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The plan had been to fly in as quickly as we possibly could, moving in a straight line toward the City of a Thousand Brides while in Bethel. We would go at multiples of the speed of sound, completely warded by Grak. We were going to make a crash landing, with Bethel killing almost everything she could see, then either high-tail it down to the basement of the palace with velocity magic, or have Bethel drill us down there, depending on what we saw. Our big problem was that remote viewing on Aerb was virtually non-existent, and the remote viewing that we could use hadn’t been helpful enough. Once we were on site, my wildly heightened remote senses would help us figure out what conditions on the ground were, and let us bee-line to the Long Stairs, or failing that, rip a hole there.

Amaryllis had created an FSP document, the Fel Seed Plan, and she’d fretted over the thing using dozens of clones, breaking it apart, testing whatever parts of it were testable, putting us through training … it was all fairly uninteresting, frankly, but our plan was to go in with every advantage we could muster, and ideally, take all those advantages into the Long Stairs with us.

We were inside Bethel, who had so many entads at her disposal that a more foolish person might have thought that there would be no way to defeat her. The only way that we knew to defeat her was a full-entad ward, or one that had been set up specifically for her. She could move at three times the speed of sound, teleport, portal, warp space and time, shift into the ethereal realm, become invisible to almost every sense, control almost every one of Aerb’s twenty-eight elements, and make frighteningly accurate predictions of the near future, so long as they didn’t involve anything with a soul.

Bethel was the size of a needle, moving invisibly. Inside, we were time dilated, a day to every minute that passed outside, and hooked into her sensorium through some combination of entads, given an augmented reality display of everything that was happening out to a mile around her. If not for the time dilation, it would all have been happening too fast for any of us to actually follow. In theory, Bethel could pilot us straight to the exact place we were looking for, using portals or short-range teleportation once we were close enough for those to function.

The pace was glacial. We were going more than two thousand three hundred miles an hour, but with the dilation we were under, the one hundred and thirty-eight miles we had to travel was going to take a subjective three and a half days, and that was if it was just us moving in a straight line. If Bethel was able to get into the palace in the City of a Thousand Brides, it would take even longer, because her full speed wasn’t possible if she had to do any actual navigation.

We didn’t talk much. Well, most of us. Little Pallida was just the fucking worst, I mean really terrible, and I didn’t understand why we were bringing her along. Even when young, Pallida had a pseudo-magically powerful ability to get through locks, and she could be stealthy as hell if she wanted to be, but those weren’t actually relevant abilities. I suspected Amaryllis of ulterior motives, but it wasn’t like her to not come clean about ulterior motives when directly asked.

The landscape crawled by, and we were there for every riveting minute of it. I had been worried that three solid days of going over Fel Seed’s domain would be bad for morale, but it was much more tame than I had been expecting. It wasn’t pretty or lush, but there was little of what I had dreamt up. Instead, it was mostly dead and barren.

In the Manxome Foe campaign, Fel Seed had been rather new within the timeline of the world, a fresh monstrosity. The world had been dying, but it hadn’t been dying for as long as anyone could remember. I had never put a date on it, because I loathed making timelines, but he had been around for maybe twenty years, and not all of that had been when he was at the height of his power, or at least, he had hidden his true power for some of it.

On Aerb? On Aerb, he had been living in the same zone for five hundred years, long enough that generations of people had come and gone, long enough that he was a subject in history books, even if they were history books of the gruesome and macabre. Fel Seed was pure, monotonous evil, but that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t change over time, it was just a question of how. Like Blue-in-the-Bottle, there was little question that he was engaging in his own breeding programs, but rather than just making slaves, he was making … well, it was hard to say. Monsters, certainly, but I had to guess that he was also making the next generation of brides. It seemed like a Fel Seed thing to do. There always had to be another level of disgusting with him, that was kind of the point.

I wondered if he would ever get bored though. This was his domain, likely forever, but if I put myself in his position, I imagined that depression would eventually follow. His gimmick was shocking torture and imagery, but how long could he go until that well ran dry? Forever was the obvious answer, but it didn’t feel true to me. It wasn’t interesting. Fel Seed, locked up in this place, with only the targets he’d made for himself … my idea of him, and what I’d expressed of him, was that he liked the grandeur, liked the pain, liked the shock and horror, the feeling of hope washing right off a person in the face of what he had prepared for them. Five hundred years though? That seemed like a long time. It seemed like he would have relished something like the Fifth Empire coming in to destroy him, a chance to flex on people who had only the vaguest idea what he was really capable of. And after that climactic parallel timeline battle, he’d come back, as though it had never happened. I could imagine the rush that would come from that, the sheer artwork of despair, so much cost, so many lives lost, and then everything put back the way it was before. If I’d been Fel Seed, locked up for hundreds of years, with only my imagination, and no new people, or at least no people I hadn’t created, I would want to play with the outside world.

It seemed like us paying him a visit would have been exactly the kind of thing that would re-energize him.

I watched another few miles crawl by. There was no flesh, nothing out of the ordinary, just a plain, mostly dead landscape. We passed what might have once been a town, but there were no monsters there, no people. I was grateful for that, but also a little bit worried.

By the far the worst place we’d been on Aerb was the Doris Finch Exclusion Zone. There, bodies had been piled in the streets, a stench had hung in the air, more than half the people were slaves, or effectively slaves, there was cannibalism, abuse — it was hard to stomach. I’d thought that Fel Seed’s zone would be worse, that every mile would be some new monstrosity or horror presented explicitly for us to see. I’d thought that we would go through three days of it.

“Juniper, what’s under the ground?” Amaryllis asked me.

I frowned at her, and tried to tune in with my senses. The way things were set up, in our little virtual environment, I could see what Bethel saw, but her ability to penetrate ground was limited to maybe five feet. My own ability was better, but only in terms of water magic, and while I had gotten much more fine-grained sensory input and control, it was still hard to pick out exactly what things were by the shape of the water. Still —

“It’s consistent with flesh,” I said. “I’d thought that it was the water table, but you’re right, it’s not quite right for that. Probably miles and miles of flesh beneath us. He’s put in roots that probably go as far down as they’re able. Further down than I can actually sense. Hard to tell if it’s biofactories or weapons or defenses or what. There’s a ton of it though.”

The scale was hard to imagine. If those were factories of some kind, my guess was that he had more factory space than the whole rest of Aerb combined. What he was making was impossible to say, as was where he was storing it. If those were weapons hidden beneath the surface, then he had the equivalent of a Death Star.

It was worrying that all of it was hidden. I didn’t know who it was hidden from, or why.

We were fifty miles out when Bethel’s voice came into our heads.

{{Problem.}}

I’d been watching the ground crawl by for two days, doing my best to stay alert. Bethel was going insanely fast, but we were watching it all insanely slow.

In contrast, the massive pieces of rock coming out of the ground seemed to be going the speed of, say, a kid riding on a bicycle, which meant that in reality, they were moving at many multiples the speed of sound. Earth was slipping off of them like water. I could see the shockwaves around them as they moved through the air, and it was hard not to miss that they were going considerably faster than we were. Bethel had become inviolable thanks to the entads she had, but that didn’t mean that we couldn’t get knocked around, slowed down, stopped, trapped … all the usual concerns, even if she had a few ways around all of them. Every trick had a counter-trick.

Bethel began evasive maneuvers, but she was slower than the pieces of rock that were rising out of the ground, and slower by a fairly significant margin. It was wrong to say that they were rising out of the ground, actually, because something had propelled them, or was propelling them, all with the energy of an atom bomb, coming from both our left and right. Just before the leading shockwaves reached us, she transitioned into the ethereal realm, attempting to avoid them entirely.

In D&D, the ethereal plane mostly coexisted with the Prime Material Plane, existing as a place of ghosts and spirits, allowing anyone who went into it to move straight through solid objects, flying without gravity. My ring of partial incorporeality had used the ethereal plane, and I missed it dearly, but it had been eaten by the Cannibal, or at least lost somewhere in Anglecynn and had never recovered. On Aerb, the ethereal realm worked a little bit differently, in that it had gravity, no air, and a geography of its own. Sometimes the ethereal was inaccessible thanks to a giant mountain in the way, or other times, the ground was lower in the ethereal, causing you to drop down.

I don’t know why I was at all surprised, given that it figured, and given that Amaryllis’ FSP explicitly stated it, but the ethereal realm inside Fel Seed’s exclusion zone was entirely taken over by him. There were no rocks moving toward us at extreme velocities though. Instead, there were white orbs, each the size of a car, floating around at irregular spacing. Almost as soon as we were into the ethereal they began to glow, not just around us, but over a mile away as well. The first lightning bolt shot out not that long after, slowed down, in my view, slow enough that I could see the stepped leaders coming in, trying to find us. Bethel dipped and twirled, but the maneuvering she’d already done had slowed her considerably, and compared to the speed we’d been going before, she was dawdling along. We missed the first bolt, but the second hit us, and while Bethel was inviolable, and had some faculty with lightning, it slammed into us hard enough that we were knocked off course.

Bethel wasn’t as slowed down as we were. She had enough entad intelligence that we’d hit some serious diminishing returns, the point where the only remaining gains were from parallelization. All of that allowed her to process information more quickly than before, which had already been quite quick. She was still, unfortunately, slower than a lightning strike. The more we were hit, the more she slowed down, and while she had impeccable defenses, the force and energy had to go somewhere, a process that she couldn’t fully control. There was a risk that we would cook alive inside her. It was something that had come up in our threat modeling, and which we hadn’t found a good solution for.

She went weapons free as she spun around with us inside her, lancing out at the ethereal white blobs, popping a few of them where she focused her fire. There were too many of them though, and up from the ground there were other things rising, ghostly green creatures. It was possible to see into the material plane from the ethereal, and the walls of rock that had been approaching us at incredible speeds were smashing into each other, right where we had been. They wouldn’t have been able to harm Bethel, but perhaps they could have held her in place for long enough that other weapons could be deployed. Void was a vulnerability, even with ultra thick plating.

Bethel teleported us forward a mile, then shifted us back into the prime material. Almost at once, the same attack we’d just escaped was renewed once more. Vast quantities of rock were launched into the air at us, faster than even the ludicrous rates that Bethel was capable of. This time she chose to go up, trying to escape the two walls of moving rock by positioning herself higher than the point where they would slam into each other. For a while, it seemed like it might work, but as the mountains of rock crashed against each other, something dark, black, and very very fast shot up from the expanding cloud of debris. It was quickly followed by a second, and a third, and by the time the first reached us, there were several dozen of them, all moving out of the dust and ejecta of the ongoing collision at mind-boggling speeds.

The one nearest to us opened up, casting its outer casing off with an explosive blast. Inside was a purple crystal, which was already charging. There were hundreds of them following after, all rising up from below. Bethel could teleport and use portals, but the entads that allowed that were limited, not enough to cross fifty miles, and not when we might need them to beat a retreat, or get into the Long Stairs.

“Void,” said Amaryllis. “Bethel, portal down, we’re coming out.”

Bethel obliged, using another portal to bring us to the ground another few miles forward, and as soon as that was done, we were unceremoniously spat out. Behind us, the slabs of rock were still falling to the ground, enormous chunks broken off in the collision raining down from the sky. Some of them landed above us, bouncing off Grak’s shield before smashing into the ground, and we all waited for a moment, seeing if there was going to be some other attack. Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of this section of the FSP.

“Everyone around Grak,” said Amaryllis, though we already were.

“No imminent threats,” I said. Threat detection was one of my roles in all this. The ground was still settling. “There are fucking miles of flesh beneath the ground still. Nothing moving toward us though.”

“He was throwing the ground. How can he even do that?” asked Bethel. “Throwing it at hypersonic speeds! I shifted into the ethereal and there were balls of something that shot electricity! And green things! And those missiles!” She must have come into this with a higher opinion of our capabilities than I did, or maybe a lower opinion of Fel Seed’s.

“At no point should anyone worry about how anything he’s done is possible,” said Amaryllis. “It isn’t. He cheats. We know this.”

“He wants us to walk in,” I said. “He wants us to not skip anything. We’re going to have to face him.”

“Anticipated,” said Amaryllis.

“We all read the FSP,” said Grak. “Chance of bad outcomes has spiked.”

“We can’t abort,” said Amaryllis. “Likely we literally can’t abort.”

“We shouldn’t have stopped,” said Raven, turning to Amaryllis. “We should have pushed forward, or fled. We’re at least forty miles out.”

“Thirty-two,” said Bethel. “I was able to get us closer.”

“Second-guessing isn’t part of the plan,” said Amaryllis, her lips thin. “We’re a team. We should get moving.”

“Is that seriously what your stupid plan says?” asked Pallida. She was still roughly twelve, despite my objections. “Just get moving, on foot, toward a place literally worse than being in the hells? Walking on rocks that just moments ago were launched into the air at us by someone who knows we’re here, knows that we’re going against him?” The dust was still settling, and rocks were still raining from the air, some of them as large as cars, though nothing that big had hit us yet.

“That is the plan, yes,” said Amaryllis. “We’re at the part of the FSP where we face him on his own terms.” She turned to Bethel. “There was nothing you could have done.”

“Nothing?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “If he wanted you brought down, he was always going to do it. He’s not beholden to the rules, and even if he was, he’s had five hundred years to practice magic of his own, or create creatures that can harness magic for him. He’s captured plenty of people.”

“Going fast is unlikely to help,” said Amaryllis. “We’re miles from the city because that’s where he wants us to be. We’re talking right now because he’s allowing us to talk.”

“What happens if we try to escape?” asked Grak. “There are no wards to stop us from teleporting. None of us have been infected with his magic.”

“Not yet,” said Raven, her face grim.

If even the smallest spore landed on you, Fel Seed could work his way into your system, and alter you enough that you, too, would be excluded, never able to leave his zone, not by any means. We were warded against everything, with additional defenses beyond that, but it was still terrifying to think about, and had been one of the main points of discussion. Grak had gone through the trouble of giving each of us a ward against Fel Seed’s magic, individually anchored, which had meant he had to spend time in the time chamber recovering concordance.

“We might still be able to escape,” said Amaryllis, looking toward the city, so far away it couldn’t yet be seen. “He might try to kill us before we could, but right now he’s inviting us in.”

“You’re reading too much into it,” said Valencia.

“We should get moving,” said Amaryllis. “Before we’re made to get moving.”

“Inside Bethel or outside?” I asked.

“Outside, per the FSP,” said Amaryllis. She gave me a look that suggested she thought I hadn’t read the FSP, and I gave her a look that was meant to suggest that of course I had read the FSP, I just wanted to know whether or not we were deviating from it. Let the record show that I had read the FSP, twice. After slogging my way through most of the Bible (I skipped Numbers), it was practically a breeze.

We were centered around Grak, keeping within his wards, which allowed nothing through and killed everything in their wake. Valencia carried Bethel, who was a much thinner staff than the last time she’d taken that form. I took the lead, with Grak not far behind me. I had gotten Water Magic high enough now that I could more or less tell where people were, so long as they were large enough and in range, and with the runeworks on top of my armor, I could in theory tank some pretty ridiculous amounts of direct damage. None of that mattered in the face of Fel Seed, but at least it was something.

We’d gone a hundred feet when the locus appeared alongside us. That wasn’t entirely unexpected, but she was outside Grak’s bubble of protection, and I was worried that she had, in an instant, been infected by spores. It was possible Fel Seed would make rapid changes to her body to make her a permanent fixture of his realm. I wasn’t even sure how that would work, given that the locus was only allowed here through virtues that I had. Maybe it just didn’t apply.

“Is she going to be okay?” asked Raven, looking nervously at the six-eyed doe.

“Hope so,” I said.

We kept walking.

Fel Seed’s domain was still less obviously evil than I had envisioned it, keeping its fleshy nature cloaked. There were dead trees, but they weren’t made of gross things, no leaves crafted from skin, no bark made of scabs, or whatever else I had worked up in my mind in those terrible months when I was running the campaign. The grass didn’t seem to be made of hair or nerve endings or anything else, it was just dead grass. Of course, below the surface, there was flesh, I could tell by how the masses of water felt, and there were constructions there, vast somethings of biological nature. At least some of it was the machinery necessary to shoot hypersonic rocks at people, and some more of it was probably those void missiles, but there was enough matter that it probably wasn’t just that. The possibilities were literally endless, because while Fel Seed was biology-themed, I didn’t for a second believe that everything he could do fell under fine-tuned biomanipulation. Hells, the supposedly biological organisms on Aerb didn’t always seem to follow normal biological rules, even if they registered as non-magical.

Beyond that, Fel Seed had enough resources to work with that he didn’t need to keep within his theme, though I did wonder when and how he had gotten enough void crystals to carpet his zone with them out to fifty miles away from the city. My guess was that they’d been brought in by a conspirator, but it could have happened ages ago.

The fact that all of it was hidden, out of direct view, was frightening in its own right.

Tween Pallida started singing a Fel Seed song that she had apparently prepared for the occasion, titled ‘Fel Seed is Bad’. I stopped her before she could finish a verse that seemed like it was going to rhyme something with ‘He’ll grab you by your nape’.

“Are we just going to walk in silence then?” she asked, after being shushed. “What in the fuck is the point of marching to your death if you’re not going to have fun doing it?”

“We can literally age you up at any time,” I said. “It’d be better for you and better for us.”

“Nah,” said lil’ Pallida. “I’m a better thief at this age. There’s going to be a lock somewhere, and my dumbfuck older self wouldn’t be able to get past it. Besides, she wouldn’t want to come, said so herself in her journal, though that just goes to show how fucking dumb she is, because of course I’m not going to listen to her.”

We walked on, mostly in silence. It was clear to me that we were recreating the original session, and not by our own intent. I wished that we had something like phantom steeds, but we needed to stay within range of Grak, at least in order to have full protection. That would potentially make things awkward in combat, but if the locus had some way of purging even the slightest biological touch, then things would be quite a bit safer. We also had our personal wards, but Grak didn’t trust them, and didn’t think that we should either. I kept blinking on my magic vision, not just to check for threats, but to make sure the ward was still there, like a forgetful person patting their pocket for the fifth time to make sure they still had their keys. I had velocity magic, and could have tried to run in, but it was pretty clear the big guns would be brought out.

“Not much around,” said Amaryllis, looking out over the plains. I couldn’t help but compare the geography to Kansas, which was notoriously flat and boring. “I was thinking there would be … more.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Luring us into a false sense of security?” asked Valencia. “Or something else?” She turned to look at me. I was the resident expert on Fel Seed psychology, unfortunate as that was.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not … like him.”

I didn’t want to say it out loud, but maybe the Dungeon Master was going to go easy on me. Maybe he was going to show me what the session should have been like, how a villain could be brought low in a moment of triumph. The DM wasn’t supposed to set himself against the players, he was supposed to set things up for them to knock down, sometimes with enough risk involved that there was a chance of a bad ending, but only so that the win felt better.

I was hoping the reason we weren’t being shown the bad stuff was because I didn’t want to see it. I was hoping that my comeuppance for the Fel Seed Incident was having my nose rubbed in how poorly I’d done, by way of seeing it done better.

We were thirty-two miles from the City of a Thousand Brides when any hope of that being true evaporated.

The road we were on was packed earth, with no indication that anyone actually used it. We hadn’t aligned ourselves with the road, but rather, had stumbled across it, laid out for us in exactly the direction we wanted to go. It was hard to say whether Fel Seed had built it specifically for us the moment we decided to get out and walk in, or whether it had always been there, preemptively prepared in some way by the Dungeon Master.

The horrors started off simply, with women impaled on stakes, one every five feet or so. In a traditional impalement, someone was stuck through with a long stake and then left to be further penetrated by gravity until they’d bled out enough to die, or had something vital poked. These bodies were fresh, no more than an hour old by Bethel’s analysis, and their deaths had been swift and sudden, the stake slammed right through them, sometimes exiting the tops of their heads. It went on for a mile, this corridor of death, more than a thousand bodies lined up for us. We tried bottling souls, early on, just in case any of them were within the window of viability, but none of them were, and eventually we stopped trying.

Then there was a second mile, this one with women who were still, to various degrees, alive.

We took them down and healed them, one by one, then stored them inside Bethel, which she accepted without comment or complaint. It took quite a lot of time. They had all been infected by Fel Seed’s magic, unable to leave the zone without dying, but there was a chance that something could be done. Per the FSP, if there was nothing we could do, Bethel would kill and bottle them all, then dump the bodies and escape. In the meantime, they would be sedated.

It was entirely possible that they were monsters rather than people. There was no real way to check, though Bethel’s senses were fine enough to rule out a lot of possibilities. It was clearly within Fel Seed’s skillset to make a meat puppet shaped like a person, or to implant within someone a great and terrible weapon, one disguised so finely that Bethel would only be able to see it as it unfolded.

The third mile —

Look, this went on for thirty-two miles. There’s no way for me to give you a sense of the monotony of it, the sick feeling that sat in my stomach for the days that it took us to get through it all. After those first two miles, there started to be fighting, and it picked up in fervor as we moved forward. The horrors we saw — the point was to be gross, to be crude, to shock and disgust, all to the point of apathy and boredom. To recount them here would inflict them on you, and I don’t want to do that. I don’t think I could do that, because if we had to go through it all, you and I together, you would probably just stop reading.

I was fourteen when I read The 120 Days of Sodom, the Marquis de Sade’s magnum opus, penned while he was in prison. The whole thing made me ill, but I kept at it, in the same way that I imagine a lot of teenagers do, when they realize that the perversions and horrors of the world are right at their fingertips. It was like watching videos of beheadings in the Middle East, or that one video where some Ukranian teenagers murder a homeless guy with a hammer, or … lots of stuff really, the kind that made me a little bit sick, that I never wanted to see a second time.

It was thirty-two miles of that, and not a single punch pulled. It was pointless, uninteresting in its cruelty, very occasionally imaginative, but usually just crude and base. It made me feel like if I breathed wrong, I would start throwing up, but that was just nausea. Everything we saw affected me, especially because there was so much of it.

We tried getting back in Bethel, to push on ahead fast, to cover these horrifying miles in an instant, but the moment we boarded, the other weapons came out, the serious ones, and we disembarked almost as quickly, having not moved an inch. Our skipping past this ever-increasing string of horror wasn’t a part of the script, so we stuck to the script. So it was written in the FSP, long may we follow it, amen.

“Why is he doing this?” Amaryllis asked when we were halfway through. I had hoped to see some weakness in her. I’d have found it comforting, but she sheathed her sword with practiced ease and a steadiness that I envied.

“He hates us,” I said. “Hates us with a burning passion. This is all foreplay for when he kills us down to the last. Which will take a while, because he’s not going to make it fast.”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “Not Fel Seed, I understand him, why is the Dungeon Master doing this?”

“Same answer,” I replied.

“If you believe that, then why are we doing this?” asked Amaryllis.

“Because there’s a chance,” I said.

It was torture, plain and simple, though almost purely psychological. There were things for us to fight, at first under the safety of Grak’s aegis, and later outside of it, under our own lesser defenses. We used up resources and tricks as we went. Some of them were possible to shoot down from long range, but that stopped working fairly early on as the next iteration of creatures would either pop up from the ground, be fired through the air at us, or had defenses that could resist the raw might of Bethel. All of it we could kill though, one way or another. They had been designed for us to kill, and designed to show off different abilities. If you’d put all the tricks together into one super monster, it would be unbeatable, and that was rather the point.

It was all part of the FSP, down a line of contingencies that Amaryllis had prepared for but hoped we would never use. The plan was to trudge along, kill everything in our path, and get to the palace, then fight our way through to the Long Stairs. When we were at the palace we would hopefully have eyes on the portal, or corridor, or whatever it actually was, and then we could use Bethel and one of her remaining portals to get right to it, if it looked like we could without being completely obliterated.

And if we had to, we would fight Fel Seed, and somehow, we would win.

The last two miles were the worst. The horror had been gradually escalating, both in the monsters that were presented for us to fight, and in the psychological aspects. There were bystanders of all kinds, most of them in great pain, and damage was freely inflicted upon them, and sometimes had to be in the course of trying to make progress. Once, for a few brief minutes, it rained babies. In those last two miles though, with the walls of the City of a Thousand Brides visible to us in the distance, the tenor of it changed. It became personal.

After so many miles of monsters, it was almost refreshing to just get a woman’s corpse. There were other corpses ahead, dotted along the field, and I could guess where it was going just from what I could already see.

When we flipped the corpse over, it was Amaryllis.

We called them effigies, because we didn’t want to call them clones. Fel Seed didn’t have our essence, or shouldn’t have, no scrap of our DNA or anything like it, but that hadn’t stopped him from making perfect likenesses of us, down to our scars and the freckles on our skin. All he’d really needed to have done was to look at us with special-purpose eyes, and after Invreizen had looked at me with all those different eyes, I was pretty sure that biology alone would allow the kinds of detailed long-range analysis for something that was close enough to a clone. We spent some time at the first one, an effigy of Amaryllis laying dead in the middle of the road, looking it over.

“It’s a shoddy fake,” said Bethel. “So many details are wrong.”

No one else agreed.

“Face protocol,” said Raven. “If he can make convincing duplicates of us, then he can potentially fool us. Juniper is muting us, but we should assume he can hear everything we say.”

I nodded. “Face protocol.”

There were more corpses along the way, effigies of all of us. I was waiting for one that Fel Seed shouldn’t have known about, one directed specifically at me, but no, it was just members of the group, everyone except for Bethel, who hadn’t shown a human form in all that time. I kept looking at the bodies, expecting to see Tiff, or Reimer, or my mom. I thought we would see someone who Fel Seed had, somehow, in violation of the exclusion zone, actually killed, a real person hiding in among all those effigies he must have made from scratch. There was nothing like it though, just a field of dead bodies that looked just like us, including one of the locus.

In the last mile before the walls, past the corpses that looked just like us, the effigies had been set in motion.

It was a bit of a ‘more is less thing’. We’d gone through mile after mile of horrible monsters and terrible scenes, tortures of innocents presented to us over and over again in nauseating quantity and variety. It had taken days. By the time we actually got to seeing tortures played out on copies of ourselves, my brain was pretty much mush. It didn’t seem to matter to me anymore that these things were happening to someone who looked and sounded like Amaryllis, or Raven, or Grak, or even myself. We freed them all the same, where possible, and killed the monsters that were savaging them. Sometimes we would put the effigies out of their misery, bottling their souls afterward.

It was another grueling mile at the end of a long list of grueling miles, all prepared for us by Fel Seed, all part of his power trip, or for the pleasure of seeing us miserable. We were going to have to confront him, I was absolutely sure of that, and if we left, if we even could leave, then at some point we’d have to come back and do it again. In the long term, Fel Seed couldn’t be left unresolved.

I watched people who looked just like my friends get torn apart. There was sexual violence, of course. There were posed scenes, dioramas, horrible things done to exact copies of people I knew and loved. I hated it, and eventually Valencia called for a break. We listened to Valencia: it was in the FSP. We shot at what we could see, delivering death at a distance, with no resistance to speak of.

“Why’d we stop?” asked Amaryllis. She was still as stoic as ever. I wondered whether she would display some vulnerability once this was over, show some impact that the horrors had on her, but there was nothing, just a glacial coldness.

It was wearing on everyone else, except perhaps Bethel, who was a staff, and had no face for me to read. Raven was sagging slightly, Grak looked morose, and even the locus moved with a bowed head. Little Pallida, in contrast, seemed to be burning with an anger she’d been keeping up for nearly the whole time we’d been walking down this forsaken road. Valencia was doing the best of us, but I didn’t know whether that was because she was projecting calm, or because she’d seen more horrors than the rest of us.

“We stopped because tensions are high,” said Valencia. “We need to air them. Better to do it now.”

“Go ahead,” said Amaryllis.

“Juniper was going to ask Bethel whether she could sense anything,” said Valencia. “Bethel was going to reply with biting sarcasm, something to the effect of ‘yes, I just thought I would keep it secret’, which would run the risk of escalating a conflict.” She said this all dispassionately, as though reading a receipt. “Raven is wondering why it’s always women, which Juniper feels defensive about, and would deflect on, which would risk escalation of conflict. In fact, Juniper knows why it’s always women, which is that he personally finds it more shocking and horrible when bad things happen to women, especially if there’s some element of sexuality involved. He recognizes this as being inherently unfair to both women and men, but his efforts to reframe his view of the world have so far failed, and in his opinion, so long as his actions don’t reflect that bias too badly, he’s not going to worry about it. There’s some unresolved guilt there though.”

“Wow,” I said.

Valencia looked between us. “I think that’s all that needs to be said right now. It would be easier if I could see all your faces.” We all wore helmets and were as close to hermetically sealed as we could be, sometimes with entad support. I had a small entad marble in my mouth that made it so I didn’t have to breathe, while Grak had an entad ring whose microportal could deliver air, water, or even food to him.

“Are we good to go?” asked Amaryllis.

“Wait,” said Valencia. “Grak?”

“I’m fine,” he said.

“He’s not fine,” said Valencia. “Grak, Juniper’s view of you as essentially male doesn’t mean that he inherently devalues you as a person, nor that he’s incapable of viewing you as equally vulnerable or emotionally real.”

“I’m more upset by the gratuitous violence,” said Grak.

“Well, yes,” replied Valencia. “But I’m trying to help with the sinking feelings you have that I can actually help with. Your particular mindset leads you to look for excuses to be unworthy in the eyes of others. Juniper’s misogyny —”

“Hang on a minute,” I said.

“Let me finish,” snapped Valencia. “Juniper’s misogyny cuts both ways. He views you as being stronger and more self-reliant than he would if he viewed you as being strictly female. He trusts you more to be on your own, to protect the group, to serve your function.”

“Can I have a moment to defend myself?” I asked.

“Of course,” nodded Valencia. “Or I could defend you, if you prefer?”

“Sure,” I said. She was going quickly through everything, and there was something a little amusing about it, like she was speedrunning conversations that she was hoping would help. I wondered whether that humor was intentional, and decided that it probably was. I needed something, anything, that was remotely light. Little Pallida had turned into a ball of rage.

“Generally speaking, it doesn’t cause problems,” said Valencia. “It’s all a product of your Midwestern upbringing, you understand and acknowledge that. You’ve killed your share of women, not letting their gender stop you. At the same time, you’ve never balked at a woman being in charge, never shunned the protection offered by a woman, never shown discomfort at a woman being better than you in manly ways — your wife being the primary example here — and to the extent you have a worldview which is tainted by these lessons you’ve learned early in life, you generally haven’t let it infect your thinking about the people close to you, nor your thinking about society at large. What we’re seeing here, horrors partially built by you, were built because they are visceral and base.”

I still felt uncomfortable at what she’d said, but it was as good a defense as I would have given, and I wasn’t actually in the mood for an argument about the purity of my mind or heart. She was right, after all. Dead women made me uncomfortable in a way dead men didn’t, and that was at a sub-intellectual level. I didn’t really agree that it was misogyny, but Tiff and I had discussed it before, and in her view, there was probably some other, less loaded word to use.

“We should get moving,” said Amaryllis. “Ever onward, against the dark.”

“That was a joke in ill-taste,” said Valencia, holding up a hand in Raven’s direction. “We’re all ready for this to be over. Let’s keep the bitter humor to a minimum.”

We pressed on, killing our body doubles, destroying the dioramas that had been set up for us, and trying to keep our minds off it. Little Pallida had stopped cracking jokes a long while back, not because it was inappropriate, not because no one was laughing, but because it seemed like it was all getting to her. She’d shared some of her own traumas with us, usually in a crude, mocking way. She would imply that we were soft, weak creatures since we had never been dumped, still living, into a mass grave, or been sold into slavery, or — on and on. She wasn’t totally over the cumulative trauma she’d suffered her various times being twelve-years-old, that was clear.

The City of a Thousand Brides was circled by an enormous wall, and a particularly useless one given that Fel Seed was entirely capable of killing anything within a hundred miles. Anything that he couldn’t kill wouldn’t have been stopped by a fucking wall, that was for sure.

The front gate was open a crack, and I imagined that the whole thing had been built while we were on our way over, the gate, at least, if not the wall itself. The whole purpose of that front gate seemed to be the enormous doors, upon which were nailed effigies, one of each of us. They were all nude, as nearly everything had been so far, and there was writing below each of them. Bethel read it first, to examine it for suspected memetic content, and then I took a read of my own. It was name-calling, nothing more, and none of it was particularly true to each of us, nothing that cut straight to our hearts at our smallest insecurities.

We walked through the city, and though we saw various traces of inhabitation, there were no more monsters, no women, nothing but a straight path to the palace.

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Alexander Wales

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