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As it turned out, Star Doris had been telling the truth, and we weren’t far from where the blood mages had been doing their thing. Any normal member polity of the Empire of Common Cause would have mandated that high-level research and engineering take place far from a center of population, and this wasn’t just a matter of common sense, it was enshrined in law as the Riddle Acts, just in case someone was dumb enough to think that surely an exclusion couldn’t happen to them, or that the risk of an exclusion was worth it. There was maybe some way to justify it, and it was pretty common for people to conflate ‘calamity that was concurrent with exclusion’ and ‘the actual action of exclusion’, but it was still sensible. For the Dorises, the math was a bit different: their zone wasn’t terribly big, all things considered, and if there were some calamity, it was fairly likely to get them all. Beyond that, they needed colocation because that was the only realistic way to keep everything secure and contained, to the extent that was even possible. Obviously no one went into a big research or engineering project thinking that it was going to result in some degenerate feedback loop or an insane person with a godlike power … but still, it spoke to a lack of caution that most people in the Empire would find startling, until they heard that it was Doris Finch doing it, at which point calls would go up for something to be done.

It was a big building, made of magestone as almost everything in the zone was, but it was obvious that more care and attention had gone into it than almost any other building around us. The walls were smooth, and while it certainly wasn’t artful, it was clear that this building was built to last, by someone who either took pride in their work, or more likely, had been working like their life depended on it. It was squat and ugly, but it almost looked like deliberate ugliness, and after some of what we’d seen in the EZ, my standards were a lot lower.

There were no guards. Instead, there was a general notice, written directly onto the doors, which proclaimed the facility fully locked, stripped of valuables, and with death awaiting anyone who entered. It was written on the doors because if it had been written on parchment, that parchment would have been stolen. As I read the sign, I was a bit disheartened by how much of it was lies. I knew that the Dorises didn’t trust each other, but I hadn’t considered how much signage would be watered down when everyone would think that it was just a ploy.

“I released the other,” said Grak.

“Good,” nodded Amaryllis. She turned to look at Star Doris. “How do we get in?” she asked.

“Like I have any idea?” she asked. “Through those doors.” The doors were big and thick, made of metal, which the Dorises didn’t normally have in abundant supply. The hinges were huge, thick things as well, set into the door so that you’d have a hell of a time removing them.

“All entrances are sealed off?” asked Amaryllis. “This is the least defensible?”

“Like I said,” replied Star Doris. “I don’t fucking know. I used to work here, but I wasn’t casing the place. I came in through that door every day, did my work, usually away from anything important, and then I went back to my home. One day I came to work, and that message was there. No one had done me the courtesy of letting me know about what happened, I had to find out from the other Dorises later on.”

“So what you told us might have been lies,” I said. “Good to know.”

“Anything that I was there for, that’s true,” said Star Doris. “Anything that I got secondhand, maybe it would be lies, but I’m not a total bitch. I don’t usually lie for fun. This was from a Doris that I’d worked alongside, a close clone of mine. We don’t have bonds, but if it costs nothing, we’ll talk, and if there’s a cost, we’ll make a trade.”

“Alright,” I said with a sigh. I very nearly turned to Grak and asked him to make a steel ward that would let us drill through, but on second thought, I walked over to the door, grabbed the large handle, and hefted it open. It swung freely. “Fucking Dorises,” I said, shaking my head.

The interior was poorly lit by some slit windows high up on the outside. The Dorises didn’t have souls per se, which meant no soul power, and even if they did have souls, I wasn’t sure they had the technological power necessary to make lights. Lamps were at least somewhat common, their fuel presumably Doris oils or fats, but this place had been abandoned for quite some time. I was fairly certain that among the few entads that had made it into the zone was something that produced light, given how often that was a byproduct of what entads did, but we were well past the duplication period.

On our side, we had Amaryllis’ new dagger, which blazed like a miniature sun until she turned down the brightness to something that was more tolerable, and the more mundane solution, flashlights. The interior space we found ourselves in was a fairly tall and wide hallway, the same bland magestone as before, with something like a vault door at the other end of it. It had been cracked open, and blood had seeped and pooled out of it. It wasn’t coagulated or dried, not that I could tell, which meant that it was either recent, or some kind of magic had been done there. I switched over to Grak’s eyes, and saw that it was glowing, but not in the shade I had expected: it was two-toned, normal blood mixed with Doris’s magic, so clear I didn’t need it explained to me.

I felt a nervous tingle as I looked at the open door. Part of the purpose of building this facility had been containment, to make sure that if anything went sideways, they would be able to shut it down and keep it from spilling out into the EZ. That clearly hadn’t worked.

“Alright,” I said, drawing my sword. I’d had some practice with it, enough that I could do the triple axis wound reflection relatively fast. “We go in, find the portal, and … close it. Which should be as easy as breaking up the markings that allow the star magic to work.”

“The bloodworms aren’t terrible to deal with unless they get you,” said Raven. “Whatever else is there, that’s likely to be more of an issue.”

I nodded, then glanced at Grak. In theory, the wards that surrounded him would make him nearly invulnerable to everything outside of completely non-magical materials, void effects, memetics, or something like that, but there was no way that I was going to ask him to go first. I was, frankly, worried that he was going to die soon. He had gotten so much stronger, and most of his issues were … well, not necessarily in the past, but I thought he was probably over the hump. I thought about Gemma, and how she had unceremoniously died, leaving me wondering whether that was because her role in the narrative was redundant, or because I hadn’t expressed much interest in hearing her life story. Grak was a friend, and we spent a fair amount of free time together, sometimes Earth stuff, sometimes dwarf stuff, but it felt like there was no story left anymore, just gentle support when he needed it. I was worried that he was expendable, from one very important point of view. Fenn had died for less.

(There was a potential romance with Grak that I wasn’t interested in, and not just because Amaryllis was sucking up all of my romantic attention. I didn’t feel any attraction, any heat. If I’d been told point blank that I needed to start dating him, or have sex with him, in order to make him immune to being killed off by the plot, I would have done it without much of a second thought. But to propose or actually do any of that just as a precaution seemed degrading to both of us and damaging to our actual friendship, and it was complete guesswork what the Dungeon Master’s criteria might actually be for deciding whether someone died, if there even were any criteria.)

I went first, sword held in front of me, ready to strike down the first thing that moved, but aside from the blood touching my boots, there was nothing, just an interior room that led off into different hallways. Amaryllis was behind me, holding her dagger high enough that it could cast light in front of me, but from her position, not everything was bathed in light until the moment she stepped through the door herself. That was when I could finally see the ceiling, which was writhing with hundreds of worms.

As if on cue, they attacked, some of the further ones dropping down, and a few of the closer ones launching themselves at me. My sword was in motion almost at once, bones being burnt to give me the speed that I would need to cut through them. I switched the elemental plate over to lava, which immediately began sizzling the blood at my feet, and made my way through the bloodworms, slicing and dicing them. They were fast, but at least when I was burning bones, I was faster, and the biggest problem wasn’t even their speed, it was the fact that they moved so low to the ground that they were awkward to strike. A handful actually made it to me, but my still magic was stronger than the force they could produce with their jaws, and the only risk was getting overwhelmed.

“Clear,” I said, after about thirty seconds. There were lots of corpses, and I was worried that they were playing dead, or that we would attract the attention of something worse, but nothing was moving much.

The others followed me in, Star Doris staying close to Grak. Blood was moving away from him as he walked, keeping the floor clean beneath his feet, but the effect didn’t extend far from his skin, and I thought it was probably just part of his suite of wards that he always had up since becoming Warded.

“Which way?” I asked Star Doris.

“To what?” she asked.

“To the portal,” I said, gritting my teeth slightly. The bloodworms, I was pretty sure, had been an aperitif. “The big fucking portal to the elemental plane of blood, the one that something horrible came back from?”

“You understand that I didn’t do any work on that, right?” asked Star Doris. “I wasn’t told anything, I was just given work that the primary star mages didn’t want to do.”

“Then if you don’t know where in this facility it is, tell us where it isn’t,” I said, gesturing at the hallways that split off around us. “Look, we can split off a clone and then do a deathmatch thing if you really need us to. If that’s what it takes to compel your cooperation —”

“It’s through there,” said Star Doris, pointing to a door somewhat further down. “I think it is, anyway. I knew some of the women in materials processing, that was the direction they would go.”

“But you know the mechanism too,” I said.

“I never saw it myself,” she said. “I only saw bits and pieces. You should have taken someone who knew more.”

“A lot of them are probably dead,” said Amaryllis. “Let’s keep moving.”

Aside from the inch-deep layer of blood on the floor, which hissed as I walked across it in my lava armor, nothing looked too badly disturbed. One odd thing, more a matter of how the place had been built than anything to do with the blood portal, was that there were very, very few doors. We’d gone through the big one at the entrance, which would keep people out, and then the vault door, which would keep unnamed things in, but elsewhere it was just open doorways. That had been a recurring theme in Dorisopolis, in part because making doors was difficult work, especially with their lack of materials. It was still kind of unnerving.

We cleared slowly and cautiously, checking rooms as we went so that we wouldn’t be ambushed by something behind us. We were in no particular rush, aside from the possibility that we were about to run into something that was slowly growing in power. I wasn’t sure that I bought bloodworms being what was keeping the Dorises out, though they had famously low morale as a group, extremely poor entad support, and only relatively minor combat specializations. There were bladebound Dorises and blood mage Dorises, but from what I had heard, they generally weren’t any better than you’d get after a handful of years at an athenaeum. The Dorises had allegedly trained themselves, after all, and while they got a lot of combat experience, they only ever trained and fought against themselves, and it wasn’t like they were fighting for fun, nor grinding up skills if they didn’t have to. There were a lot of the bloodworms, but subsequent fights with them were barely worthy of mention.

Eventually we reached what appeared to be an antechamber, a large place in the signature flat magestone, set up a bit like a locker room, with various stalls filled with equipment. Toward the front of the room, on either side of another vault door, were two heavy suits in cages, and two cages beyond that which were empty. They were like something that an old timey diver would have worn, thick and heavy, with bulbous metal helmets that had thick glass faceplates. They were sized for a Doris.

“Shit,” said Amaryllis, looking at the suits. “Someone on the outside funded this.”

“Not necessarily,” replied Raven. “It could be that they made a trade with someone foolish enough to hire their services.” Both of them were looking at the make of the suits.

“Opening up a portal is hard work,” said Amaryllis. “If you wanted to force an exclusion and deal a blow to — whoever, or if you just wanted to engage in forbidden research where you weren’t hamstrung by red tape, it would make sense to go somewhere like this. The EZ leaks, but not reliably so, and if you kept them in the dark — I shouldn’t jump to conclusions.” She turned to Star Doris. “Do you know?”

“No,” replied Star Doris. “I’ve never even been here. If this was part of some deal, it would have been kept from me. Obviously.”

“I don’t think it matters for right now,” I said. “Either way, something went wrong here, for them.”

It did help to answer the question of ‘why blood’ though. The elemental planes were different ‘distances’ from Aerb, I’d known that much just from reading. Generally speaking, the more worthwhile planes were harder to get to, but even if you had to pick from among the crappy ones, accessing the elemental plane of blood seemed like one of the worst to me. There was no air, just blood, and I wasn’t sure what good those faceplates would do, because blood wasn’t particularly easy to see through. I had thought that maybe it had something to do with the overabundance of basically-real blood that the Dorises could produce, blood which was real enough to count for the purposes of blood magic. That was still a decent theory. Part of the reason that Amaryllis had jumped to outsiders working with the Dorises in secret was that this was the kind of scheme she would have cooked up if she didn’t hate Doris.

The second vault door was, in fact, locked, though the seal wasn’t tight enough, and it was clear that this was where all the blood had been leaking from. I didn’t know whether it was under pressure, or if it would be barely a trickle, but it was clear that whatever the real horror we were going to face down was, this was where it was going to be.

It didn’t take much to pry open the door. There was no rush of blood, no re-enactment of The Shining, just a short time when it gushed over the lip, then barely a trickle. There was still no coagulation.

I was paying a lot of attention to the Crown of Eyes, hoping that it would spoil the surprise if there were a person in the next room. My mind kept going back to the image of a Doris with billions more gallons of blood inside her than she should have had, and what would happen if all the magic keeping it contained stopped at once. Hopefully we would have some time. In the worst case, Grak would put up a ward and we would pray for the best. Actually, in the worst case, we would use the teleportation key and be on the (figurative) other side of the hex, but that would junk the mission.

This room was large, warehouse large, and based on what it had looked like from the outside, probably the largest room in the whole facility by a wide margin, though with the star mage expertise they had, it was entirely possible that the facility was bigger on the inside than the outside. In the center of it was an elaborate construction of a type I’d never seen before, with lots of struts, many of them curved, connecting in odd places. It was only when the light bathed them that I finally saw the lines marked on them. The whole assembly, which looked like a particularly erratic playground set, twenty feet tall and much bigger around, must have been three-dimensional star magic. I knew the equivalent of ‘hello world’ in star magic, but this … I could see how this would have taken a whole team of star mages a lot of time to do, since each of those lines would have required its own calculations, nevermind the work of actually putting them in place with a high degree of accuracy, and I was pretty sure that they were etched there rather than drawn on, mostly because parts of it were covered with dried blood.

“This is the portal,” said Star Doris. “Eight years of my life were spent on this.” Spent by whom, she didn’t say.

“What do we need to do for disassembly?” I asked. “You would have built in redundancies, maybe even booby traps.”

“Just knock the thing down,” said Star Doris, staring at it.

It was very still and quiet in that big room. We were more than fifty feet from it.

“That closes the portal,” I said. “In theory.” Portals closed easily and safely by default, even if you weren’t trying, at least from what I knew, with none of the calamity that an extradimensional space might have. “But if there’s something down there, what happens? You said that there were hemonauts that came back wrong.”

“I said that was what I’d heard,” replied Star Doris. “Look, do you need me for this? Because I was only supposed to bring you here, and I only worked on parts of this construction. All you’re doing by having me here with you is making sure that if you die, I die with you.”

“You can go,” I said.

“I’ll need light,” she said.

“Amaryllis?” I asked.

Amaryllis hesitated, then popped a flashlight out of Sable. It was big and bulky, standard for what you’d find on Aerb, and I wondered how much calculation she’d put into that. A single Doris with a flashlight meant that all of the Dorises could have their own, given not even that much time. It meant giving over flashlight components to the Dorises as well. Amaryllis didn’t raise the obvious objections though, and when Doris had confirmed that the flashlight worked, she left without another word.

“We should have killed her,” said Amaryllis as she watched Star Doris go.

“What’s her incentive to betray us?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “Just a gut feeling.”

“It was the right thing to do,” said Raven. She was staring at the structure, and the equipment that was half-concealed at the center of it. “I would say that we should prepare for a fight, but we’re not remotely equipped for interdimensional warfare. There are some very, very big things in the elemental plane of blood, and some of the smaller ones are even worse. And if the Dorises really can break the exclusion, then … I don’t know what might have happened. Something taking control of her is a worst case scenario for that entire plane.”

“People can’t survive on the elemental plane,” I said. “I mean, it’s no worse than being underwater in the short term, aside from the lack of visibility, but … I guess that whatever took her over could change that, if something did take her over.”

“Fuck,” said Amaryllis, taking a breath. “I don’t like this.”

“Yeah, the air tastes too much like iron,” I said. I didn’t have the bandwidth for using air magic and vibration magic at the same time, not if I wanted to be able to talk and think. Filtering particulates was particularly tough.

“This could be anything,” said Amaryllis. “It’s too much of a wide open space. It’s here for us, and we don’t have a clue.”

“I only ever went to the elemental plane of blood for a brief thirty minutes,” said Raven. “We didn’t explore the elemental planes much, not unless they were intruding onto Aerb in some way.”

“It’s not a good time for second thoughts,” I said.

“No better time,” said Grak.

“What are we proposing?” I asked, biting back my assumptions about what kind of a hold we might be putting on things.

“A surfeit of caution,” said Raven. “I used to go into these kinds of situations knowing everything that I could get from primary sources. We came in with as detailed of knowledge on the DFEZ as we could, but this is different. There’s nothing stopping us from leaving and seeking out materials on the elemental plane of blood. We don’t have to rely on only what I can remember. It’s fairly clear that four hours shouldn’t make the difference.”

“If you give me ten minutes, I can get things moving in Caledwich,” said Amaryllis. “I have a clone on standby in the library there.”

“She just waits there all day?” I asked.

“No, of course not,” Amaryllis replied. “She does general reading and research. Hold on, I’ll start now, don’t discuss too much without me.” She closed her eyes and began concentrating.

“We’re probably overthinking it,” I said. “This portal has been leaking blood, despite the best efforts of the Dorises. There’s a bloodworm infestation, which we’re not charged with dealing with, and it’s probably … I don’t know, feeding on the excess blood.”

“They don’t do that,” said Raven. “They don’t feed on blood at all, they feed on souls.”

“Right,” I said. “I know, but this blood,” I paused, looking at it. “Only has Doris’s soul.”

“Then I don’t know,” replied Raven, frowning. “But we agree that the bloodworms aren’t actually the problem?”

“They might have been, for the Dorises,” I said. I was still looking at the big structure, which was waiting there for us. I’d run into things like this when DMing, or at least, situations that were superficially similar. The party would get to a part of the quest where they were supposed to just do a simple thing, then they would end up talking themselves in circles for real-life hours and going down conversational rabbit holes without actually making any decision about the matter at hand, which wasn’t supposed to be a decision at all.

“We should start thinking about this on a higher narrative level,” said Raven. “The Dungeon Master has his machinations, but if we assume that he set this all up for us, then he would set us up with something that would be appropriate to our skills and abilities.”

I let out a groan. “And how would he do that?” I asked. I fidgeted with my magics, doing a quick check of all of them just to help slow myself down to the group’s speed. “I mean, the guy has godlike powers, sure, but according to the Dorises, this has been a slow-motion trainwreck. How does the Dungeon Master adjust the difficulty on the fly? He just, what, has several possibilities at each site, which he then kicks off when it looks like we’re getting close?”

“That would be one way of doing it, yes,” said Grak.

“It’s my understanding that the Infinite Library existed, in part, to keep these things from boiling over,” said Raven. “If there are many mechanisms for preventing calamities, all he would need to do is remove the brakes at the appropriate moment.”

“But that would mean this quest went into a period of criticality only when we got here,” I said. “Or maybe he knew that we would probably need help finding the phylactery, but that gives him only a few days.”

“You assume he doesn’t cheat,” said Grak.

“No, I don’t,” I said. “I mean, I assume that he doesn’t just reach down into the world and retroactively make stuff up, but … well, I have to believe that, because if I don’t, then it’s hard to make any actual decisions.”

“Except for here,” said Raven. “Here, where you’re making your decisions on the basis of whether or how much the Dungeon Master cheats.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis, opening her eyes. “I caught some of that. Mostly meta discussion?”

“Yes,” nodded Raven.

“Not too important, I don’t think,” I said. “No offense.”

“None taken,” said Grak. Raven did look a little annoyed, but said nothing.

“How is Anglecynn? How is library Amaryllis doing?” I asked.

“It’s all me,” said Amaryllis. “So ‘she’ is a handful of seconds divergent from me, which means that she’s mildly unhappy with not having control of the situation here, but well-adjusted enough to put her nose to the grindstone and be subordinate. As for what I know and feel from that integration, it’s mostly personal reflection and some plans to satisfy social desires. The actual knowledge gained was in areas that aren’t relevant here, primarily sources on materials fabrication. We’ll sync back up in two hours, unless I have cause to do it sooner.”

I sighed. “I really do think we should just —”

I was suddenly looking through five sets of eyes, not four. I got no innate sense of where those eyes were in relation to me, but I recognized the hallway that we’d gone through, which meant that they were close to the antechamber. It was only by focusing intensely on that direction with vibration magic that I heard the footsteps.

“Company,” I said, voice low, and I moved closer to the door, weapon drawn, focusing on the eyes that were looking over the suits. This interloper was on their own, armed with a flashlight but nothing else. I could see from their hand that they were humanoid, but almost certainly not human, because their veins were sticking up too much from the surface of their hands. I knew all the mortal species of Aerb, but didn’t have a good enough practical grasp to tell which one this might be just on the basis of a hand, even if the skin was purple, which narrowed it down considerably. I couldn’t see a weapon, but that didn’t mean much.

We turned off our flashlights, and Amaryllis sheathed her brilliantly shining dagger, leaving us momentarily in the dark, waiting in complete silence.

He was moving slowly, with the same caution that we showed, spending time looking at the suits in the antechamber, paying attention to the blood he was moving through, trying not to splash. The sound was much clearer once he was around the corners, though I still wasn’t sure that I would have been able to hear him without vibration magic, even in the silence.

I had my sword to his throat as soon as he was through the door, and he gave a yelp of surprise before dropping his flashlight into the blood. Our lights came back on, and I realized that I recognized him: he had immaculate eels for a beard. It was possible that I was confusing him for another of the zildin, who I hadn’t seen that many of, but I was almost certain that it was Pinno, the Infinite Library’s expert on exclusion zones.

“Pinno,” I said, nodding to him and sheathing my sword. (The sword was really more of a physical indication that I was ready and willing to do violence, and sheathing it was at least partly symbolic.)

“J-Juniper?” he asked, looking me over.

“What goes wrong here?” Raven asked him.

He looked between the two of us, trembling slightly. “Why are you here?”

“The Dorises screwed up something with their portal into the elemental plane of blood,” I said. “We were going to try to fix it. But if you’re here, then I guess that means something went wrong?”

“You killed people on your way out,” said Pinno, looking at Raven. “And you,” he said, turning to me. “You went mad.”

“If they’re catatonic, we have a way to fix it,” said Raven. “Juniper is no longer afflicted, which I was quite clear about when I tried to leave peacefully with him. He’s capable of reversing the effect of that particular meme. I take it you’re not here for us?”

“No,” he said. “No, I was here for the calamity.”

“World-ending then?” asked Raven, raising an eyebrow.

“No,” he replied. “No, the Library has been acting up since you’ve been gone, and the current leadership hasn’t quite been following in your footsteps. This is an attempt at early intervention.”

“Do the books record us being here?” asked Raven, frowning at him.

“That’s a delicate question,” replied Pinno, raising a hand to stroke his eels. “I suppose I can say that they don’t.”

“Then what does happen?” I asked. “Look,” I continued, when it didn’t seem like he was going to give an answer. “We’re trying to ensure a good outcome here, same as you.”

“There’s an entity on the other end of that portal, and partly here even now, establishing itself, reorienting to the prime material,” said Pinno. “From what gets written about it twelve to thirteen years from now, we think that it’s able to take on some significant scraps of those people whose blood it consumes. The Dorises were a unique circumstance, so much of the same blood that this entity was able to take on a semblance of intelligence. Not a clone of Doris, but something similar. Three weeks from now, it breaks this low quality confinement and begins to expand, which the Dorises are unable to stop, and which the Empire doesn’t learn about until the prospect of stopping it would require … well, resources that they don’t know exist.”

“Our friend Thargox,” I said. I still knew nothing about what kind of entity it was, only that it was good at linking warders together, and Solace was apparently on friendly terms.

“So what are you here to do?” asked Raven. “You’re not a warder, nor a star mage.”

“I’m here to talk with it,” said Pinno. “After it grew big enough that it covered the EZ, it ran into some problems. The Doris blood that it had been using couldn’t pass the border of the EZ, which meant that it was reliant on other blood to create something of a blood homunculus. That could leave the zone and speak for it, but couldn’t be manufactured en masse. But it could be talked to, and dealt with, and after five long, disastrous years, eventually the Empire was able to make it see reason.”

“Make it?” asked Amaryllis.

“Not like that,” said Pinno, shaking his head. “Not with force, just with long conversations about the benefits of … well, of not being like the person whose blood it was primarily composed of. We think at least part of the change might have been simply from cycling out the Doris, but not all of it.”

“Then why come here?” asked Raven. “It’s not the end of the world. We wouldn’t be doing anything about it, except that the Dorises refused our help unless we did. Knowing that it turns out for the best … Why take the risk of accelerating the timeline? Unless this is a contingency?”

“Different leadership, Raven,” said Pinno, his voice gentle. “And different circumstances. The business of keeping the world on track has seen a change in strategies. We’re leveraging easy benefits where we can.”

I was listening to him with a frown on my face. So far, our plan to break down the star magic structure seemed like it would probably work, and then this sub-sub-sub-quest would be done, putting us back on track. But what Pinno was offering was an ally of considerable power, as well as a potential solution to the Doris Problem, even if it seemed like it would be a grisly end for her. A creature of blood, granted its power through eating just enough Dorises that it could think … well, it wasn’t the kind of ally your average hero would have, but for me, it seemed about right.

“Okay,” I said. “So we put up wards, then we talk to it and convince it that we can engage in mutual cooperation with it. Maybe we even give it a lift outside the EZ, if you think that’s prudent. This was essentially your plan?” I asked Pinno.

“I was going to do it without wards,” said Pinno. “I am, as Raven mentioned, not a warder. And to put it into a cage during its first steps on Aerb seems as though it might not be the best strategy.”

I wondered what his plan to deal with the bloodworms was, if he’d had one at all, if he’d even known about them. He must have seen their bodies on the way in. Looking at him closer, I realized that he wasn’t obviously armed, he just had a walking stick that was slung across his back. Through Grak’s eyes, I could see that there were no entads. And I wasn’t entirely sure that he could be trusted, as much as he’d seemed like a total alt-history nerd when I’d been studying with him in Infinite Library.

“We’re not opening anything without a ward in place,” said Amaryllis.

“I don’t believe I have a say in the matter,” said Pinno, looking us over. I’d shifted my armor from magma to smoke, the better to hide in the dark, but I’d have wagered it was still pretty impressive, the equivalent of a snake with brightly colored banding that said ‘don’t fuck with me’.

“Alright,” I said. “Then if we’re going to talk, let’s talk.”

The star magic structure surrounded a big, bulky tube with another heavy door at the top. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to fit through it if I had to, as the size was just about right for a Doris in a heavy suit to fit through uncomfortably, at least as a guess. To one side was equipment, including tubing and a set of hand-cranked pumps. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that you couldn’t have paid me to go in there, not even using one of the Earth-modern scuba suits that Amaryllis had fitted and ready for me inside Sable. Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that it was blood, if you went through the portal you would be in a boundless, lightless, sea of blood, with no visibility, no gravity, and all kinds of horrifying shit that made that place their home. In the late Carboniferous Era, insects had grown huge because of plentiful oxygen: the elemental plane of blood was wall-to-wall nutrients, created by processes inherent to the plane.

“We’re putting up the ward,” I said. “If we have to kill that thing, then fuck it, that’s what we do.” I looked at Pinno. “I don’t buy you coming here at the same time as us by coincidence, just so you know.”

He hesitated. “I didn’t know it was you,” he finally said. “Word reached me that someone had gone in ahead of me, before I considered myself properly ready.”

“You know they practice slavery here, right?” I asked. Soul sight wasn’t showing any entads on him either, not even the walking stick. I really did wonder what his plan had been.

He glanced at Raven, who gave him a nod. “I have my own unique abilities,” he said.

I kept staring at him, then looked at Raven.

“He’s a pacifist,” she explained.

“D&D 3.5, Book of Exalted Deeds?” I asked. “Something like that?”

“Much more difficult to attain,” she said. “I would have brought it up if it were relevant.”

“Right,” I said, nodding. It would have been implemented in Aerb as some kind of pseudomagic. I wondered whether Reimer had known about it and just not said, or if this was some hidden feature meant just for me, maybe even just to show the path not taken. I had a ton of questions about how this actually worked, in practice. In the D&D splat book, you got a bunch of benefits for taking various vows, which would then give you powers that (sometimes) (kind of) replaced the normal functions. “Okay, well I’m not going to worry about it right now.” I paused briefly, squishing down the urge to ask a question, and looked at the big metal container that held the portal to the elemental plane of blood. “Time to open this can of worms.”

It was a ‘place our figs’ moment, and we settled on clumping up, mostly so that if it came to it, Grak could ward us and Amaryllis could let us teleport out.

Grak put the ward up, and I climbed up the steps beside the hatch and began to crank it open, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. Once it was unsealed, I pulled the hatch back all the way, and just for a moment, looked down at the surface of the blood inside. I had expected vertigo from looking down into the nearly infinite expanse of blood, but there was nothing like that, because it was simply too opaque. It might as well have been a few inches of blood, for all that I could see into it.

I stepped back when it started bubbling up, and Grak closed the last hole in the ward.

“It won’t hold against a detonation,” he said, looking over his work. “I’m saving concordance for that.”

“Okay,” I replied. “It’s presumably just some kind of —”

But I didn’t get to finish that thought, because an enormous blob of blood came out shooting out of the tube like some loogie hocked up by a seriously ill giant. It bounced off the ward that Grak had put up and slapped onto the hard ground beside the tube, splattering to the side and revealing a human form. She was covered in one of the bulky diving suits, with the helmet still intact, and after a few long moments, she slowly rose to her feet.

“Steady,” said Pinno. My sword was raised, and I was in a fighting stance, but if this was our worst case scenario, a Doris with a fucking insane internal blood pressure, then the last thing I would want to do was cut her.

She removed the helmet, which came off with a rush of blood, because it must have been filled with the stuff. Her hair was cropped short and matted with blood, and it was all over her, leaving the question of how the hells she’d been breathing in there. The question only deepened when she began disgorging more blood, first letting it flow from her mouth like vomit, then with quite a bit of hard coughing, until finally she straightened up and looked at us with bloody and bloodshot eyes.

“Hey,” she said, then pounded on her chest a few times and coughed up another mouthful of blood.

“You’re a hemonaut,” I said. “How in the fuck did you survive in there?”

“Where are the others?” she asked, spitting to the side and trying to blink the blood away.

“They’re gone,” I said. “Again, how the fuck did you survive in there?”

She looked at the five of us. “Blood mages can breathe blood,” she said. “I don’t know if they teach that at the athenaeum. Probably doesn’t come up much.” She looked around us and blinked a few times. “Are you going to kill me?”

I looked through Grak’s eyes to give me the warder's sight, and saw nothing too unusual about her. The blood around us and on her was magic, some of it in a double hue that I’d have guessed would indicate that it was Doris blood and latent magic, but I was no expert, and Grak hadn’t seen fit to say anything.

“We weren’t planning on it,” I said, slightly relaxing my stance and my grip on my sword. “Tell us what happened here.”

She looked at me, then rather than answering, shook her hand, spraying droplets of blood that briefly showed the ward around her before falling to the ground. She didn’t seem terribly surprised by that. “Well,” she said. “You’ll let me out if I talk? Meaning I walk free? I’ll need a promise.”

“Would you trust a promise?” asked Amaryllis.

“It’s better than nothing,” Doris shrugged.

“Then sure,” I said. “You tell us what you know, and we’ll let you go.”

“Ask away,” she said. “Or I can give my own explanations, since I don’t know what you know.”

I nodded.

“We opened up a portal to the elemental plane of blood,” said Doris, gesturing with a bulky glove to the tank she’d come out of. “It’s small, barely fits a person, but once you’re through, you’re out in the clear. It breaks exclusion, which you’re probably wondering about, but that’s because exclusion zones have their own interactions with the other planes. Our star mages figured that out forty years ago, but it was another twenty before we could actually put it into practice. We’re excluded on the elemental plane of blood too, but we’ve got our own exclusion zone there. It was just a matter of finding it.”

“How do you know this?” asked Amaryllis. “You’re a blood mage, not a star mage.”

“Why did they tell me?” asked Doris. “I had a need to know. I was supposed to be in charge of the outpost there. We figured that we could make polders, eventually reclaim the whole of the blood EZ, start figuring out a way to harness all that blood for something useful. Build some pumps or something, because there’s no natural flow of blood. Find a way to defend against the creatures there, then start hunting them. We already have as much blood as we want, and entad support to remove the extra bodies, it’s just a question of how much time and infrastructure it takes. The idea was we would make some kind of pump and have a pipeline of blood flowing from the colony back to the original EZ.”

“That’s smart,” said Amaryllis. “It would take lots of processing. Lots of coordination.”

Doris shrugged. “It probably wouldn’t have worked, but that was the mission from high command, with non-compliance punishable by death. I think part of it was that they wanted to see if some blood magic strain could figure out something new and interesting to do with all that blood, or if one of us would adapt to the environment. That was me, more or less. You let me know if I’m going on about the wrong things. My priority here is to tell you what you want to know so that you’ll put your swords away and let me go, which is what you promised.”

“How was the portal built?” asked Amaryllis. I could assume that this wasn’t idle curiosity, more a way of probing what she knew and whether her hypothesis about outside actors was correct.

“Carefully,” said Doris. “Probably not the way they would build it on the outside, but we make do. And the outside world doesn’t have the ability to throw tens of thousands of star mages at a problem, because they don’t produce enough of them, and slavery is frowned upon, not to mention that it doesn’t work well for intellectual pursuits. I’m not a star mage myself though.”

There was the obvious problem that nine women couldn’t make a baby in a month unless they had a time chamber, but I didn’t press her on it, because she was at least partly right: you could divide up work and structure your projects so that they were massively parallel, even if that was wasteful. An overwhelming amount of skilled labor was one of the EZ’s comparative advantages.

“Do you have water?” she asked. “Food would be good too. I’ve had nothing but blood for a long time.”

“What happened?” I asked. “Something terrible.”

“The colony went well,” said Doris. “There was nowhere to run away to, and everything came through the portal. Being totally dependent? It was good for us. Teamwork, or else. After long enough, it was almost a matter of habit. We were constrained on air, food, water, so if you made copies, you had to do it carefully, or better, not at all. That helped too.” She looked at us. “Then one of us learned how to survive on blood alone, and that was just about it for the whole thing. They had half as much to threaten us with, and those of us who couldn’t breathe blood were ripe for slavery. It was a whole new world then, because we didn’t have any restrictions, we didn’t need air systems, we didn’t need food, and soon there were colonies that had declared their independence from the Blues. The Blues tried their best to reel us in, but they didn’t have blood mages on our level.” She looked at us. “Was that a no to food and water?”

Grak took some time to pull a meal bar from his vest, then a canteen, passing both of them over with careful respect of the wards. (His vest was on over his temporal plate, a bit of entad gear that had been given to him from the haul, extradimensional, but with a slow response time. It could change form factors of mundane equipment as well, again, slowly, and with serious limits. It was fairly boring, but he’d seemed pleased with it.)

Doris ate like she was starving, wolfing the meal bar down, then drank like we’d come across her baking in the hot sun of a desert.

“Fuck that’s good,” she said, tossing the canteen back across the ward to Grak. As it passed through the ward, the blood simply slid off it, leaving it clean. “We traded with the Blues, as much as we could, but we knew that they weren’t happy about it. And eventually, there were too many colonies in the blood exclusion, too many factions that were stripping the place bare, even with the heavy losses we were taking from the natives. There’s some scary shit out there, when you can only see through your sense of blood, probably even scary if it were crystal clear water, but it’s damned near impossible to kill every last one of us, and we can wear down nearly anything, or clog their maws with bodies until they’re choking to death on pieces of us.” She looked proud of that fact. “It didn’t take us long to be the dominant lifeform of our exclusion. And it didn’t take long for there to be an arms race among the colonies.”

“Which is what brought you to calamity?” I asked. “Or,” I said slowly. “You decided to wage war on the Blues and take back the exclusion?”

“We were tough to kill,” said Doris. “But once you’re a good enough blood mage, one that’s surrounded by blood, one whose blood is the same blood as everyone else around you, it gets really deadly, fast. You can wipe out a colony, if you do it in a single lightning-fast strike. We couldn’t develop defenses against the attacks we were inventing. And eventually, there were precious few survivors, and no one that wanted to build anything up, because we knew that it could be torn down. So yeah, we made an assault on the Blues.”

I looked at Pinno, who had a bewildered look through this whole story. What Doris was telling us had virtually no relation to what he had told us was written as happening in the alternate timeline. He hadn’t cottoned on to what was happening.

“You’re a master blood mage,” I said. “You reached apotheosis. And you’re the only survivor of the clone wars in the elemental plane of blood.”

She sighed, then nodded. “Look,” she said. “You told me that you would let me out if I told you the truth. You promised.”

“You’re something different,” I said. “What have you been doing here, just waiting? I don’t believe for a second that you couldn’t open that hatch on your own. And this blood, that’s your work. The blood worms, also probably your work.”

“Are you letting me out, yes or no?” asked Doris, stepping toward the ward and pressing her hand against it.

“No,” said Amaryllis.

“Wait,” I said. I glanced at Amaryllis. “I think the correct answer is yes.”

“Juniper,” she started, half pleading.

But I was looking at the blood around us again, using Grak’s warder’s sight to do it. It was blood, Doris blood, and while I had no idea what you could do with sufficiently high blood magic, I could see one fact pretty clearly: there was no question of letting her out, because she was already out.

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Alexander Wales

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