Halloween 2022 IF
This year’s project was inspired by a Tumblr post that consisted of, in its entirety:
I then looked back at Aveline’s project last year, That Which Lingers, and saw that my last comment on their Q&A was “University is a great place for a demon to get a start.” Somehow I shook these two ideas and came out of it like, hey, what if I made that a dark academia story with some extremely self-absorbed professors having academic rivalries and dangerous secrets!
I hope you enjoyed this, whether you read it as it came out or read it later, whether your participated in suggestions or not! I had a lot of fun writing it, truly. (If you did enjoy it, now or later, and have some change lying around and feel like it, I have a ko-fi in the footer of this site! I’d also love it if you checked out more of my work!)
Anyway, the full story ended up being 61,263 words, and my PLANNING doc (in which I also included my daily outlines) ended up being 17500 words, so it was a wild month-and-a-bit for me. Can you imagine?? Frankly, I can’t, and I was there. If you want to read it all over again, you can find the whole thing linked off my Interactive Fiction page.
Thank you again for reading, thank you so much for participating ♥
Now… ask me questions! You can ask me about the story, about the characters, about the writing process, about how something looked in my planning doc and how it changed to now, whatever! AMA! (And if you don’t have questions, feel free to share some part of it you enjoyed and I’m happy to talk about that part at random!)
[Let’s end this.]
There was so little time to think, but Augustus knew he had to find another option. Neither of the options in front of him felt right, and it only took a moment for him to realize why: either of them would mean making the decision for Vii! Wasn’t that what Vii had hated about the past? Wasn’t that his hope for the future, just to have finally become the person in charge of his own decisions?
Forcing him to become a ghost and giving him the option of possession or dispersal was barely a decision at all! Putting him in a situation where selling his soul was the best of bad options was still a decision made under duress!
But how would it be possible to give Vii the space to decide for himself what he wanted to do while reality’s definitions were still barely bending around his current shape? While Olivia was pulling him forcibly from the Beast Beyond’s body and a decision would have to be made in a heartbeat? When the act of separating him from the Beast Beyond was the only way of saving him from this situation but was the very thing that would force this choice? If only there was an area separate from the planes’ influence entirely, a place where something could exist entirely unnoticed one way or another for a time—
All of a sudden, Augustus knew what he was going to have to do.
And he knew it was going to hurt.
Still, that had never stopped him yet. He grimaced as he made eye contact with Enmity, whose face was flaking off. “Feed me the power I need, love.”
Enmity’s eyes widened. But he didn’t say no, and he didn’t protest; he just nodded once, curt.
Augustus felt the dark flame of possibility rush through him, felt phlogiston boiling through his veins where his blood should be. And he waited. If his timing were off, he’d catch both of them, after all.
Olivia finished, and both Vii and the Beast Beyond howled as suddenly one was torn out of the other, ripped out of its face, leaving the Beast Beyond flailing with an ichorous tear where Vii had been as Vii’s soul tumbled out. And then he couldn’t wait any longer.
Augustus live-cast a voidspace.
It came out of him instead of out of the materials and ritual; his life and energy and nutrients being spent in their place. This was a spell that normally took hours, both in casting and in preparation, and those hours were taken directly from him in sheer hot agony. Enmity helped—Augustus might not have survived it without that support—and half of what came out was black fire to define the space. Even so, he choked, fell to his knees, gagged and saw blood spatter down from his mouth, nose. His eyes were burning, blurred too hard to see and tinted red, and he knew he was crying blood as well. Through that blur, he saw Enmity’s face briefly—a wide grimace splitting it, too many teeth—and knew Enmity was taking some of the pain for him so he could stay conscious for now. It stole Enmity’s disguise from him; he wore his false flesh around him like rags, dripping off his true, beautiful form.
Gratitude suffused Augustus before it was crushed under another wracking wave of pain.
As he managed to lift his head again, blink through the blood to try to focus on what was in front of him, he realized at once that the tear of the two was imperfect. It would have had to be; too much of Vii had become absorbed into the Beast Beyond, and too much of the Beast Beyond had become absorbed into Vii.
Outside the voidspace, carefully excluded from it, the Beast was screaming, howling, being dragged through the gate; it no longer had Vii’s soul in it, and Olivia had known what they were doing. They knew how to craft a perfect clause and term, how to make a definition so precise that it would cause an exception the moment it was no longer in effect. The gate was only open to the Beast Beyond with Vii inside; with Vii outside, the Beast Beyond was pulled through. If they weren’t all of them here in the voidspace, the sound of it would have likely lacerated them again. But they were there, and so the sounds and uncanny sharpness did not reach them.
He could safely ignore the Beast, he decided, and turned waveringly to Vii. Vii, still so obviously himself, but no longer fully human, half eldritch, half mundane. Possession would have probably been a bad idea after all, Augustus thought, a little hysterically. Vii stood there and was odd, warped and elongated. Limbs too long, neck a bit too arched, hair flowing around him in a wind that didn’t exist, branched void-antlers coming from his head. Not one thing and not another.
Olivia let out a sob and ran to Vii, tackling him in a hug. Vii let out a sound that was so familiar despite all those changes, a startled little auditory question mark, and hugged her back.
Talking both felt and tasted like amateur hour at the knife-swallowing club. Hoarsely, Augustus said, “Vii deserves a choice. He deserves to make his own choice about what he wants to do. We can’t make it for him.”
Vii tucked Olivia in under his chin—he should be shorter than her, but his elongated bones changed things. “How did you get me out? What happened?”
Thankfully, Soren stepped up to explain; Augustus didn’t think that he could get the words out, and Olivia was having a full meltdown on their twin brother. Still, he had to interrupt Soren’s explanation early on and say, “The brief version, please,” because otherwise he thought he’d pass out before Soren finished. The voidspace was continuing to draw on him without any materials to consume instead, and it felt like his bones were being chewed on. Enmity stood beside him in his flesh-rags, reaching around to support him, fever-hot and actually trembling a little himself, or perhaps Augustus was shaking so hard that it only seemed that way.
Thankfully, Soren listened, keeping it brief: They’d lost their memories, and had spent years searching for them. When they found each other, they found a way to their memories and thus to know about Vii. Olivia was also trying to find Vii during this time.
Olivia pulled away a little, clearing her throat and scrubbing an arm over her eyes. “So what do you want? I was going to make you a ghost. Let you possess me, or find something else you could possess. Or if you wanted to move on, I’d understand. Anything’s better than what you had going on.”
“Yes, it is,” Vii said. His gaze tracked to Enmity. “I want to be everything.”
“What do you mean, Vii?” Olivia asked, low.
“I mean, I’ve always wanted to be something of everything,” he said, and then he laughed, unstable and uncanny. “I’m not saying that just because I’m a fucked up creature from beyond now, but, Liv, I’m human and I was killed but I never died. I’m a spirit but I’m alive. I’ve become something from outside the planes, but I’m a mundane creature. I don’t want to just die and see what waits for something like me. I want more, I want—I want to be something so unrecognizable that I cannot be rejected. I want to be beyond definition. So I need something in me that’s from the other planes, not just our plane and the nonplanar space. And there’s a demon right here.”
Enmity let out a low laugh at that, gently letting Augustus sit and rising properly. He stood strong now, head tilted, arms parting as if the fleshy remains of his old body were a minister’s robes. “Would you like that? I think I could make something like you into something demonic. I think I could make you one of my imps, certainly.”
“Violin, no,” Soren protested.
At the same time, Olivia grabbed on to Vii again. “No way. I just got you back, I’m not about to damn you. You’ll lose what makes you you if you become demonic!”
“That wouldn’t be something of everything, would it?” Augustus managed to croak. He met Enmity’s gaze; Enmity looked back, looked frustrated—then tired, then accepting.
“Yeah, listen to Augustus, he clearly gave up his soul, so he should know,” Olivia said. “Even if he was fooled by this creature, you shouldn’t be—”
Enmity snorted at that, scornful, and tossed his head. “Augustus knew more of what he was getting into than I did,” he said, which was just confusing; there was no way that was true, Augustus thought. “But I have sympathy for you, Violin Spiders. I love knowledge and freedom, and I too hate being confined to one place instead of going wherever I want to be whenever I want to be there.”
Vii was warping as he listened to this; it looked like it should be painful, but he didn’t act as if he were in pain, almost seeming to enjoy his form shifting and changing. He reached up to his void antlers thoughtfully and twisted them into horns. “Well. You gave me a choice, and I don’t want you to take it back,” Vii said. “I don’t want to be a demon, but I want some token of demonicness. I want to be everything. I told you.”
“Everywhere I go, spoiled brats,” Enmity said. “Fine. I won’t damn you, but I can give you a gift that none of the rest of these could.”
“That’s not—” Olivia began.
“Let’s hear him out,” Soren said slowly. Someone listening to sense, finally, Augustus thought desperately. But then, Soren had entrusted himself to Enmity during the divination, and came out whole and safe.
Another wave of pain wracked Augustus, and he braced himself against the ground of the voidspace. Everyone was standing except him; they towered over him, vague, wavering shapes that were hard to see around the increased red haze.
Enmity sighed, seeming particularly put-upon. “You have my word that his soul will remain his own so long as he wants it to be, and you know a demon’s word is bond. But—” he shook his arms. “I can give him some demonic power that can become his. I’ve created flesh for myself as a disguise, and I can take the remnants of this and shape it into a body for Vii. It won’t be human,” he warned. “And it’s something that’s mine, not just demonic. But it’ll be worn by a soul that was once human and is now other, and I have sworn that I won’t use it to harm him. So you’ll get to be something of everything, Violin. And you’ll have flesh you can wear about without possessing anything.”
Soren said, “If that’s what you want, Vii, I’ll support it. And—my specialty is Aetherial Spirits. I’ll turn all my studies into making sure you can stay in that flesh and also stay protected from it. All right?”
“Soren,” Vii said, in an odd voice, like he recognized a debt here, but also the simple desire to help emanating from his old friend. “Thank you.”
Olivia grimaced, but slowly nodded. “I know enough about contracts to know your word is your word, yes. If you won’t damn him, I don’t have any complaints. I’ll make sure to keep the debates about the definitions of the planes active just in case, too. I should be able to be argumentative about it for a good long time.”
Yes, this was right, Augustus thought hazily. Soren was protecting Vii. Olivia allowed this situation to happen to bring Vii back at all. Enmity was able to give him flesh. Augustus had created a space so Vii could have the final say. They were all a part of this, but not the deciding factor for it. That was all Vii.
So Vii got to become something else. That was right. It was good. It was a magician’s job to look beyond a dichotomy, after all.
Enmity looked at Augustus for a long moment, and said, apologetically, “This will hurt thee, thou sweet mewling kitten,” and then he turned back to Vii and offered his hand, flesh beginning to slough off of it and pool. “What do you say?”
Vii took it, and as Enmity had to stop taking his share of the pain to focus on crafting a body, The agony hit him like a wall.
Augustus, thankfully, passed out.
When he woke, he didn’t recognize where he was at first. He thought, for just a moment, that he was back in his school dorm. But no—it was his bedroom in his townhouse. He looked around slowly, seeing Soren asleep in the chair next to the bed.
His bones ached, but he was alive and well and his mind was his own. But where was Vii? Had he gone home with Olivia? Had he not made it back after all? Augustus began to slowly sit up, trying to decide if he had the energy to check the rest of the townhouse.
It turned out he didn’t have to; a shadow moved across the ceiling, and Augustus looked up to see Vii clinging to it like some sort of absurd lizard. He dropped, landing weightlessly on the bed—but no, his weight was there, he’d just turned it off for a moment so that he wouldn’t hurt Augustus as he fell.
He looked human, though his eyes were black fire. “Hello, Auggie,” he whispered.
Augustus felt tears well up. Memories rose slowly, as if through sludge, and he reached out, hugging Vii hard.
Vii felt good in his arms. Familiar, yet strange. He’d pinned Vii’s arms to his side, but something rippled, and Vii managed to slide his arms out from under Augustus’s by simply shifting where his flesh actually was. He certainly wasn’t human, however he looked, but he hugged Augustus back.
“How are you?” Augustus whispered to him, trying not to wake Soren.
“Odd,” Vii said. He considered. “I meant that I feel odd, but I also am odd, I suppose. I belong here and I don’t belong here. But that’s good too. The planes haven’t recognized me as a threat; I don’t know how much that’s Olivia’s doing with redefinition, and how much of it is the flesh made specifically to disguise me, and how much of it’s my own soul. Maybe that’s why the Beast first absorbed me, trying to claim some part of this plane so it could stay here. I mean, that would have been bad, it would have wrecked the world, but our half-assed casting at least prevented that.”
Augustus made a series of faces, trying to decide what to say to that with his brain still feeling pickled. “Vii … I’m sorry.”
“Why? I made my choices. And I can keep doing that, it seems.” He shapeshifted, briefly, so he wore Soren’s face on his body, winked, and then changed it back. “I’m having a good time. I was waiting for you to wake up so I could make sure you were okay. So I could thank you. But I think I’ll go explore the woods now. The world … it looks different to me, with all this. Exciting. It’s full of light and colors, and I want to see it.”
“Then go see it,” Augustus said softly, feeling a little sorry for himself.
“I’ll be back, stupid, I’m not saying I’m leaving. I’m just going to the woods,” Vii said gently. “I’ve got too much energy, I’ve been climbing the walls.”
Augustus had to laugh at that, brief and soft. “So you have. Go on, then.”
Vii kissed Augustus’s forehead, then scrambled off the bed, opening the window and oozing out of it. A long arm reached up and closed the window behind him.
Odd indeed. But Augustus was relieved, and it brought the exhaustion back on him. He slid back down in the bed, closing his eyes and drifting back into sleep.
Enmity came to him in a dream, as he was wont to do. “Hey, sport,” Enmity said, sprawling back against his throne. Crackling heatless flame surrounded them. “You’re looking awful.”
“I’m feeling awful,” Augustus admitted. “But also very self-satisfied. You know. I did this.” He came to sit at Enmity’s feet, leaning his head on Enmity’s knees.
“Thou didst fuckin’ do this,” Enmity agreed lightly. Long talons caressed Augustus’s hair.
Augustus closed his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “It might be a while before I can bring you through now. Olivia’s obviously going to try to keep planar definitions hazy, which may have some advantages, but by stealing my work and then doing this … I won’t be able to make a sudden splash, the way I’d wanted. There’ll be defensive reactions out already.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Enmity said. “Seriously though, this might be better.”
“Oh?” Augustus asked, frowning a little. He raised his head.
Enmity pushed it back down to his knees, holding onto one of Augustus’s ears to keep him there. “Right. Because if you adjusted the definitions, other demons might be able to take advantage too, thou silly mole. Right? And other entities, too, who knows what they’d get up to. But now I have a tie to this world that goes beyond pact.”
“The body?” Augustus asked.
“Sure. I didn’t think I’d actually get much out of it, you know?” Enmity sounded almost confused. “It was sacrificial. I was giving it up. But it turns out, having some of my flesh roaming around being unable to be detected by the planes as demonic intrusion means maybe more of me can do the same. I, personally, am marked as not a threat because of this.”
Augustus frowned. “How is that better? Your armies can’t take advantage of it.”
“You’re right, they can’t,” Enmity sighed. “Oh well. We’ll figure that part out later. Yet … there may be other advantages.”
“I’m resting now too, don’t get me wrong, this took a lot out of me. But I’m thinking of seeing what I can do with it. I’m going to try to come around to your place soon.”
This time when Augustus sat up, Enmity didn’t force him back down. “What are you saying?”
“The two of us could live together. You know, as husbands usually do. Husband and lowly worm, together. Dost thou wish it?”
“If thou dost,” Augustus said, almost a whisper.
“I’m not taking your last name, though,” Emmet said. “Like, fuck, it’s so nerdy. You can take mine if you want.”
Augustus put his head back down on Enmity’s knee of his own will and laughed until the tears started to flow.
Thank you for playing/reading!
Please swing by my Wrap-Up/Q&A!]
[Please read the instruction post before commenting]
“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.]
Hate to break so close to the end, but I’m not feeling very well today, so no part today. Please turn in on Day 33 by 4 pm PST Fri, Nov 4th, 2022! We’re getting into the climax here so if you’ve been on the fence about posting your suggestions, now ‘s the time to get your chance to tell Augustus what to do!
[Please read the instruction post before commenting]
“Wait a second,” Yujin protested. “What’s she going to summon? When? Why are we worrying about this?”
Augustus still couldn’t in good conscience out Soren as being part of this without Soren confessing to it first, which made describing it more annoying. Felt like he was taking more sole responsibility than was fair. “It has to do with the memories I’ve been divining for. In the past, I was part of a small group of individuals who tried to summon this creature from in between planar space. The Beast Beyond. We were with it for a matter of minutes and it tore out my memory, shattered one of the participants’ minds, and absorbed the last of the participants. This final participant was a boy named Violin Spiders.”
“Violin Spiders,” Yujin repeated, incredulous. Then, “Wait, Spiders. So you think they’re related?”
“They were twins,” Augustus said. “I didn’t know it until, well, tonight, when we went searching for those memories. So I assume Olivia wants him back. I can’t blame them, exactly—I know he and I were close back then too, for all that my memories are still largely lost, and he didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
Soren finally spoke up, lifting his head very slightly. “Why are we going to stop her?”
It was like running straight into a wall, the way his mind, whirling with thoughts and worries and possibilities, was suddenly brought up short. “What?”
“Why are we stopping her?” Soren repeated. “Do we really want to? We want him back also. Maybe we should be helping Olivia.”
It was hard to find a reason when it was put so bluntly. Augustus scrubbed his hands through his hair. “I guess, for starters, I have no reason to believe Olivia’s done a more thorough job building protections than we had. It’s harder to protect against something that’s considered as being from the same planar space as you; otherwise I could ward against, well, Yujin. Not impossible, but harder; wards love a dichotomy. And I might have more faith in a ward being up that could hold if Olivia were actively working in Warding, but they’re in Contract Law. Contract Law obviously has very entity-specific binding abilities in general, but it requires something you can reason with that stops and agrees to do things set out in specific terms. That’s why when you deal with demons you both put up warding and write a contract. One holds before the other’s in place. Even if Olivia has come up with more specific protections, that’s betting a lot that the protections actually hold. Because if they don’t? By changing the definitions, it’ll be easier for it to stay here longer. Potentially indefinitely! It won’t get dragged back the way it was last time. It’d be easier to stay, easier to get loose, and harder for it to be banished. I know this because—” Because it’s what he’d been planning for Enmity. Making this world his. Not in terms of handing it to him to rule, but making planar space acknowledge him as belonging to it, and the impact that would have. “—it’s my specialty.”
“So what?” Soren asked. “What if she has figured it out, Augustus? Don’t we want Vii back, just like Olivia does?”
“So—it’s not just Vii coming back, Soren! It might not be Vii coming back at all, given the state he was last in and how long ago that was! It’d be the Beast Beyond, and you know what happened in the few minutes we were exposed to it! It could rake its claws through our reality and destroy all memories of how to stop it!”
“But what if there is some of Vii left? What if Vii managed to consume the Beast Beyond? Don’t you want to try to take this chance to get him back?” Soren demanded, half-rising from his seat. “Do you even want him back? Yes, Olivia’s been using dirty methods so far, but if it brings Vii’s back, can we blame her? Will you do this just to spite Olivia Spiders for blackmailing your assistant and stealing your work? Or is it that you don’t want Vii back now that you’ve found happiness and a husband?” Soren waved an arm wildly at Emmet. “Are you content in leaving him locked between the planes, leaving him forgotten? I’m not!”
Augustus was shocked into silence. It took him a few moments to find his tongue. “It’s not that! The risk is just so—”
“You’re making a lot of assumptions about what she has and hasn’t done! Why don’t we just ask her?” Soren said.
Slowly, Augustus put his head in his hands, pinching the spot in between his brows. Soren had a point. If Vii could be brought back—if Olivia, in all this planning and secretiveness, did have a good plan that could work—then why stop her? “You’re right. Not about my happiness, that’s not the point, I’ll be happy with Emmet whether or not an old flame from my past exists. But you’re right that we need to know more before we assume that we need to stop Olivia. From their point of view, we’re probably the weird cult who dragged their brother into trouble and would now be interfering with their attempts to get him back.”
Soren slowly sank into his seat again. “Yeah. Exactly. I’m not saying we don’t stop her if it comes to it. I’m saying that going ahead like that’s the only option is just sacrificing Vii a second time. He gave himself up to protect me. I owe him at least the chance to hear Olivia out.”
“Right. Well.” Augustus scrubbed his face again, then made himself sit upright. “One way or another, we still need to find her before we can come to that kind of decision. Maybe she’s got it under control and we can beg forgiveness for our actions of the past and see if we can help. And if we go and she hasn’t prepared for it—remember that we’ve seen what it can do and she hasn’t—we can talk her down, or mitigate things, or stop her. We won’t know until we’ve talked to her. Yujin.”
Yujin jumped; they’d clearly been attempting to vanish during this argument, and didn’t look happy to be remembered. “Yes?”
“You should go home and get some rest. You don’t need to be more involved in this, though even so, we might need your help.” Augustus pushed his plate back. “If we decide to stop Olivia, we need to put the brakes on their public sway on the definitions as soon as possible. We’ll need someone to publish about how they’re a lousy thief, and share evidence of it. You’re in the best position to do that. Just … wait for a signal of some kind before sending that out, because if we do want to help her we need to not interfere.”
Emmet spoke up, his tone still light, unaffected. “Give me something of yours, Yujin. I can contact you if I have something in hand.”
“Like—something personal?” Yujin seemed understandably dubious.
“Anything that you’ve owned,” Emmet said. “Knowledge-based magic is my specialty. I can communicate over vast distances, etc etc.” But he could only communicate so easily if he was on the same plane as the target, Augustus mentally added with only a little bitterness.
Yujin dug around in a pocket and pulled out a hair tie. “Okay. Here. I’ll go home and … uh, get that ready? Try to sleep? Rest up?”
“All of the above, I hope,” Augustus said. “Thank you for everything you’ve done so far. I appreciate you,” he added, in case he died before seeing Yujin again.
Yujin gave Augustus a spooked look and said, “Uh, well, great to meet all of you,” before quickly heading for the front door.
“Meanwhile,” Augustus said, rising himself, “the three of us don’t need to sleep, so we shouldn’t waste any more time. We should go see what Fitzfleming heard from the blackmailer, then go find Olivia. Not that we have any leads on the latter; I know where Fitzfleming lives, at least. We could always break into Olivia’s house or office to try to find something of theirs that we can use to track them by.”
Emmet laughed, soft. “No need, right? You have blackmail notes with her handwriting on it.”
“Brilliant! Yes. Okay. That’ll help. I was trying to figure out where she could be, but—it could be anywhere.”
“Their workshop or house are obvious choices, but maybe too obvious,” Soren said.
Emmet shook his head. “Just give me a few minutes with the paper to peel her handwriting off of it and we’re good to go. In the meantime, your other blackmail victim?”
“She lives a few doors down. Come on.”
They put on jackets and tried not to look overly suspicious as the three of them went to knock on Fitzfleming’s door. It was late enough now that she didn’t answer at once, and Augustus was starting to worry that she wasn’t at home by the time the door actually opened.
She was still dressed in day clothes, but clearly had been in the middle of a meal. “Fantastic,” she said, looking over the three of them. “What do you want?”
“Just a word and then I’ll be out of your hair,” Augustus said. She jerked her head to invite him in—just him, it seemed—and shut the door behind him. “The others are helping me.”
“I don’t care. I don’t want any more involvement in this than I have to have,” Fitzfleming said. “I assume you’re here to see how it went?”
He nodded. “Nothing more, I think.” He probably couldn’t convince her to decry Olivia, even if he revealed them as the blackmailer; she had too much at stake if Olivia shared her past. “We’ll be gone as soon as you say.”
Fitzfleming sighed, hugging her arms tight around herself, clutching her own elbows. Her gaze darted toward the front window, then back to Augustus. “I did receive another demand. This time it was to break into his office. Soren’s. I assume he’s involved in this mess too, given all this.”
“You could say that,” Augustus said, frowning. “How’d you get in? I know how you might have got hold of my keys, but…”
“The blackmailer had their own copy of the keys and left them for me. I let myself in, took the ambrotype, and left.”
Oh, yes, of course Liv would have a copy of Soren’s keys. That just made sense. Probably didn’t go herself to avoid being seen near the place. “Wait—another ambrotype?” Augustus asked.
“Yes. It was a school picture of him with his class as a young man.” She paused, considering. “Was that you with him, Pennywright?”
“It could have been,” Augustus said. “Anything else?”
“No. I left it where I was told to and haven’t been contacted since. So unless you need anything else, I’d like you to leave. I don’t want any chance of the blackmailer spotting you at my house, under the circumstances.”
Fair enough. “Good evening, then, Ivory. With any luck we’ll have this dealt with by tomorrow.”
He showed himself out, frowning more heavily. So Olivia had acquired an ambrotype that contained all three of them. It would surely provide some kind of focus for whatever she needed it for—to view the past and use it to finalize protections? For preparation? To help bring the creature through?
“I have the location,” Emmet said, as he emerged. “Talk and walk, darling. Olivia’s in a shop in town. Looks like a jewelry shop.”
“The sister’s jewelry shop!” Augustus said, startled. “I’d half convinced myself it wasn’t real! Let’s go, then.”
“Right, but,” Soren said, as they began to walk that way. “What should we do when we get there? They’re not likely to answer the door.”
“I can get us in,” Emmet murmured.
Soren glanced aside at him. “Is there anything you can’t do?”
“Oh, a thing or two, my dear. I’m lousy at bowing out of a situation with good grace, and I don’t know how to take no for an answer,” Emmet shot back with a grin.
But Soren had a point. Even if they broke in, their next step was to confront Olivia. What should they plan to do when they saw her? How should they even approach this whole thing?
[What should Augustus do?
Comment with details.]