by an enormous, invisible hand, I was ready, and managed to avoid another hit.

I was well aware that I was spending a lot of time and effort fighting a magic cleaver while Zinnia was left to her own devices, and I tried multi-threading to focus on her while I continued my battle with the entad, which didn’t work as well as it might have, given that I only had a single set of eyes which were focused on the cleaver by necessity. I did notice, in a brief moment when my eyes passed over her, that she was reaching into the handbag, which didn’t bode well. The chakram was ready to throw at her, but I felt a need to save it, because if the chakram ran into a ward, that was that.

Solace and Pallida were behind me, but Pallida was moving forward much more slowly than I was, probably because she had a proper fear of unknown wards. Solace seemed to be casting a spell of some kind, or doing the druid equivalent, which I could mostly tell from the way nature seemed to be creeping into the world, starting with her. Grass was growing from the floor and roots were sprouting, but their purpose was unknown. Whatever she might accomplish, I was hoping that it would be worth her time and effort.

After the sixth time being attacked by the cleaver, I decided that it probably wasn’t going to stop on a timescale that I would find preferable. That being the case, I needed a better approach than the one I was using, which largely involved dodging and parrying it as it came in. I acted on instinct and tossed the truncheon and chakram to the floor, then squatted slightly and held both hands in front of me, readying myself to catch the murderous weapon.

I didn’t get it on the first attempt, which snapped another thread of my armor, but I got it on the second try, catching it by the handle when it was inches from my unprotected face. Soul sight let me see entads, but only those entads that were connected to a soul in some way, usually by means of inheritance rules or binding. The cleaver hadn’t shown up at all, which meant that it was one of those entads that had no particular loyalties or restrictions. Once I’d caught it, it was mine.

I reared back and threw the cleaver at Zinnia, thankful that I still had Thrown Weapon on my character sheet, but when it was halfway to her face, it vanished entirely, disappearing into some void or another that had swallowed it whole.

“Oh come on,” I muttered, but I didn’t have time to be forlorn, because Zinnia pulled a void rifle out of her handbag, one that was longer than her handbag should have allowed. She aimed it squarely at me, and I scooped up my weapons and began running toward her at a zig-zag, hoping that she wasn’t a trained warder and a master markswoman. My strategy with regards to the potential bone or blood annihilation wards was to hope that they weren’t there, which was, admittedly, not terribly wise. I took off down the wide hallway, out toward the open room.

At the range we were at, she was only going to get one shot with a void rifle, so after the first thunk left me free of any gaping wounds, I relaxed a hair, only to see her pull a lever on the side of the rifle and watch it rotate some bulky mechanism around. The second shot hit me right in the chest, poking a clean hole into the meat of my pectoral and into the lung. I didn’t even feel it at first, not until I took a breath and felt what I would later figure out was a collapsing lung. All I knew was that I was hit and having trouble breathing.

The second bit of bad news came right after that, as my leg collapsed out from under me. I fell to the ground and rolled forward, stopping for just a moment to confirm that my calf was bent nearly in half, with a fair bit of the bone presumably removed. There was, naturally, no pain, for which I was thankful, and my foot seemed to be intact. My plan had been to get to Zinnia and pray that I could either find a way to fight her without closing to within the range of her wards, or to get some scrap of magic back that I could come at her with. Failing that, I would pull up the rifle and just shoot her, but there was virtually no way that would work.

The third bit of bad news was that I had stepped beyond the end of the hallway, into the large room Zinnia was in the middle of, which made it clear that she’d been standing there as bait: there were a dozen people standing back with weapons at the ready, hidden by the walls before but now clearly visible to me. Right into the killbox.

As I crossed the threshold into the big room, there were other sensations, ones that had been suppressed, and that was the only good news: I had my magic back.

I started burning one of the three unicorn bones at the same time I pushed vibration magic hard enough to give me warder’s sight. A fraction of a second later, they opened fire on me, and I died almost instantly.

Have you ever been playing a videogame and chose exactly the wrong moment to save? One of my clearest videogame memories was playing Skyrim and quicksaving right as I’d aggroed some enemies. I fought the battle a dozen times, using increasingly desperate measures, until finally I decided that the save was a doomed world where I was going to die no matter what I did.

The short version is that I was killed about a dozen times in rapid succession. Still magic could take care of the ones using bullets, but some of them were using void weapons, which couldn’t be stopped by any means that I had available to me. I had just a split second each time, and while I could burn two bones at once, the extra speed from the second just wasn’t helping me enough, and the unicorn bone was being drained way too fast by the repeated deaths. I started burning the second when I felt the first’s power start to slip, and lucked into a workable strategy after that, with a hand raised to soak some of the void fire, the fear aspect of passion magic to move out of the way, and a turn of my head just enough so that the void would tunnel through the thick of my skull, missing the gray matter of my brain.

Once I was through that first volley, my options expanded out considerably. I was down a leg, but up a considerable amount of magic, and while I wasn’t incredibly proficient at one-legged combat, I was burning through limited resources at a rapid pace, which always helped. I leapt with my one good leg, the other flopping below me, over one of the ribbon wards and through a small gap between two others, landing back on my good leg again. More bullets were coming in, and instantly stopped against my skin, but the void weapons seemed to have been spent for the time being. I was still some distance from Zinnia, and I didn’t think that I would be able to get there by hopping, even hopping really fast —

And then with a flash, there was something black over my eyes.

I’d been burning speed, in addition to the unicorn bone, which was the only reason that I saw so much as a single frame of a woman moving in, obvious only in retrospect because the image of her was the last thing my eyes had seen. Velocity mage. I hadn’t fought one yet, having narrowly avoided an encounter with one in Barren Jewel, but I had done some theorycrafting with the party about how best to handle it. I felt the woman trying to stab me with needles, which my still magic stopped, and then let time loop back once more.

This time when I took a hit to the skull, it was a little bit better, bleeding profusely but leaving me clear-headed in the non-literal sense, and I managed to hop my way through the wards again, using my one good leg, and stopping the bullets that were impacting me. This time, when the speedster came at me, I was ready. She only touched me for a fraction of a second, but I knew when and where that was going to be, and our brief contact was enough for me to stop her in her tracks with the tape poised and ready to go over my eyes. I barely had time to register her species as ‘not-human’ before spinning myself around and kicking her with the knee of my bad leg, which sent her backward through one of the ribbon wards. She came through it far worse than I did, and I doubted that she would survive (a defeated! popping up for her as good as confirmed it).

I was still hampered by my mobility, with too much distance to cover, but I finally made it long enough to see what Solace had been cooking up. From back in the hallway, a bolt of lightning cracked overhead, then broke apart and branched down to strike both my left and right at the places where the guards were flanking me. I was momentarily blinded but kept hopping forward all the same, hoping that Zinnia would be likewise impaired.

The amplified vibration magic let me see her wards, and aside from the ribbon wards that were designed to kill or incapacitate someone, there was a ward that completely surrounded her, probably not more than five feet in diameter. Though I could see the ward, I couldn’t tell what it did, and I was fearing the worst, which was that it would be impossible for me to get through it. Warders got themselves into siege situations from time to time, and I didn’t think that I would come out the winner, not if she picked that double-barreled void rifle back up, or whatever else she had in her magical handbag. I hadn’t seen or heard of a storage entad as powerful as Sable in terms of raw capacity, but ones with lower limits were pretty common. There were all kinds of tricks that you could pack into a space like that.

I noticed the discontinuity right away as Zinnia changed position. I had my chakram in hand and I’d been waiting for it, the telltale sign of a revision mage doing their work. I wasn’t clear on exactly why I had been revised, but my guess was that I’d found success somewhere, or the revision mage was trying to soak up my resources or keep me pinned down. It could have been that he was trying to protect Zinnia, but I never found out, because there was another discontinuity and I died not long after that, having locked eyes with the man out of uniform I pegged as the revision mage.

I did the whole thing over again, taking down the velocity mage when she closed the distance, closing my eyes for the lightning, then throwing the chakram at the revision mage and counting on the HUD instead of my eyesight to see whether it worked (the defeated! message followed soon after). I also spotted, for the first time, a form on the floor writhing with pus and boils, what I assumed to be a pustule mage hit by Solace’s lightning and regrowing a new self, but I had a target, and it wasn’t him.

I made bounding hops, avoiding the ribbon wards, and blasted out magic at Zinnia as I went toward her, first trying a pulse of vibration magic, which had no effect, then using air magic to sweep away her oxygen, which might have worked through her wards but simply been ineffective. I was desperately missing the gem that I had secreted away, because this would have been a great time to blast away.

When I got to the ward surrounding her, she was in the middle of picking back up the void rifle. It couldn’t possibly have been long enough for it to be charged up, because this was all happening incredibly fast, but she surely had something planned.

I decided against keeping the timeline and swiped through the ward with my hand, wanting to see what kind it was. The bones of my hand vanished entirely, leaving it flopping down without anything to give the ligaments tension against, but the blood felt like it remained.

When the loop restarted, I dodged the void, getting another grazing shot straight through my skull, then began hopping my way over the wards so I could get to Zinnia again. I stilled the velocity mage when she came and kicked her through the ribbon wards, putting her out of commission if not necessarily killing her, screwed my eyes shut for the lightning from Solace, threw my chakram at the revision mage, and kept going until I got to Zinnia. This time I was ready for her ward, and smashed through it by throwing a claret spear of blood. It struck her in the body suit but failed to pierce, because as suspected, the suit was either entadic or some special material. I could loosely control my blood outside my own body though, and used it to grip her as tightly as I could. She would definitely have been able to struggle free, but my blood was a conduit for my soul, and I applied the full force of my still magic against her, stopping her completely in place.

“Stop shooting or I kill her!” I tried to shout, but it came out as a wheeze, because something was wrong with my lung. “Stop!” I tried again, looking to the people flanking us, but most of them had already been struck down by Solace, and no one was even actively shooting at me anymore. The pile of pus was heaving, but not doing much else, and I wasn’t sure that a lone pustule mage would try to save the day on his own even if he could recover in time.

I looked around the room, frantically trying to see if anyone was hiding. There were doors behind Zinnia, and more doors around the perimeter of the room. I didn’t see Yarrow anywhere, which was concerning, but at least I knew what branch of magic he’d studied, and he was really unlikely to be a multimage, especially if his cover story of being an entad specialist was true. Solace’s lightning had killed or incapacitated a half dozen people. I allowed the loop to collapse into normal reality, and watched Zinnia’s eyes go wide as she realized what had happened.

I burnt one of my bones for healing, patching the place where I was missing a bit of skull, the hole in my chest from Zinnia’s void rifle, and a second wound that I hadn’t even realized I’d had from another void shot. My leg couldn’t be healed, because I was missing bone and couldn’t regrow it, ditto the hole in my skull if not the skin and flesh on top of it, and my lung was still fucky, because I didn’t know the first thing about collapsed lungs, and by healing the wound, I had trapped a bunch of air in the lung cavity. I was quite short of breath, and getting to the point where I would need to worry about blood loss, and down a leg, but otherwise fine.

“Where’s Raven?” I asked Zinnia. I was breathing heavily and trying to heal myself better, which wasn’t working.

Zinnia’s mouth moved a fraction of an inch, and I realized that I was stilling her so completely that she couldn’t even breathe, let alone talk. I released my grip on her, just a bit.

“We never had Raven,” she said, gasping for breath.

“Bullshit,” I replied, taking in a sharp breath of my own. I was worried about what would happen when I turned pain back on, but I was clearly going to have to, since I had gotten fairly injured without even realizing it. It had been so much easier when I was moving, but the adrenaline was starting to fade, leaving me worn down.

“We didn’t,” replied Zinnia. “The pipe didn’t work on her. We only got away because I threw my dress at her.”

“A dress?” I asked, having trouble pushing out enough air for more words. I looked back to see where Solace was, hoping that she would be able to fix whatever was fucked up with me, and saw that she and Pallida were still back where they had been, behind a barrier that Solace had erected of vines mixed with hair. A pile of dead vines stretched out from where they were, which might have been part of what made the lightning, or possibly were just some decoration that Solace had wanted. Naturally, neither of them had been able to see where the wards were, and neither had been so foolhardy as to rush the wards. Unfortunately, I couldn’t move back to them without letting Zinnia go.

“The dress is a binder, sticks to who you throw it at and pins them in place,” said Zinnia. “We left it behind with her at the castle.”

“Fine,” I replied. My blood was touching her, and I was holding her in place with still magic, but the blood wouldn’t last as a conduit of my soul forever. Hells, it didn’t seem like it was even going to last until the end of this conversation. If I could get into her soul — but it would take too much time. “Our gear.”

Maybe she saw it in my eyes, or maybe in my voice, but she must have realized that all she needed to do was to wait me out. Maybe that was why she’d been talking about some stupid dress.

“Your brother,” I said, gasping for air, but I had nothing to follow that up with, nothing to convince Zinnia to submit to me before my blood stopped being my blood and started to just be blood.

I sang, just a single note, and the sound carried through the ward. She’d set up part of her shell to prevent vibration magic, but it only stopped magic from getting through the shell, and with my blood acting as an extension of my soul, I was effectively in there with her. I amplified the sound of my note immensely, then changed my mind at the last moment, vibrating her skull instead of exploding her head with a pressure wave. By the end of it, blood was coming down from her nose, and she collapsed down to the ground, unmoving, as my blood in there with her finally stopped being connected to my soul.

Zinnia Penndraig defeated!

“Fucker,” I said, but I didn’t really feel it. I had come very close to killing her. She would have deserved it.

I turned around and started hopping back toward Pallida and Solace, trying to keep my eyes on the remaining men on either side of the room. They weren’t shooting anymore, just tending to the wounded and giving me nervous looks. They didn’t look like I would expect a crack team of mercenaries or military members to look, instead reminding me more of mall security guards, notwithstanding the breastplates they wore. If I had the measure of this place right, they were just guards, not expected to be in full-on magical armed conflict. They had three mages among them, all down now (the lump of boils had stopped moving, the growth stillborn), which was the extent of their forces. I was immune to their conventional weapons thanks to still magic, and if any of them were thinking about picking their void weapons back up, they hadn’t made that choice just yet. I hadn’t used the rifle on my back.

By the time I got back to Pallida and Solace, I was out of breath of both varieties, the kind in my lungs and the mana that vibrational magic ran on, in part because I was using it to see where the wards were, pulsing it on and off so I didn’t run into another of the ribbon wards.

When I got behind the barrier that Solace had made, she was breathing hard too. “Overdid it,” she said.

“You did well,” I replied. “Some still standing. Broke their will.”

“You looked insane out there,” said Pallida. “Watched you die a dozen times, but still, all that flipping, hopping, and dodging, that was nuts. Also pretty nuts to run straight up to a warder like that, but what do I know. How’d you know you’d get your magic back?”

“I didn’t,” I replied. “Just a feeling.” I thought that if they had mages here, they would want them as weapons of last resort at the entrance. I had no clue how the antimagic was set up here, since I hadn’t seen a giant ward cutting off the big room from the hallway, but I guessed that it was a big blanket over this place, and given their conventional weapons gambit in the earlier hallway had failed, my guess was that their mages here couldn’t operate deeper into the facility. I was short on breath for explanations though.

“Are we going to be able to get out of here?” asked Solace. She was sweating, for no obvious reason.

“Probably,” I replied. “Lungs fucked,” I added, pointing to my chest.

Solace slowly climbed to her feet and touched her small hand to my chest. She closed her eyes for a moment and frowned, then I felt a warmth inside me and an instant easing of pressure, and then more in my leg as it straightened out. As soon as it was done, she collapsed.

“Fuck,” I said as I caught her. “That’s not good.”

“I didn’t know druids could collapse,” said Pallida.

“Never count out a druid,” I replied. “She’s been pushing it, and she’s far from the locus, and I guess it makes sense that she can’t be running full blast forever.”

“So you and me are going through those wards?” asked Pallida. “We’re carrying her?”

“I will, yeah,” I replied. “I have a unicorn bone left, if we really need it.”

“And we ask one of these fuckers where our stuff is?” asked Pallida.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Might have to soul fuck one of them.”

“Shit,” she replied with a frown. “If you do that, better to kill them all. We should be thinking about what we’re going to do when we’re out of here.”

“We don’t even know where we are,” I replied. “I’m not going to kill a bunch of people who have surrendered just because … why would I?” I glanced at Zinnia on the floor. She wasn’t moving. She still showed up colored in soul sight, which I thought probably meant she was still alive, at least for now.

“You’re a soul mage,” said Pallida. “Registered, but not authorized for anything even remotely like this, whatever country we’re even in right now. Even if it were legal, that’s not the kind of battle that Amaryllis is fighting right now.”

“We’ve got no fucking clue what kind of battle she’s fighting,” I replied. “They attacked us, kidnapped us, and tortured us. Fuck them. For all we know, she’s dead.”

“Right,” said Pallida. “So we kill everyone here and make sure there are no witnesses.”

“That’s not what I mean,” I replied. “You’re talking about killing people because that’s better press.”

“You’re talking about soul fucking someone because you want your things back,” said Pallida. “I don’t think you get how seriously these people take it. It’s not something that you do casually. You know what a soul mage is expected to do if he’s forced to act against his oath at gunpoint?”

“No,” I shook my head.

“He’s expected to take the bullet,” replied Pallida.

“Fine,” I replied. I looked down at Solace. “How long do you think she’ll be out for?”

“At least until we’re out of danger,” replied Pallida.

“Alright,” I said, lifting up Solace and slinging her over my shoulder. “We’re going to try this without killing or soul fucking first.”

I walked forward, carrying Solace, thankful to once again have two working legs. Whatever Solace had done to my leg hadn’t been regrowing of bone but something else, and it felt funny, like I had a lump in the middle of the bone where she’d fixed me. I stepped over the ribbon ward that had initially eaten through my leg, and watched as Pallida navigated it. I was running dangerously low on vibration magic though, and the costs for being able to see the magic were escalating. In retrospect, using so much of my power to incapacitate Zinnia was going to bite me in the ass, and I should have used something else instead, but I was a novice with passion magic, the other obvious choice. Over the course of the seconds-long battle, I had barely even used it.

When we got into the larger chamber, many of the guards had cleared out. They hadn’t moved across the midfield, for the obvious reason that they couldn’t, not unless they knew where all the ribbon wards were. I was pretty sure that was also keeping them from communicating with each other, unless they had just happened to fall into opposing camps. The left side had weapons aimed down but still held, in a threatening way, while the right side seemed like they were trying to pretend that we didn’t exist as they went through the process of triage, their weapons physically thrown or slid away from them. I saw that some of them had runed spikes and were going through to remove the souls of the dead.

“Parley!” shouted a man on the left side.

“Sure!” I called back. I moved toward him, ducking below a ribbon and being careful not to get Solace caught in it, then jumping over another. Pallida stayed back, not wanting to risk it. I was pulsing the warder’s sight, using it only for long enough to guide my way and trusting in my heightened sense of space from a dozen different senses to keep me informed of where the wards were. I was really hopeful that they would go away soon, as they obviously were meant to be short duration. I stopped a fair distance from the guards, in part because there were more ribbons that I didn’t want to go over.

“Who are you?” asked the tallest of the guards, though he was only tall for a human, and not quite my height. “What do you want here?”

“I want my stuff, and I want to get out,” I replied. “When they brought us in, was there a fourth? A young woman, maybe seventeen years old, dark hair?”

“They put on hoods,” replied the guard. “Just three though. You didn’t answer who you were.”

“Just to be clear, are you planning to shoot me?” I asked.

“We saw you die,” said one of the guards. “Saw you die a couple of times.”

“Where am I right now?” I asked, focusing my attention on the taller man.

“It’s a holding facility,” he replied. “We’re a hundred miles north of the Spine of the World, in the Tentar Territory.”

“And where is my stuff?” I asked. “The things that I came in with?”

“That happened offsite,” he replied.

“Then my stuff was brought in with me,” I said. “Because I know for a fact that our entads aren’t far from here.”

“If you’re trying to strong-arm me, it’s not going to work,” the guard replied. “What I know is that four hours ago the three of you were brought in here, stripped of your clothes and with some superficial wounds, on gurneys.” He was still holding a rifle, which was still pointed at the ground, ready to raise in a fraction of a second. Not aimed at me, but more aimed at me than I was comfortable with for a rifle. If we’d been at the gun range, he would have been seriously breaching both etiquette and proper safety.

“Do you think I’m fucking around here?” I asked. “Or are you just trying to cover your ass?”

“Look,” he said. “We don’t want any more violence. Opinions are mixed on whether you have souls left in the tank, but fuck if I want to find out one way or another. But after this is over? Life is still going to keep on going. There are going to be inquiries. We don’t put things down on paper here for a reason. And I’ve personally got no clue who you are, because it’s not my business to know, and because if I get pulled in front of a panel of judges and asked, I want to not know. If I need to say things to you that are going to fuck my life up? Well, you can see where I would rather take chances with trying violence.”

Oh fuck off. “Alright,” I replied. “Then I guess we’ll try violence.”

Generally speaking, letting your opponent know what you were going to do before you did it was pretty bad strategy, and this was no exception. The reason I’d done it, aside from just the anger and frustration that had been continually building without release since I’d got here, was that it didn’t really matter. I didn’t have all that much range on my passion magic, but I had enough to push out a telekinetic blast that reached them, first the younger guard holding the void rifle, then the one that hadn’t spoken. I aimed at their weapons and ended up cutting through fingers and hands as well. For the leader of their little group, I grabbed and threw the truncheon, hitting him in the leg before his rifle was even halfway up, which was one of the benefits of being as fast as I was. I did all of this while still holding Solace.

“Okay,” I said, over the cries of the guards. “I’ve been drugged, tied up, and tortured, and I’ll fucking kill every last fucking one of you if you don’t tell me exactly what I want to know.”

“You broke my fucking leg!” screamed the taller guard, who had fallen down onto the floor.

“I don’t give a shit,” I replied through gritted teeth.

“Joon!” called Pallida. “Stop dicking around!”

“Alright,” I said, setting Solace down, moving forward, jumping over a ribbon and then ducking under another. The guards were scrambling back, getting their weapons in position. “Here’s the thing —”

The taller guard fired, not at me, but at Solace, for what reason, I couldn’t comprehend. I caught the bullet in my palm and gave him a dirty look. It was less impressive than it sounded, since I was just tracking the barrel of his gun, not actually moving my hand faster than a bullet.

I ran at him and snatched the rifle from his hands, then bashed him in the face with the butt of it once, enough to break his nose. I hesitated for a moment, standing over him, then picked him up and threw him through the ribbon wards. It didn’t kill him, but he was laced through with empty cavities where a lot of his bones had been, and there were shards of bone sticking out where the ribbon wards had annihilated bone at a steep angle.

Oscar Sikes defeated!

“I’m done fucking around,” I said to the remaining two. One of them was crying and gathering up his fingers, so I turned to the other, who was just clutching his wounded hand and hissing in pain, his weapon apparently forgotten beside him, not that it was functional anymore. “Did we come in here with anyone else? Was it just us three?”

“Three prisoners,” he replied with a gasp. “A prince and a princess. Something had happened to the prince. He was out of it.”

“No girl?” I asked. “Seventeen, black hair?”

“No,” he replied. “And we don’t have your things, you were stripped down when they brought you. That one, the princess, she’s got an entad, we weren’t required to check it when she came.”

“Who are your bosses?” I asked.

“My boss?” he asked. “You just killed him.”

“And who is his boss?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied, hissing again. “Why would I know?”

“Then tell me who you’ve seen come in here,” I said. “Give me names, princes and princesses.”

“I don’t fucking know!” he shouted. “Most of them wore masks, or something else.”

“I know,” said the other. He had come closer to me but hadn’t touched his weapon, and so I’d mostly ignored him. He held out his dismembered fingers to me, which were held in bloody-slick hands. “You’re a healer.”

“I put your fingers back on, you tell me, that’s your plan?” I asked.

He nodded. He was damp with sweat and looking up at me from on his knees.

“Tell me, then I’ll heal you,” I said.

“Onion,” he said without hesitation. “And Larkspur, when he was still alive, in a mask but with his armor. Three women, all in masks, not sure who they were. Another two men, together, they were younger from their voices.”

I wanted to kill him. I wasn’t normally very bloodthirsty, but I was pissed off at this whole thing, and the way he’d come to me, fingers in hand, trying to extort healing from me … it rubbed me the wrong way. It would have been easy to kill him, simple and effortless in a half dozen ways, because I was strong and he was weak. He’d fucking shot at me, not too many minutes prior, and he was a guard at some fantasy version of Gitmo, but before I could talk myself into cutting his throat in half with passion magic, I grabbed his fingers, put them back where they needed to go, and healed him.

“Alright,” I replied. “How do we get out of here?”

“Door,” he said, pointing at a door on the far wall, fifty feet behind where Zinnia had been standing. “There’s a separate facility outside this place, staging and dorms. But we’re in the middle of nowhere, and no one comes here except by magic.” He moved his hand, flexing the fingers to make sure they worked, and looking at me with something like awe.

“So you’re stranded,” I said. “Stuck here until there’s a shift change?”

“It’s another two and a half months,” he replied. “There’s a bulk teleport for resupply, not sure how often, but you could get a letter out.”

“Fuck,” I replied. I pulled away from him and looked at Solace. “Alright, start pulling souls, if I see any of you with a weapon, I’ll kill you just out of caution.”

The guard gave me a nod.

“Wait,” I said. “Where’s the prince who came here? Yarrow?”

“In one of the rooms,” replied the guard. “We’re not usually told which unless we need to know, and I didn’t need to know. I don’t know who does know.”

“Fine,” I replied.

I pulsed vibration magic and took a moment to confirm what was apparent at first glance: the ribbon wards were gone. I still made a show of jumping and ducking on my way over to Solace, and I did the same returning to where Pallida was standing.

“Well,” I said. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, Solace is still sleeping it off or whatever, and if there’s a magical return to civilization, then the path is probably through Zinnia, who, if she’s not dead, will only help us through compulsion. Yarrow is somewhere in the facility, but I don’t know where, and Zinnia might be the only one who knows. The only plus side is that the wards are gone.”

“Peachy,” replied Pallida. “So, are we walking or what?”

“I’ll try to rouse Zinnia and we’ll go from there,” I replied. “Assuming that she’s still alive.”

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Alexander Wales

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