“Number seventeen.” Melos smiled, as he handed the orange crystal over. “We had to run down to Caneland for this one, so I hope you appreciate it. It was a swamp dungeon, with gribbits everywhere. You would not believe how many of us saw the inside of giant froggy stomachs.”
“That?” Grissle said, taking the core with a rictus grin, “that is why I don’t mind retiring from the field so much.”
“So what now?”
“Now?” Grissle looked toward the throne, powered down, and looming, all angles and runes and spiraling copper tubes. At the pillars, each of which bore a gem at their peak. “Nothing. It’s the middle of the night and Brin’s asleep. It takes a lot to make seventeen Pygmalion copies, as it turns out. A lot of materials, a lot of crafting, some of which has to be done the old fashioned way.”
“Ouch.” Melos frowned. “I can’t imagine the patience that would take.”
“Which is why it’s good she’s a dwarf. They’re not as bad as elves, but they’d rather spend a few years working on something rather than admit it has some minor flaws.” Grissle glanced toward the throne. “Unlike me.” The old wizard’s face grew pensive.
“What is it?”
“No… I’m sure it’ll be fine. Nothing.” Grissle shook his head.
Melos put his arm around his oldest friend, the man who’d given him a chance, who’d looked past the cultist to see the hero within. “Gris, talk to me here. We’re dealing with forces that daemons tread cautiously around. And you’re…” dying, “…you’ve been busy, and under a lot of stress. Talk to me, here.”
Grissle sighed, and sat in the throne, staring down at his slippered feet. “There are some issues with feedback. There’s been a side effect to nesting the dungeons… it puts pressure on the central dungeon master’s column. I’ve been able to rig an emergency shunt to the throne, but I can’t cancel the bleed-out entirely. “
“Pressure. What kind of pressure?”
“Mental pressure. It…” Grissle mopped his face. The man was sweating far more than normal, his voice dull. “All pillars do it, they fray at the sanity of those within it. But in most, as far as I can tell, it’s gradual. When you’re nesting seventeen dungeons at once? It goes quickly.”
Melos rubbed his beard. “Mana potions?”
“Good when I’m on the throne. Non-functional in the main pillars. You don’t regain any pooled energy in there, not sanity, not moxie, not anything. Drinking doesn’t work. Sleeping does, a bit, but it’s deuced uncomfortable.”
“You’ve been trying this on yourself.”
“And who else could I ask?” Grissle raised his hands. “King Grundi’s found out that the Delvers are messing around with dungeon cores, and taken it hard. If a dwarf dies here, it’ll be the end of the Delver society.”
“Wait. Dies?” Melos said, crossing to the throne, and leaning on it, scrutinizing the old wizard closely.
“Small chance.” Grissle licked his lips. “But there.”
“You’re experimenting on yourself, with something that could kill a DWARF.”
Grissle sighed. “They don’t have my contingency plan.”
“I know. I know I said I was done with necromancy. But…”
“You know how the King is going to take this.”
“The King doesn’t know. Nor will he, unless the worst happens, in which case I fix it, and go to my eternal rest.” Grissle stared up at him, with watery, desperate eyes. “Unless you tell him.”
Melos closed his eyes.
A breath. Two. Three. “You’re bound and determined on this.”
“This is only the first iteration. Every day, I’m learning what I did wrong with this control throne. Every day I’m another step to understanding. Understanding why.”
There were four tier one jobs that granted access to a form of the experimentation skill, at twenty-fifth level. Grissle had all four, had ground them obsessively, seeking answers. Answers for the changeover. Answers for why the cure disease spell had been stripped from every cleric in the land, well before his own illness surfaced.
Some people had determination. Grissle was determination.
“You’ve unlocked that job, haven’t you,” Melos opened his eyes, staring into Grissle’s brown, tired orbs. “The thing you said you gave up searching for, years ago.”
“I have,” Grissle whispered. “And the fact I’m here, in the pain I am, proves that I won’t take it unless Cylvania itself is on the line.”
“I’ve fought enough undead, destroyed enough undead, to know that it changes even the strongest…” Melos looked away. “It’ll change you. You… I trust you. I don’t trust what you might make of yourself.”
“Melos. I gave you a chance. A chance for redemption.”
“No. No, that was different.”
“I didn’t tell them about the children.”
“So it’s like that, is it?” He said, as the old shame came back to haunt him.
“No. It doesn’t have to be.”
“They…” Melos shut his eyes. “It was the final test of loyalty. They would have killed me if I refused.”
“And so you cast three innocent babes into Cron’s flames.”
“I avenged them!” Melos roared, stomping away and clenching a fist. “When I saw the truth I went back and slaughtered every last one of those evil shits!”
“And yet one of the guilty remains.”
Melos punched the stone wall. Punched it again, felt his gauntlet flex and dent. Punched it a third time, felt his fingers nova into pain, and then the tears were coming now, tears of shame. Tears of weakness.
“I will spend the rest of my life atoning for what I’ve done.” Melos said. “I have. I’ve restricted… there’s entire skills I’ve given up, things I don’t use, will never use again. And you’ve trusted me to do that.”
“Yes. And I still do.” Grissle said. “All I’m asking is for the sort of trust I’ve given you, over a thing I haven’t even done yet. A thing that pales by comparison, to be honest.”
Melos clenched his eyes shut, willed the weakness out of his voice. There was still a quaver. “And if I don’t you’ll tell them. Tell my wife.”
“No?” He turned, shocked, eyes red and warm and still blurry.
“No. If you tell them what I plan, I’ll say nothing on the matter. But…” he turned his head, looked around at the room. “But there is no contingency plan, if I die with this uncompleted. Amelia can’t match me. Rezzak was never arcanely-inclined. The Dwarves won’t touch the plan, not with their King agitating against it. Who else could we trust?” The old necromancer said to the ex-cultist. “Who could we trust with this responsibility?”
“It’s power,” Melos agreed, peeling his gauntlet off with a hiss of pain, and mopping his face with his throbbing hand. “And I know what power does. Just…” he sighed, feeling the fire drain from him, feeling old. “Promise me you won’t get dumb over this.”
“I won’t. Didn’t get this far by being stupid.” Grissle looked around. “This really is my legacy,” he said, gesturing at the cluttered workshop, and the apparatus he’d spent months building, perfecting, while the Seven hunted down cores to finish it. “I don’t want it tarnished by my weakness.”
“You’re not weak,” Melos said, smiling, though his eyes were still hot and his head throbbed. “You’re the second strongest person I know.”
“Amelia’s the first, I’ll wager?” Grissle smiled.
“You’d win that bet, if I was stupid enough to make it…”
Cecelia cooed in his arms, and he rocked her as best he could with his armor in the way. He’d had special, non-spiky pauldrons made for expressly this purpose. The effect diminished the overall look he’d gone for, but… well, somehow, scaring people just wasn’t as fulfilling as it had been, before he’d become a father.
Besides, he could still use his Demon Knight skills to help with intimidation when the need arose. The job was all about fear, fear didn’t have to dominate his life when he was off the clock, so to speak.
A noise at his back made him tense, and he shifted in the creaking wooden chair-
-but it was just a black kitten, creeping up onto the table, all pudgy belly and curious little face. It stared at the little girl, then Melos met its gaze. Little yellow eyes widened, and the cat was gone, disappearing so quickly that Melos almost doubted it was there in the first place. Up until he saw a quivering black tail behind one of the mantle plates.
“Oh come on, I wasn’t even trying.” Melos complained.
Which spooked the cat, and sent the plate crashing to the floor as it fled the room entirely.
Cecelia wailed, spooked by the sound.
“Is everything all right?” Amelia called, from upstairs.
“It’s fine,” Melos said. “Fine, just… fine.” He rocked Cecelia until her sobs subsided, then made his way to the shards of the plate. “Mend,” he whispered, and picked up the reconstructed dish.
When he looked up, Caradon was glaring down from the balcony at the top of the staircase.
“Your cat got a little clumsy,” Melos explained, putting the plate back on the mantle.
Only to have it slip through his gauntleted fingers, and hit the ground again. Cecelia wailed as it broke, and Melos felt his temper flare as the middle-aged man snorted in disgust.
“My cat. Sure,” Caradon said. “You could use a few more animator levels, looks like. The dexterity would do you good.”
“True,” Melos said, raising his voice over the wailing infant. “Mend.” The plate reassembled and he put it on the table this time. “Although they’re good in other ways. Animus Blade has got some interesting synergies with my Hellswords-“
“I don’t want to hear that filth.”
The air fell silent between them, save for the frightened infant’s sobbing. Melos rocked her, shushing her, but his eyes never left his father-in-law’s gaze.
Finally, Caradon turned away. “Are you done yet, Amelia?”
“Almost!” She called back. Her voice was very muffled. This house had thick walls, and for once, Melos was thankful for it. Around her, both he and Caradon pretended to be on polite terms. It was an unspoken agreement, really.
Caradon finally shook his head and pointed at the bassinet to the side of the fireplace. He breathed hard, sighing with Cecelia as she finally subsided, and deposited his daughter into the baby bed, smoothing her frizzy little fringe of hair with one hand, all under Caradon’s stare.
A stare that finally turned, as his daughter hugged Caradon from behind, and kissed him goodbye.
Melos held the door for Amelia when she bustled downstairs, and ordered Emmet to follow.
“Remind me why we’re here and not at the pass again?” Melos asked his wife.
“Besides a chance for Grandfather to meet Cecelia? And Grissle needing us to check his calculations?” She grinned. “It’s a chance to go hiking. There are some awesome views along here, and I want to show them to you.”
“Did I mention that I’m more of a city guy? I’m really more of a city guy. We’ve got some awesome views back at home. Outside our window and all. Really, they could have sent Jane.”
“Jane’s got her own hands full in the North. With whatever the Earl of Balmoran has her doing.”
“Is that where she is?”
“She say anything about what was going on up there?”
Right, right, dumb question.”
She led him through the hills, up a small mountain, and into a shielded valley. It was… good for his agility, at least. “You know, Jane could have totally done this with one of her ninja run thingies or whatever it’s called,” he griped to Amelia. “Just stuck her arms out to the back of her, and charged headfirst through the thickest forests here, never eating a tree branch once.”
“You’re the one who insisted on wearing armor. Don’t you have Always in Uniform?”
“Well yes, but Demonplate doesn’t work with simple clothes.”
“Probably good. There’s no way I’m letting demons get into your pants. You’re past those days,” Amelia smirked.
“Har har de fucking har. Please tell me we’re there.”
“About.” She stopped, stared up at a high mountain slope. “Now we wait.”
“How’d you find this spot, anyway?”
“One of Dad’s friends used to take me all up and down through these woods. Tried to convince me I needed to be a scout. Good guy, but obsessed with the outdoors. All the time.”
“Ah. So you told him-“
“Same thing I told you, when you wanted to sleep with the window open a few months ago. Fuck winter. Winter is for curling up inside with books.” She smiled, and leaned back against a tree. “And warm husbands.”
“Can’t object to that,” he said, feeling himself stir as he looked at her, arms spread out, flush with life and heat from the walk.
She was beautiful.
“How much time do we have, do you think?” Melos said, bracing himself against the tree, looking down into her black eyes. She smiled, lips parting, as he moved in close, so close to her.
“Mmm. I like the way you think-“
The light shifted.
“None,” she said, looking sharp, and pushing herself away from the tree. And him. “It’s happening.”
A flicker, then a CRACK, followed by a rolling rumble so loud that for a second Melos thought it was a storm. To the south the light above the mountains dimmed, then dimmed further. “Is that it?” He asked Amelia.
“Appraise.” She squinted up the peak. “We need to get closer.”
“Is it safe?”
She reached into a pocket, pulled out a mechanical bird. “Animus.” It wound within seconds, key turning in it, then it fluttered up into the sky. “Dollseye,” Amelia said. Then she nodded. “It’s there. It’s… huh. I think it’s stable.”
“So he succeeded!”
“Maybe. We need a closer look. Come on, it’ll only be up an hour.”
“That’s a pretty steep slope.”
“Yeah, we’d probably better leave Emmet here. Agility isn’t his forte.”
“I was more worried about me. Agility isn’t mine.”
“Oh don’t be a baby. C’mon. Animate your own armor if you get tired.”
They made it in about fifteen minutes. It was a rough climb, but Melos had spent so long building his constitution that it scarcely mattered. Amelia actually had it rougher than he did, and though wisdom had never been a priority, he was wise enough to keep his mouth shut as he gave her a hand up the last few feet.
And there it was… A rippling black curtain that filled the sky, filled the world, stretching up beyond sight, and to both sides. It was, simply, nothing.
Amelia’s animated bird sat on a boulder, observing it.
There wasn’t much else up here, on this little plateau. A few trees, a few rocks, a small pond that wasn’t much more than a collection of puddles with delusions of grandeur.
“Well, it’s here.” Melos scooped up a rock, hucked it in. It disappeared soundlessly.
Amelia scooped up the bird, hesitated. “I don’t want to lose it. Let’s see…” She dug in her pack, pulled out a little black bear. “Whoa no. No, you stay right here, Fluffly.”
“One of my old toys. Dad wanted to give her back to me.”
“Shut up! I was like two!”
“I wasn’t laughing. It’s cute.”
“Damn straight she’s cute. Ah, here we go.” Amelia pulled out a straw mannequin, tossed it to the ground. “Animus. Dollseye.” She blinked a few times. “Always weird shifting sight from one to another. Okay, dolly. March!” The little toy went in, and Melos watched it vanish just like the rock had.
“Nothing. Nothing… whoa,” Amelia gasped. “Numbers. Green numbers.”
“No, It’s like it’s in them, they’re all around.“ she shut up. “The link is gone.”
Melos looked at his party screen. Himself, Amelia, Emmet… “You invited the doll before you sent it in there, right?”
“Of course I did.”
“Got any more of those?”
“Nope, but those trees have deadwood and I’ve got Carpenter. Give me a few.”
Every experiment ended the same way. The animi went in, and the ones who didn’t encounter the numbers managed to return intact. The ones who did, disappeared entirely.
“It’s almost like it’s moving, too. The numbers aren’t always in the same place. And with no frame of reference, it’s hard as hell to avoid running into them.” Amelia shook her head. “Once you do you’ve got like a split second to back off, but if you get in among them you’re gone. That’s what it looks like to me, anyway. You want to give it a whirl?”
“I don’t have Dollseye yet. It’d be pointless.”
“Oh, right, right, we can work on that.”
“Should we head back?”
“Mmm.” Amelia debated, then shook her head. “It’s only got about twenty minutes left. Let’s wait to see what things look like when it goes down.”
But it didn’t go down. Not twenty minutes later, not an hour later, and not two hours later.
“Something’s wrong,” Amelia said.
“We need to get back to the Castle,” Melos said, feeling a premonition stir in the back of his mind. “And we need to go prepared for trouble.”
She bit her lips. “Cecelia…”
“We can leave her with your Grandfather.”
“No. This is too close to the… whatever that is. If it shifts a few miles, it could take them.” Her face set into hard lines. “We’ll teleport to the townhouse. Drop Cecelia with Betsy, then go to the castle on foot. And hope that the others did the same…”
The city rotted, as dead things stalked the night, mist filled its streets, and sane people hid indoors to try and survive the nightmare.
And Melos and Amelia carved a path through it, braving the choking fog that filled the air, battering through the glazed-eyed zombie dwarves that filled the street, all wearing miniskirts and looking fabulous. Even while they were hunched around the bodies of the fallen, eating their brains, they somehow managed to do it with dignity and poise.
They were too late to save the people who’d died at the city gate, or in the market, or in the thoroughfare leading up to the castle, without seeing a single living soul.
But when Melos hammered his gauntlet against the siege door, his heart lifted when it opened, revealing a ring of pale palace guards… and a familiar figure. “Rezzak!”
“This is the gladdest I’ve ever been to see you,” the Invoker said, hands full with a mug of something bubbly. “Everything’s fucked.”
“Can you be more concise?” Amelia entered, collecting her daggers from the air, as the guards slammed the door behind her and barred it.
“I can’t. He can,” Rezzak pointed to a shivering dwarf, in a torn blue robe.
“You’re…” Melos squinted. He’d forgotten the dwarf’s name.
“Ragnor. Sir.” The dwarf stared past him, unseeing. Melos knew that look.
“It’s all right, you’re safe,” Melos lied, kneeling down to look the little guy in the eyes. “Tell us what happened.”
“I… it… Grissle, sir. We fired up the Throne, the dungeons integrated fine, then Brin collapsed. Grissle yelled at me to get her clear, and I did, then he shifted the column control to the main runic integration console, and, and, and…”
“He collapsed too,” Melos said.
“Yes. But… he, he got… he…”
“He stood back up.” Melos said. “But it wasn’t him anymore, was it?”
“At first I thought it was all right,” Ragnor babbled. “I thought ah, he’s got this. And he did. He sat back down in the chair, and remodulated the arrays until they balanced. But he left them on. He just sat there, blue light glowing out his eyes, in the throne, looking at everything.”
“What did you do then?”
“I tried to pull Brin toward the entrance. Get her some help, once I was sure things were stable. And he said no. I asked him why the hell not? He said he didn’t want any interruptions until his research was done.”
“Damn it all.” Melos closed his eyes. “I warned him.”
“I kept on dragging her, and he looked at me, and I thought he was blinking until the smoke goes up, and no, it’s his eyes. His eyes are bubbling out of his head. Bubbling away until the only thing left there is the light, that blue light…”
“Oh gods,” Amelia whispered. “Blue eyes. Hot blue eyes.”
“The eyes of a lich,” Melos said.
“I asked him when his research would be done,” Ragnor whispered. “He said, a few decades, maybe. I said no, Brin wouldn’t survive that long, she needed help now, and he said that was easy to fix.” Ragnor swallowed. “He killed her. And told me to keep taking notes.”
“You ran,” Melos said.
“No. You did the smart thing.” Melos felt his guts clench. “Rezzak? Where are the others?”
“Combing the city, getting everyone inside.” Rezzak took a long swallow of wine. “I’m only back because my pools are down. It’s all zombies out there. To us they’re nothing, but there’s a lot of them.”
“He animated her and put her in a mob pillar,” Melos shook his head. “Just to buy himself time.”
“There are dozens dead because of this.” Amelia’s face hardened. “How could he do this?”
“It’s not them he cares about. It’s us.” Melos took a breath. “He’s a creature of pure logic and pure obsession now. I warned him. I feared this. But not enough.” He reached back, felt the hilts of the blades on his back. “We have to stop him. We have to make this right. And we have to save our kingdom, bring down this thing he’s built without destroying it. Ragnor? Do you know how to do that?”
“No. I’m sorry. No, I don’t. I don’t have the first clue how to undo this.” The little wizard’s bearded face scrunched up into a mask of sorrow.
Amelia squatted down next to him. “Will you come with us, then? Will you help fix this?”
Ragnor shook. “I can’t. I can’t go back there. I’m… no. I’m sorry. I’d be of no use to you.”
“But I will.” The heroes looked up, as Ambersand entered through the castle door, axe bloody, shield battered, and armor gleaming in the light. “Halls are clear. For now.”
The guards around them relaxed. “Thank you, sir. We’ll get out there and secure the way down!” Their captain saluted, then got them moving.
“Welcome, then. Let’s go save the world,” Melos offered a gauntlet, and with some hesitation, Ambersand stowed his axe and gave it a shake.
“Just keep yer demons to yerself, lad. I’m lawful.”
“I… am too?” Melos squinted.
“Pfft. Yer alignment's chaotic if I’ve ever seen it.”
“Okay.” Melos had no clue what the old dwarf meant, but at least he wasn’t giving him dirty looks every damned minute.
“I’ll call them in,” Rezzak said. “I hate this, but we’ve got no other choice-“
Melos woke up.
Green light filled his vision, and he sobbed, as the chamber, his own personal hell, swam back into view. Grissle’s shattered husk on his broken throne, the shredded pipes leaking green zeroes and ones, and the columns, the columns full of burnt cores. Broken magic, broken artifacts, as broken as the numbers that swirled overhead, half of them vanishing or shattering when they hit the hole in the center, the hole that kept growing.
A mighty engine, a triumph, a proper wizard’s legacy… all in ruins, and threatening to take everything he had left into the void, should Melos falter. Should he ever be weak.
Like he had just a bit ago.
He’d slept, even though he hadn’t planned to. Melos pushed his mind into his dungeon master’s projection-
-and found himself inches away from his High Knight’s pale, frightened face, as she scooted back in her chair, eyes wide with surprise and mouth open.
What did I do now? He pulled back from General Mastoya, and looked down at himself. Still armored. Still clad. Sword sheathed. He was in… he was in the war room, he saw. The maps. He recognized the maps.
“Sir?” She whispered, and the uncertainty in her voice shook him. He needed her. Needed her trust. She was loyal, he’d tested her so often, and she was one of the last balances against… against Anise. Against his first mistake.
No, he thought, remembering the wails as the babes fell one by one into the fire, remembering how the children smelled as they cooked. Remembering how his cult leader had smiled. Not my first mistake. Not by a long shot.
“Did you understand me?” He said, gambling. “Tell me what I just said to you.” He’d done this in similar situations in the past, and it worked about half the time, usually.
Some color returned to Mastoya’s face. Green, naturally. “You ordered me to begin the assault, sir. Even though we’ve only got half the siege engines replaced and repaired. To… kill them all. Down to the last dwarven child.”
“Then we understand each other,” Melos said, turning his back and folding his hands behind him. He closed his eyes, as he let his face fall into a mask of sorrow. It hadn’t been him. Hadn’t been his orders.
Well. Maybe it wasn’t too late. “That was, of course, a test.”
“If you’d objected, I would have thought you too weak to handle the assault. I don’t want every child dead. We don’t make war on children.”
“No sir,” something in her voice caught his attention, but he was too tired to focus on it, to catch the hints. No, this was going well enough, she could have her doubts.
“Just win the war, so we can have our long-deserved peace, General.” He said, smiling, turning to face her again. “That’s all I ask.”
The half-orc’s face was unreadable, as she stood and saluted. “Sir. I’ll see to that immediately.”
And then she was gone, gone to the Waymark Station, down to collect her waystone and return to the front. Melos sagged into the chair in the war room, and put his head in his hands.
“We can do this.” He told himself. “It’s not too late,” He said. “There is a way to fix everything. We just need to hang on a little longer.”
They were very pretty lies.
Perhaps if he kept saying them, he’d believe them.