It was almost painful to see everyone again, especially under the circumstances. If Lola was behind it, then this was a part of her plan in some way, but there were so many moving parts to the day that it was impossible for her to have planned it all. She could easily have released the creature, knowing what it did from earlier experimentation, but she wouldn’t have been able to plot out the response, nor his own team’s response, nor where the creature would be going.
He recalled a conversation they’d once had, where they’d lamented the fact that people would just assume that whatever happened was what the chrononauts wanted to happen, which wasn’t at all true. Instead, the truth was slightly different: things that happened were those which a chrononaut wasn’t sufficiently motivated to undo. It was an enormous distinction, at least in some respects. And because things tended to turn out a bit differently each time just due to variance, sometimes the day that the chrononauts ended up with wasn’t the one that they really wanted, and because of that, doing a day over often felt like a roll of the dice. A day might not be ideal, but unless there was some major preventable calamity, doing it over came with certain risks.
The way the day was going was probably not exactly what Lola had planned, if she were behind the dungeon escape, but Alfric being back with the old team by reason of necessity seemed like the kind of thing that was among the best possibilities for her. He was never going to be the father of her children, he wouldn’t do his children the disservice of bringing them into the world with her as their mother, but that seemed like what she was angling for.
If she had simply come to him and apologized, groveled at his feet, or something less dramatic, they might have been able to have a cordial relationship, and his opinion of her might have started to improve. But if she’d been willing and able to do that, to talk things over like adults and engage in proper conflict resolution, they never would have ended up how they did. It was entirely possible that she was incapable of interacting with people in honest and forthright ways. She proved as much as soon as she saw him.
“So, working together again at last!” said Lola. She smiled at Mizuki, pointing. “Don’t kill me.”
“I make no promises,” said Mizuki.
“Hey, I’m serious,” said Lola. “Four times you’ve killed me! It’s frankly a bit insulting, not to mention unprofessional.” She was grinning.
“We’re going to work together, doing our duty as citizens to contain a threat,” said Alfric. “We owe each other nothing. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” said Grig, speaking quickly before Lola had a chance.
“We should be able to make short work of it,” said Josen with a nod. “We’ll save the town and hope that the day doesn’t need to be reset.”
“It’s not that big a deal if there’s a reset,” said Lola.
“Less from you, please,” said Alfric.
“I mean, come on Alfric,” said Lola. “So long as the information goes back, we can catch this thing before it goes off laying eggs, and then no one is inconvenienced. You know, some people would say that we have an ethical obligation to undo the day.”
This was, in some sense, sensible, but it was Lola saying it, and if she had released the monster in the first place … well, there were different thoughts on undone days, but if Lola was using them to cause chaos, then if you found yourself in one, it seemed to Alfric that you had some obligation to stop her and minimize the risk of a bad day. If they got to the end of the day with no deaths, Alfric would be willing to live with the inconvenience to the town, if only because on a reset, Lola might do something worse, or gamble with their lives and get a worse outcome. Whether or not the province of Greater Plenarch would agree was another matter, but he at least had control over his own resets, and while he couldn’t control Lola, he could try to manage her.
“Do you mind if I come with?” asked a boy who was around their own age. Alfric looked him up and down. He had a staff and longer clothes, traditional dress for a wizard, but not the kind of thing that was best to wear in the woods.
“Kell?” asked Mizuki. She turned to Alfric. “He’s a wizard.”
“Sure,” nodded Alfric. He had been one of the two reserves that Alfric had considered when he’d first come to Pucklechurch, if he had the name right. “Your reservoir is full?”
“Half full,” he replied. “I was off in the woods taking on the small ones. But it’s important that the large one gets killed, right?”
“It is,” Alfric nodded. “Alright, come with, but we don’t have a spare party slot. Do you have combat experience? Any dungeons?”
“A month of mandatory combat training in Kiromo,” nodded Kell. “Three mandatory dungeons there as well. I’m not geared for it right now, but I’ve spent most of the morning retooling as much as I could.”
“Good,” nodded Alfric. With that information, Kell actually seemed like he would have been a much better get than Mizuki, though Alfric felt immense amounts of guilt for the thought. “Josen is the second party wizard, see if you can work together, Mizuki is the first party sorc, she’ll stay away from you.”
“She has my permission to blow up anything I have,” said Kell, who said this loud enough to let Mizuki hear. “So long as it’s for good use. I tend toward short-term builds anyway, it would mean losing at most a few days work.”
“You have an enormous reservoir,” said Josen, who had come to inspect the newcomer.
“I won a number of stones in a bet,” said Kell. “And like I said, it’s part of a strategy.”
“Mmm,” said Josen, which Alfric took to mean that he didn’t think all that much of the approach. Alfric had seen Josen with other wizards before, and so far as Alfric could tell, Josen didn’t give out praise lightly, not unless they were at the upper echelons of wizardly power. Constructive criticism bordering on disdain was his usual approach.
They moved through the woods as a big group, ten of them in total with Verity ready on the party channel. Isra was in the lead, and the two parties generally stayed on their own sides, with Kell as a bit of a buffer.
At first it was silent, and then people began talking. Marsh seemed taken with Hannah, which wasn’t the biggest surprise, but Hannah was … well, it was hard to tell if she was flirting, but she certainly wasn’t rebuffing him. That was a bit more of a surprise.
“You’ll try to only get burns on half of you, aye?” asked Hannah.
“It’s a bad pyro who burns himself,” smiled Marsh. “But if a burn will get me your healing touch, it might be worth it.”
This seemed a bit grotesque to Alfric, who considered burns to be one of the worst kinds of injuries if they weren’t treated immediately. Hannah rolled her eyes, but she smiled when she did it, like it was a joke she was groaning at rather than something unpleasant.
“So, mandatory military service, that sounds exciting,” said Lola. She had sidled up next to Kell.
“It was only for a month,” said Kell. “I’d thought that I would stay, and one of the conditions for that is comp service for a term of two years, so I wanted to get a start on it.”
“We get something like that,” said Marsh. “One month intensive, just to make sure I don’t burn anything down and can come to the defense of the nation if they ever really need me to.”
“Only a month?” asked Hannah. “Seminary makes you go a lot longer to be a cleric.”
“We’re coming up on it,” said Isra. <Song now, please.>
The song started at once, which Alfric could feel but not hear, and at nearly the same time, Grig started his own song, one done using his flute, wordless in a way that Verity’s songs usually weren’t.
“Seems close,” said Alfric.
“We ran this way,” said Isra. “It was tracking us when we ran. It’s been moving toward us while we regrouped.”
“Powering up,” said Lola. There was really no need for her to announce this, not when she’d begun to glow with alien energies. Alfric was mildly surprised that she didn’t just keep them around all the time, but he supposed it would be like keeping a sword unsheathed when you were going about your day-to-day, only a hundred times as dangerous.
Alienism worked by binding spirits from another realm of existence for specific purposes. Knowing that there were spirits from another realm of existence gave Alfric some very uncomfortable feelings when he was younger, even after it had been explained that they interacted with his own world only in very specific ways, like ghosts, or the realm beyond the Spirit Gates. These aliens from beyond the world weren’t dangerous unless you meddled with them, and alienists were carefully trained to meddle with them only in safe ways.
Alfric had believed that introductory information much more before Lola had become an alienist.
To hear her tell it, a large amount of her training had been in not killing herself and the people around her. The bindings persisted for quite some time, as long as months before they needed to be undone and renewed, but there was danger in both the original binding, and in every use of it unless it was incredibly tightly done, then more danger in undoing it at the end. Nine tenths of the work of an alienist was in ensuring that the aliens wouldn’t burst free and cause damage. If not for the chrononauts, it was likely that the practice of alienism would be killed off as much as it could be, outlawed or worse, but alienist ‘incidents’ were prevented by chrononauts, and if the steady beat of undone death tolls was bothering anyone, no one was teaching much about the threat to children. Alienism was, at least, regular, the ‘accidents’ easy to avoid if it was known they were coming. And they were, usually, self-snuffing, so in the very rare event that an accident wasn’t undone, it was brief local damage and death, rather than a monstrous ongoing storm of energetic destruction.
Lola had died to her bindings. She’d died to her bindings a lot. She had focused her attention on making sure that they wouldn’t blow up when she activated them, but was a bit lazy about the other things, because she could be. If the bindings killed her, she’d try to figure out what had gone wrong and fix them, but this was something she did after they failed rather than before.
When she powered up her bindings, Alfric winced, worried that some new things she’d tried would explode or murder her or otherwise necessitate the reset of the day. But instead, she was wrapped in a glowing shell a foot out from her skin, an immaterial barrier from which tentacles extended. She was encased in the glow, which extended down as well, making her look alternately like she was floating and like she was wearing stilts, enough to make her the tallest there. With the tentacles she started pulling things from extradimensional space, provided by entads, and soon each of the glowing tendrils was equipped with a different weapon, each of them entads. Fighting with six arms didn’t seem, to Alfric, very sensible, especially because alienism didn’t allow for much better coordination, and he doubted that her weapons would be all that effective against the rocky shell, but he kept silent.
It wouldn’t do to keep watching her. Alfric needed to focus on his own team, who he could help out and whose abilities he had the best knowledge of.
“There,” called Isra, before anyone had any sense of where it actually was.
“Wow that’s big,” said Marsh once it came into view. “I’m good to unleash the flames?”
“Don’t burn down the forest,” said Alfric.
“Unleash,” said Lola, “Then I’m going in.”
Alfric hung back as the magic started to fly. They had four casters, but Mizuki was going to have to wait until there was something in the air to use. Still, between Josen, Marsh, and Kell, there was an enormous amount of power fired upon the creature. Marsh was using a tool he’d created from a sheet of fabric he’d moved in the air and locked into place, a cone of locked fabric, something that he’d always said he’d do back in Dondrian. It concentrated his flames, allowing him some distance without needing to burn the entire place. For Josen, it was a beam of energy, powerful enough that the air crackled, and for Kell beside him, a rather weaker projectile of some kind, wide and unconcentrated. Single encounters were where wizards were best.
When they had finished the first volley, the rocky shell was, at least on one side, broken, cracked, pitted, and slightly molten. The creature roared, turning to them with its head, and seemed to be screaming in either anger or pain, or both.
Mizuki stepped out and thrust both her hands forward. “Gonna be loud!” she shouted.
The magic she produced seemed to float through the air with understated speed, a proper construct of some kind, white and gleaming. The creature made a single step forward before the crystal hit. It blasted away as much as the wizards, combined, had blown apart and revealed raw, red flesh beneath. Alfric could feel the chill in the air, and it seemed like there was some component of freezing, one of the oppositional elements to Marsh’s flame.
The creature slumped to the side and took a moment to get to its feet again. Blood was dripping from its mouth and it was moving slowly, limping and mewling, but it didn’t take long for it to start moving again. Mizuki had said its particular magic was one of eating up and converting matter, and it seemed, at least from what he could see, that this meant healing as well as rapid growth. The eye that Isra had shot was still there, two arrows stuck in it, but the creature had a new eye beside it, this one whole and intact.
Lola descended on it. Whatever she lacked in terms of coordinating her six ghostly arms, she made up for with raw power and savagery. The blades flashed, each of them with their own magic, more deadly than just their edges, and Lola carved through the injured beast quickly, blades sometimes bouncing off stone. This lasted right until it moved a claw at lightning speed and hit her square in the chest. She pinwheeled through the air, slamming into a tree. She got to her feet in an instant, but had lost a few of her weapons.
“Second volley!” she shouted, hanging back for a moment.
Isra’s arrows seemed pitiful next to the wizards, and Alfric almost told her not to bother. This wasn’t where she excelled. It wasn’t where he excelled either, not against something so heavily armored.
Josen did the same as before, modified only slightly, the origin point being changed somehow in a way that allowed it to come from above, aiming at the place where they’d done the most damage. Marsh laid on the fire at the same time, a circle of flame around the beast that immediately set trees up in flame, and created so much smoke that it became hard to see.
“Locking it!” shouted Marsh as the creature moved out from the smoke.
The creature slowed but did not stop, and Alfric could see the trees around Marsh bending as he tried to use them to hold the creature. Warlocks needed to touch the things they locked together, but that kind of limitation tended to be easy to make up for with entads. As Alfric watched, he thought he could see brief moments when Marsh’s fingertips weren’t quite there.
Mizuki fired off her second big shot right at the moment Lola swept back in with her collection of blades. It was a matter of bad communication, Alfric could see that instantly, almost feel it, but the floating crystal that Mizuki threw out reached the creature at nearly the same time as Lola. It was a directed explosion of frost, more contained and directed than Mizuki normally did, but part of it hit Lola.
Lola spun on Mizuki immediately, rage in her eyes, and she drew back her weapons as though she meant to throw them. The moment passed quickly though, and Lola jabbed her many swords down into the exposed part of the creature, moving with abandon, giving in to bloodlust. The thing tried to swipe at her again, but it was moving slowly, and she didn’t get hit by the same attack twice.
Lola’s attack went on for what felt like an eternity, past when the creature had stopped moving, when the blades were just throwing up sprays of blood and the occasional chunk of something. Alfric noticed the uncomfortable looks between the members of his old party, Grig looking nervous, Josen frowning as he waited, Marsh turned away.
<She’s going to kill me,> said Mizuki.
Eventually, she stopped, and got in one last kick against the creature.
“Seems like we’re done,” said Lola. She folded her weapons back into extradimensional space and stepped down her bindings, gently falling to the burnt ground. The fire wasn’t spreading much, since it was too wet, and Marsh was using some kind of entad to produce water so he could soak the trees. Lola twisted a ring on her finger, and the blood on her started to coalesce, eventually becoming inch-tall little blood men who ran a few feet away from her and then collapsed in a splash on the forest floor.
“I’m not sure how much of that brutality was necessary,” said Josen.
“I’m the one with the Ring of Internal Anatomy, aren’t I?” asked Lola. “But we did it! Good work, team.” She looked all around with a smile on her face, until her eyes rested on Mizuki. “Nice try, but you missed me.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mizuki. “You said a second volley, I was just —”
“Trying to kill me,” said Lola. “But not this time, little one. You’ll have to do better than that.”
“We should head back to the rally point,” said Alfric, hoping to cut off this conversation before it could deteriorate any further. “There’s more cleanup to do.”
<Can I do a search for eggs here?> asked Isra.
<Of course, good thinking,> said Alfric. <Alone, or with backup?>
<Any this far east will be young,> said Isra. <Second to the beastmaster, I’ll be best at finding them. I have the bow, the channel, and the warp if there’s trouble. I’ll be fine.>
<Suit yourself,> said Alfric.
“What was that you were saying to your bard?” asked Lola, cocking her head to the side.
“Nothing,” said Alfric. “Isra will stay here and mop up, make sure there’s not a clutch of eggs we missed. We’ll talk to her once we’re back with the beastmaster, make sure that everything is taken care of.”
“Tell me,” said Lola. “Was it good to be with the team again?”
“Let’s get moving,” said Alfric. He led the way, and his own team, minus Isra, plus Kell, followed behind him, with Vertex taking a moment for discussion. It felt unceremonious, but the way Lola had attacked the creature, the way it had seemed to just keep going … well, saying a round of ‘hurrahs’ or doing an after action report seemed out of place.
“Was that on purpose?” Mizuki asked Kell.
“Yes,” said Kell.
“Was what?” asked Hannah.
“Mage stuff,” said Mizuki. “The magic he used was … well, like he was setting me up. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it. Normally I use cast-offs, but he was just — creating specific cast-offs?”
“It’s well-known that sloppy constructs make for good fodder for sorcs,” said Kell. “Doing it intentionally is just a matter of applying some thought, and I don’t think you’d be able to do it without quite a bit of background knowledge. It can’t just be sloppy. But you don’t know much about wizards, so … hopefully that was at your level.”
“It was a foolish thing to do,” said Josen, who must have taken an interest. He had moved up, away from the rest of his party. “There’s no way that a sorcerer could use your magic to make a better effect than you yourself were capable of. You were sacrificing efficiency. You gave up power to boost someone with less power than what you gave up.”
“Respectfully, no,” replied Kell. “You’re thinking of this as a naive case, with just me and her, in which case yes, Borchert’s Law says that it would be a disadvantaged transfer no matter how skilled the sorcerer was. I have some quibbles with that, but it’s sound theory. It’s not the naive case though, because obviously when there are multiple practitioners around the aether itself becomes awash with energy. In that case, providing the sorcerer with structural elements has a better return. You have to think about it holistically rather than reducing it down to a textbook problem.”
“Then you knew that we’d be with you?” asked Josen.
“Well, no,” admitted Kell. “It just happened to work out better than I had planned.”
“Mmm,” said Josen. He seemed unimpressed by the tactic, even if it had worked.
“I’ve never had someone supply magic for me,” said Mizuki. “It was … unexpected.”
“I’ll give you more warning next time,” said Kell. “If there ever is a next time. Hopefully we don’t have to deal with another dungeon escape again.”
“Depends on Lola, really,” said Mizuki.
Alfric tensed at that. It wasn’t all that plausible that Mizuki would get into actual legal trouble for besmirching Lola’s name, not when there had already been so much reputational damage, but it still seemed like an unwise thing to do, especially with Lola close enough to hear it.
“That’s very rude,” said Lola, who moved herself up to be by Mizuki. “And I must say I’m hurt. Haven’t I shown myself to be a friendly person? I helped to kill that beast. And you tried to kill me in the midst of it.”
“I said I was sorry.” Mizuki did not seem at all sorry, any contrition she’d felt in the moment now evaporated. “But I’m pretty sure I was the one with the deathblow,” said Mizuki. “You only got to it once it was already in the process of dying.”
“You’re so childish,” said Lola. “But I have a feeling we could be great friends, if only you’d give me a chance.”
“How many times have you tried?” asked Mizuki.
Lola laughed. “As if I would waste my time on trying to make friends with someone who unaccountably hates me.”
“Be nice,” said Grig. “Both of you.” He had often played peacemaker in their party, and it seemed that habit hadn’t left him.
“Sorry Grig,” said Mizuki. “I’ll try to be nicer.”
“Grig, I think she likes you,” said Lola. She gave a little laugh.
“I think the parties can unmerge now,” said Alfric. “And I think it would be for the best.”
“Aww, you’re no fun,” said Lola.
“If you want to talk to me again, use mail,” said Alfric. He turned off in the other direction, and his party thankfully followed. For a moment, he thought that Lola would come with, just because it was the kind of thing she found fun, but instead she allowed them to go, and their two parties diverged. As they did, it seemed as though Marsh and Hannah were having a whispered conversation with each other, with her smiling and him grinning. Alfric hadn’t been paying too much attention to them, and wondered how long they’d been talking, and about what.
“How’d it go with the hairy guy?” asked Mizuki. Alfric noted that Kell was walking beside her.
“Just fine,” replied Hannah. “He’s very forward.”
“So was the other guy though, right?” asked Mizuki. “That was what you complained about with Micah.”
Hannah spared a glance toward Kell. “Maybe we won’t talk personal business in front of the lad?”
“Sorry,” said Kell. “I am absolutely out of my element here, and I know I’m a sixth for you, but I didn’t really want to walk back with those people. I don’t think the other wizard liked me very much.”
“Josen is like that,” said Alfric. “A bit prickly, especially with people who he sees as unserious about magic, which is most people.” The momentary feeling of fondness and familiarity washed away when Alfric’s mind went to the betrayal.
“I think I take magic seriously,” said Kell. “And I thought he was flatly wrong there, though I was trying to be polite about it.”
“You’d have been a credit to the team, if we’d had you on,” said Hannah.
“Was that an option?” asked Kell, looking between the three of them.
“When I came to town, I talked to the censusmaster,” said Alfric. “You were on the short list, in part because you don’t — or didn’t — have a party.”
“I still don’t,” said Kell. “I’m not sure that I would have wanted to be a dedicated dungeoneer.” He glanced at Mizuki, which she didn’t seem to notice.
“We’re hardly dedicated,” said Hannah. “Once a week is about what we aim for, that would leave you plenty of time to ply your trade.”
“Can I ask why I didn’t warrant a visit?” asked Kell. “Not that I would have said yes.”
“Wizards are more likely to be gainfully employed and not want to risk anything, even if they are young,” said Alfric. “And wizards are also likely to be configured for more mundane things, requiring some time to make changes. I recruited a wizard to a party once and he told me that he’d need two weeks to get all of the combat constructs ready, and then it ended up taking longer, and eventually he didn’t even want to do it, or maybe he’d only agreed because I was pressuring him, or … something. That’s the kind of thing I was trying to avoid.”
“I’m not sure I’d have said yes,” said Kell. “Three dungeons in Kiromo was about enough for me. They have this saying there that each room is about as difficult as fighting three raccoons, but —”
Mizuki began to laugh. “That’s how they get you. And then it’s giant gelatin monsters and enormous cyclops.”
“Yeah,” said Kell, smiling. “How suspiciously specific. How was your third, by the way?”
“Our first was still our best,” said Alfric. “The third was a bit odd in terms of geography, but not all that exceptional otherwise.” He held up his bident. He hadn’t had a chance to use it, yet, but had tested it with a piece of meat earlier that morning, and it seemed to be able to do some extra damage when both prongs were inserted into an enemy, like a small explosion. “I did get this, and Hannah got that armor, both of which are fairly good, but it was the sort that, as my father says, ‘pays the bills’.”
“Well, if you’re ever in a pinch and need a substitute, I’m still unpartied,” said Kell. “Not that I’m in any rush to party, or to do dungeons, but it might be a fun change of pace. Like I said, I’m a bit of a tinkerer, so a change over to combat wouldn’t cripple me like it would some wizards who spend a month perfecting a construct that they’re never going to change.”
“We’ll keep you in mind,” said Alfric with a nod. “Running dungeons can be lucrative.”
They made it back to the rally point, but things were wrapping up there. Partridge was out in the field, directing people to find the stragglers, but it seemed like while they were away killing the big one, a team had been assembled to follow Partridge and go where she pointed.
“I think you’re fine to head back into town,” said Pann. “The other party you were with told me that the large one gave you little trouble?”
“No more than a somewhat difficult dungeon monster,” said Alfric. “Though our first encounter with it went a lot less well.”
“Your help was appreciated,” Pann nodded. “There’ll be a meal at the temple, I’m sure.”
“I have a request,” said Alfric.
“Oh?” asked Pann.
“If at all possible, I’d like to keep the day,” said Alfric. “To not have it reset.”
“Hmm,” said Pann. “We just report to the province, I think. But this was right at the edge of what we could handle, and we did handle it, which I think means that we’d default to putting in a report and not making a request for reset. I’ll speak with Bo, he’s the one who handles this sort of thing, they’ve probably got him in the temple by now.”
“Thank you,” said Alfric. He let out a sigh and turned to what remained of the party. Kell was still with them, it seemed. “Well, looks like the day is probably shot. Let’s go get something to eat.”