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“So we should probably figure out some kind of plan of action,” Soren pointed out, as they walked. Walk and talk was right; without knowing how much time they had left, they were pretty limited in what they could do.
Augustus nodded. “Soren, do you have any charms prepped? I’m out after all the investigation I’ve done over the last few days.” Unfortunately, very few professors carried more than a few, since too much firepower on one’s person could trip alarms around the school, and the ‘bake time’ and material cost for turning a spell into a charm was considerably higher than simply having the time to set up sigils and cast.
Gathering materials to cast a spell in person was unlikely to be beneficial either; magic was rarely the instant spell-slinging from the theater, and instead took time to draw and write out the effect before one cast. It could sometimes be forced, but to live-cast a spell in that matter, with no written or material components, could cause a lot of damage.
Of course, he could use some of his contract to draw on Enmity and live-cast that way—but that was pointless with Emmet here. The more Emmet did, which included providing power while on this plane, the sooner the plane would recognize him as an intruder.
“I don’t carry much,” Soren admitted. “I have a Secret Bind that I whipped up in case we discovered something and I needed to force you not to talk about it, but that’d only be useful if we talk to Olivia and need her to keep some part of this secret. I’ve got one Lock Break too; I’ve been keeping one on me since … well, I simply don’t like to be trapped anywhere.”
Augustus winced understandingly. “That Lock Break will probably be of use at the shop. We’ll need to get in the front door, and I’m not sure we want to be standing in front of a jewelry shop picking a lock if we don’t want to attract attention.”
“Just so.” Soren turned to Emmet. “And yourself? I know you likely have access to a different sort of magic … can you tell me exactly the limits of that?”
Emmet let out an ugly little laugh. “Only if you’re willing to use the Secret Bind on yourself.“
It was hard to blame Soren for the distrustful look he gave Emmet at that. If Augustus hadn’t already known this dark secret, he’d likely have done the same. “Well …”
“Let’s just say that I’m confident I can get us past the magical wards up on the jewelry shop, if you’re confident in breaking the lock,” Emmet said brightly. “We’ll have to move fast after, because she’ll know we’re there.” She might not be the only thing that would know, but he was right that dealing with the wards one at a time, especially with no prepared Mage Eyes to detect them, might take too long regardless. “And depending on what’s left of Violin, there’s a few things I alone might be able to do to help him. Though you might consider that a fate worse than the one that currently faces him.”
“Do you enjoy sounding ominous?” Soren demanded.
“Oh yes,” Emmet said at once. “Absolutely.”
Augustus spared a moment to just enjoy the clench of love in his heart. And then fear trickled in around the edges. “Emmet, now that I think about it, there’s been the odd hint Olivia might be targeting you for some reason. Trying to steal the ambrotype of the two of us and all that. Do you think they’d actually be able to do anything against you?”
Em’s answer was flat and immediate. “No, they can’t. They didn’t actually get hold of the ambrotype of the two of us—you took it home quite early on. I suspect she was after that picture specifically because you were in it, not me, given that apparently the class picture that Soren had was one that would ‘work better’. If anything, I think you two are in more danger than I am. Even if Olivia did try to target me directly, they would have no way to have prepared for what they found.”
Even so, it was hard to banish the moment of fear. “Put on your wedding band. I know you don’t usually wear it, but it’s the sign of our union. If something does happen to you, I can use the connected bands to help you.”
“Thou envious—” Emmet began, then cut himself off and fished the band out of a pocket, sliding it on to his finger. “There.”
It did make Augustus feel better to see it there. “Thank you.”
Soren cut into the moment they were sharing. “You’re the expert in divination, Emmet. Do you think that Olivia’s trying to use me and Augustus, then?”
“Probably in some way,” Emmet agreed. “Having some essence or element of you there might make the spell stronger. It could drain you to pull him through. But on the other hand, having you there might also make it more possible for Violin to come out if there is any of him left in the Beast. Having that connection could be a symbolic tie or a call. If there’s none of him left, it will only do harm, but … well, just don’t walk into any suspicious magic circles if she tells you to stand somewhere. Don’t want you to get locked into any cages that will drain your energy or anything like that. Here we are.”
They were standing outside a nice-looking jewelry shop; a small path led up to the door, and diamond-latticed windows stood on either side; they were slightly frosted, presumably so thieves couldn’t see inside.
“I can get the lock,” Soren said.
“First, let me—” Emmet put a hand on the wall and dark fire curled under his palm, climbing the bricks, running over the latticework, trembling through what Augustus could see of the building inside. And then it was rushing back in as he drank the magic of the wards. Augustus imagined he could hear an actual slurping sound with it. Reality seemed to shiver for a moment. “There,” Emmet said, pulling his hand back and shaking it out. “Her wards are down, but she’ll know you’re here now. Like I said, let’s move fast.”
Soren pulled out his charm and snapped it; the lock let out a loud click when he did so. The lock would be broken now, not simply unlocked, which was a shame for Olivia’s sister, but again; they didn’t have the time to be discerning. Augustus opened the door, gesturing the others in, shutting it firmly behind them.
The darkened jewelry shop looked quite nice; there was a little counter with some weights and measures and lenses, and the rest of the furniture was glass-covered tables and display cases that would-be buyers could walk around and look at. It felt odd to be in here at night, as if they truly were robbers.
But it wasn’t the jewels they were interested in here, and Olivia obviously wasn’t on the shop floor. “There,” Soren said, nodding to a door.
That door led to a set of steps down, and they followed these into a basement of what was clearly the metalwork forge for the jewelry that was made in-shop. But all those materials had been put to the side.
Instead, magic circles were drawn over everything, strange swoops and sigils. It was familiar to what Augustus remembered from delving his memories, yet different. It was clear Olivia had done their research as well; where previously the drawing of a gate had been left unspecified, this gate was narrowed and specific to the Beast Beyond, and in addition, contract text was scribbled all over and around it. Augustus couldn’t quickly read enough of it to be sure of the details, not in the heat of things, but it looked as if it was specifying that the Beast could only breach the gate if Vii’s soul were still contained in it.
That was promising, actually. Olivia looked up from where she was sitting with the bowl in front of her. “I hope you two haven’t come to ruin things,” she said bluntly. “Hi, Soren.”
“Hi, Liv,” Soren said, his voice almost wobbling.
This was probably going to be hard for Soren, Augustus thought. He would be in a better position to decide what they did going forward than Soren would, given their friendship. “I certainly hope I haven’t either,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t know about your relationship with him. I only just regained even a fraction of my memories or I would have known what you wanted. I understand why you went to the lengths you did.”
“And the lengths were so—blackmail, Liv?” Soren asked. “What about you and me, was it all a lie?”
They closed their eyes, seeming tired, and pushed some of their hair back over their shoulder. It looked shorter; Augustus saw a few locks in the bowl, along with a variety of other offerings. “Of course not, Soren,” Olivia said. “We were friends. I hope we’re still able to be friends after this. But you were friends with my brother before I was friends with you, and my brother was my brother before you were friends with him. So that had to take priority. Once I found out the truth, our friendship just had to take a step back from doing what was necessary to help him.”
Soren seemed to sway a little at that. “That’s true. That makes sense.”
“I hadn’t remembered your brother at all,” Augustus said. “All my memories were taken. But you’ve seen my involvement as well?”
“Of course, Soren knew that he had vague memories of you,” Olivia said. “And there was that ambrotype on his desk. When I realized you were in it, things started to come together. I didn’t have the whole picture until very recently, when I hired a diviner. I was hoping to be able to Secret Bind him so only I would know the results of the divination, but viewing the past killed the poor man.” She pinched her brows, letting out a slow breath. “I hate that, but at least I got the truth out of it.”
Briefly, Soren glanced at Enmity again, a bit of confusion and horror in his expression. He must be wondering how Enmity had come out of viewing the memories without any ill effects, if it killed a diviner who should be specialized in these things. That was fine. Augustus could try to deal with his suspicions later.
“You saw what happened?” Augustus asked.
“I heard about it, though it was somewhat garbled,” Olivia said briefly. “Don’t get me wrong, Augustus, I’m furious at you for breaking the wards, but I also can’t exactly blame you, can I? I’d love to blame you. My heart blames you. But the three of you were fools for trying this. So it goes.”
He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, but it wasn’t time to worry about his own feelings. “Olivia,” he said slowly, “if you think we were foolish, you should know how risky this is. No matter how much of Vii’s consciousness remains, there will be consequences if you go through with this. Our brief interactions with the beast shattered our memories. If it can’t get put back by us, and if it isn’t sucked back by the planar interference, it’ll cause so much damage. It’ll leave this room and spread its damage everywhere it goes. Promise me that you’ve planned a way around this.”
“Of course I have,” she said flatly. “What do you take me for? There are two failsafes. First, the redefinition won’t hold. You know how much I sped to publish, given how little writing you got done comparatively. The premises won’t hold up long term. People who’ve invested so much time into working with the old system will find the gaps and compose arguments as soon as they can. Maybe you’d have had better luck; I don’t know what you were looking into this for and frankly I don’t care. It won’t hold, and then the plane itself will get rid of the Beast. And then there’s the second failsafe; I just need to have it here long enough to cut Vii loose from it. My summoning requires that they’re together; if I pull Vii out of it, the Beast will have violated the terms of its summoning and be sent back.”
“Cut Vii out?” Soren echoed. “Cut him out with what?”
“Vii is surely dead,” Olivia said. “Even if he’s still in there, his physical material was absorbed by the Beast, which is not a material being. But I truly believe there’s a chance his soul might have survived—changed, maybe, different or wrong or scarred, but I believe he’s still in there. The Beast won’t be able to come through from this particular call if it isn’t! And so, what I’d need to do is use his connection to the past to take him out of it. A soul without a body is a ghost, you see, an echo of the past that is clinging onto the present. I have the ambrotype, and thanks to your showing up, the people he’d known are here too. His twin sister, his lover, his … rival? Friend, at least. I have his blood running through my veins, and all these things with me are reminders of who he once was. So I have prepared a contract to redefine who and what he is as that person from the past, rather than as part of the Beast. People don’t last long after possession, but I’ve seen someone who has been surviving it so far, which gives me some hope. Given time, I think I can build something to cause equilibrium. I don’t know if he’ll accept my body, but even if not, getting free and being able to move on is better.”
“I’d offer mine too,” Soren said, without hesitation.
Augustus wouldn’t. He didn’t say that, though. “Have you ever done this before?”
“Of course not. This isn’t my field,” Olivia pointed out. “But I know the theory. And I think I have enough anchors here to lend weight to the paperwork. Legal definitions are everything in what we do.”
“And what if something isn’t just so?” Augustus insisted. “I want this, Olivia, but what if not every t is crossed and i is dotted? What if the Beast makes it through, with or without his soul? What if it’s not sent back?”
Olivia sighed. “That won’t happen. If it did, it would be a real shame, of course, but there’s an entire college of magicians just up the hill. I’m sure somebody would be able to do something.”
He spared a moment to wish that they’d won over someone in Wards to come help shore this place up.
But no time for reflection. Reality crackled, and Olivia perked up. “Oh!” she gasped. “It’s time!”
The gate flared from illustration into sudden shimmering reality, and Augustus realized that he’d overlooked something. In his divination, when he’d gone away to talk to Soren, something happened back in the main cave, even though they weren’t actively performing the ritual at that point. Setting up the ritual had been enough to cause it to happen.
He was out of time to argue Olivia around, but at least he knew their plans and her failsafes, now. That had to count for something.
Reality warped fully, and the Beast began to crawl through, broken in the wrong places, with hands on its hooves and a too-long neck and a panicked, human face where a deer face should be. The sounds nearly sent him into a blind panic again, but perhaps his familiarity with it from his memory helped steady him, or perhaps age had given him distance, or perhaps Olivia’s redefinitions were making it less of an atrocity to interact with than it had been previously.
Vii’s face wheeled around wildly on the end of that neck, free-floating instead of bound to a skull. “Oh look,” he said, in that breezy familiar/unfamiliar voice of his. “All my favorite people are here. Is this another hallucination? Am I in hell? Am I finally dying? Am I finally free? You’re here, and you’re here, and you’re here. And—I don’t know you. But Liv, Auggie, Soren. You I know. Is this real? Is it another hallucination?”
Augustus’s head throbbed at the sound of Vii’s voice, the Beast’s voice; it was a sawblade through his mind, and it felt like it was going to split him in two with every syllable. Reality was thrumming hard, but thanks to the redefinitions, it held for now.
So Vii’s soul did still exist in there.
Olivia scrambled to their feet, that cheerful, put-upon calm finally breaking. They burst into sobs, stepping forward. “Vii! Vii, you bastard, I’ve come to get you out!”
She held the contract like she was prepared to serve him divorce papers from the life he’d lived so far, but in the same way as when Augustus had looked at the initial warding against the Beast in the divination, he was suddenly convinced that it wouldn’t be enough. Olivia was a specialist in Contract Law, so it might work. It might be enough.
But he was afraid it wouldn’t. How could the past be enough to bring Vii back? Vii hated the past. Augustus remembered him saying that he just desperately needed more, needed whatever was next, not to be constantly restricted to the rules of his past and his upbringing. Augustus remembered Vii saying that he and Olivia didn’t see eye to eye about this. Could a contract based on the ties of the past be enough, or was there something of the future that Augustus could offer in addition to it to try to guarantee that it would work?
Emmet stepped between Augustus and the Beast beyond, arms spread wide to protect him, and a second option also sprang to mind. There was someone right here who was a specialist in taking souls, separating them from the current thing that bound them and making them his property instead. That would be the worse fate which Emmet had jokingly referred to. The others would surely think it was. But Augustus had chosen to love and trust Enmity of the Dark Phlogiston. He could tell Enmity to barter with Vii for his soul. He’d probably do it, if Augustus asked.
So which should he do? Support Olivia, try to find something of the future to add to her bid? Turn to Enmity, who knew what to do with a soul? Try to combine the two? Or was there another option that he hadn’t seen?
Enmity’s hands were crackling with dark fire, black flames forming familiar sigils. If he wasn’t given the order, and if Olivia’s actions didn’t work, he’d fight to destroy the Beast instead. Olivia lifted the papers and began to recite: Violin’s names, legal text demanding he present himself in this reality rather than the planes beyond. Soren stood at the ready, probably preparing to receive Vii’s soul, become a vessel for it as Yujin was a vessel for Skylar, for however long he could maintain it until the possession killed him.
“What are we doing?” Vii wailed. “What are you doing? I can’t see much. I’m everywhere and nowhere and it hurts. I can barely see you. What are you saying? You want me to do what?”
Enmity’s disguise was peeling off of him in iridescent glimmers, flaking, hanging in the air around himself. He glanced back at Augustus over his shoulder. “It is in thine hands, thou brilliant creature,” Enmity said.
[What should Augustus do?
Comment with details.
Tomorrow will be the finale.]