Inner Peace (Through Superior Firepower) – Episode 056
It wasn’t long before Judy fell to her hands and knees, vomited almost delicately on the ornate carpet, and collapsed with her face in the puddle. Jillian watched Wanda clean her up and put her to bed.
“I’m not doing it. She’s the enemy,” said Jillian sourly. “Got some pride left.”
This stance seemed to make no difference to Wanda, who performed the work in silence.
“You know, I think I did my part just by not croaking her,” Jillian said, a little while later. Why she felt like she had to defend herself to her captor, she couldn’t say, but Wanda’s continued silence really bothered her.
In her current dream, she was floating in greenness, trying to stay hidden from the shapes that lurked, the voices that called out and sang and swore at her. But in the flat, dull world of reality, she simply followed the Croakamancer up another set of stairs. She didn’t ask where they were going this time; she assumed it must be about the shoes.
“Indeed,” said Wanda at last. “Thank you for that. I would have had to stop you.”
The Lady Firebaugh had exhausted the last of her Overlady’s lucidity for the day by asking her questions about a pair of red shoes. When was the last time Judy saw them? What exact shade were they? Uniform color, or patterned? Were they adorned with beads? Sequins? Actual rubies? Was there a bow or other ornamentation? Did they fit her feet immediately or had they been resized? Had Olive ever mentioned them since the day she took them away? What did she say about them? What powers did they seem to have? Had Judy ever worn them in battle?
“You seem mad,” said Jillian.
“No. I am concentrating,” said Wanda. “I am considering whether or not to attempt something difficult.”
They were in a narrower staircase than before—still horribly green—which led past floors with rounded walls and closed doors. This was a tall tower, maybe Efbaum’s main one. “Like what?” asked Jillian.
“I’m not telling you. You’re ‘the enemy,’” said Wanda, without looking back. “Turn to Haffaton, and perhaps I will say.”
Jillian couldn’t tell if it was a joke. But she shut up for a while, and simply followed Wanda up the stairs, through the gross, angled greenness. Her heart was with Faq, but her stomach was thinking about following Judy’s lead. It was already turning.
“I am considering casting a spell which is outside of my discipline,” said Wanda after some time. “That is one reason it would be difficult.”
“How can you cast outside your discipline?” asked Jillian. Since she’d never had casters to command, she rarely thought about them. Outside? She thought a Croakamancer was only good for Croakamancy, and basic Shockmancy.
“Any caster may try, but few do. Failure is highly probable,” said Wanda. “It wastes juice. But I have been cultivating knowledge in other disciplines for a long time. I have some facility with Dollamancy, for example, as you’ve seen.”
It took Jillian a moment. “That mannequin...” Her stomach churned acid, and she shuddered. Worse than the worst dreams, that thing was.
“We have them in several cities, simply watching over things. Barton and Maxwell made those. I can operate them, but I cannot make new ones.”
Jillian almost apologized for destroying the one that had spied on her, but caught the apology on her tongue and bit it. Why was it so hard to remember Wanda was an enemy? That mannequin thing was hers, and it was horrible. And the box... Bart...
How could she feel so at ease with her?
“So, um... so you want to cast a Dollamancy spell?” An idea dawned on her. “Oh, you want to make those shoes! Don’t you?”
With a sigh, Wanda lolled her head to the side defeatedly, though she did not pause in her climb. “No, I don’t have Dollamancy like that. Perhaps no-one does, any more. Do you...understand why Judy was shouting at the scarecrow?”
“It was Maxwell’s. When Maxwell was alive, he helped create many things, both wondrous and terrible. One of them was that scarecrow, which he made with Barton when Haffaton was a small side. Before my time. You know that a scarecrow is an ordinary unit of Dollamancy, like a cloth golem...”
“Yeah,” said Jillian. She had some experience fighting them, in fact.
“Well, this one was more than that. It spoke. It ate. It had opinions. It danced and sang. And it had the upkeep cost of a warlord. Something that Maxwell did during its creation gave it Life. It bothered Olive to no end,” said Wanda. Though she hadn’t turned around, Jillian could hear the smile in her voice. “She said it ought not to be possible. So just to show her, Maxwell created others like it. He made a living lion out of a cloth golem. Then he made a metal golem with Komatsu that was the same way: alive, aware. Olive put a stop to it, on the grounds that Haffaton couldn’t afford their upkeep, but the point was made. Judy loved all three of the things dearly. They helped her become Ruler.”
Jillian’s dream was full of little questions, like furry animals, circling at her feet. She picked one up at random and asked it. “What point was he trying to make?”
“That the axis of Life was not special,” said Wanda. “That it held no particular supremacy over the Motion or Matter axes.”
“So caster stuff, in other words,” said Jillian, scrunching her nose.
“More or less,” said Wanda.
“But Judy’s not a caster,” said Jillian, shaking her head. “Is she?”
“No,” Wanda said. Then she cocked her head slightly. “Or I should say: not that I know of. She fought casters twice, but as far as I know, she does not herself cast.”
“Then why was she yelling at the scarecrow?”
“Because,” said Wanda with a note of dread, “Olive was right. When Maxwell perished, the scarecrow and the tin golem reverted to ordinary units. He hadn’t given them Life after all. They must have been tied somehow to his own Life. Judy was shouting because she loved that scarecrow, and she has lost it. But that’s what happens when you turn away from your Fate.”
Jillian made an exasperated noise. “Oh don’t again!”
“I must,” said Wanda, casting a glance over her shoulder. Jillian noticed daylight streaming in from the top of the next flight of stairs. They were nearing the top of the tower at last. “It would be foolish to ignore what is known of the road ahead. You should tell me how you know of Delphie Temple, so that we might both work out the best course of action.”
“No,” said Jillian firmly. It wasn’t just that the information was a good bargaining chip for a prisoner to hold on to, it was something that she genuinely didn’t want to talk about or think about.
Wanda shrugged. “You are choosing—” As she reached the top step, she stopped and froze, making a warning gesture. She was looking at something in the sunlight.
Jillian stepped carefully up beside her, and blinked in the sudden brightness of the tower parapet. Silhouetted in a crescent of light that made the green walls shine, Olive Branch stood. She wore a gown of flowing white, with the outline of her body showing clearly through it. Her back was turned to them. She held her head tilted back, as if in thought, showing them the glint of a gold circlet in her blonde hair. She whispered to the ceiling, something Jillian could not hear.
Wanda took a careful step backward, nudging Jillian with her hip. Jillian reached for the railing, turned, and headed back downstairs as silently as she could.
“I see you,” sang Dame Branch’s sweet voice, freezing Jillian’s toes to the cold marble step. “And I hear you. But I don’t know why you are here. Turn around, now.”
Jillian and Wanda both turned. Dame Branch was standing with her arms out. “Come to me, both of you.”
Wanda stepped forward obediently, and Jillian followed her into the light, walking out into the sunlit parapet. A warm breeze mixed the Florist’s perfume with that of the field of pink buds below.
“What are you doing?” Dame Branch asked Wanda, in a light singsong way that held a hint of menace.
“I’ve come to cast,” said Wanda evenly. “I need the tower boost, as the spell is outside my discipline.”
Dame Branch narrowed her eyes, but held on to the little smile. “Mm, cast what, Wanda?”
“Turnamancy, of course,” said Wanda. “I’ve had some insight into something Tina tried to teach me. I believe I can turn the prisoner now.”
Jillian’s head snapped toward Wanda, first in shock, then with focused rage. But her lips clamped shut. She was a prisoner. She hadn’t acted like it lately, but if that’s how it was...
“Really,” said Dame Branch. “So you failed on her for a fortnight, and you let her destroy the box, let her escape and raze a city. But now you’ve got the answer, do you?”
“I think so,” said Wanda, showing no reaction to the Hippiemancer’s sarcasm. “And, given the urgency of the situation, it seemed worth attempting.”
“Urgency!” said Dame Branch, letting out a theatrical little laugh. “You have no idea, dear. Faq is in our battlespace this morning.”
Jillian’s eyes went wide.
“Where?” said Wanda.
“We don’t know. Isn’t that lovely?” said Olive, in the same light tones. “I’ve moved around everything I can, but there were no encounters. So I’m spending more Shmuckers we don’t have to hire Charlie to look.” She gestured to where she had been standing, apparently in a Thinkagram to Charlescomm. “I’m not ending the turn until we have to. Of course...”
She cozied up to Jillian, putting her hand lightly on her cheek. “If our guest has any ideas about where they are or what they’re up to, that would be an awfully great help.”
Jillian was finally coming to realize that Wanda was right about Dame Branch’s charm. Her kindness was an act, a weapon, a tool.
Jillian remembered the order she had sent home from Goodminton. King Banhammer could be anywhere, but if she had to guess, he was probably now somewhere near the City of Haffaton, about to strike it. “Nope. Can’t help ya,” she said, holding her jaw out in defiance.
Dame Branch’s eyes went icy. She turned to Wanda, calmly reached up, and pulled the rose-stem halo from the Croakamancer’s head. Wanda winced, but did not cry out.
Jillian knew what was coming. Her hand reflexively reached up to guard the flower in her hair, but the Florist smacked away her hand and tore the bud out.
Instantly she fell from the dream. Her knees buckled, but she managed to rise. Her head hurt terribly, and the sunlight seemed to burn cruelly. Parts of her mind went blind, to colors and directions she couldn’t even remember how to see now. With a hard smack, the hoop came down on Jillian’s head. The thorns bit into her scalp, digging to the bone. The world went dim and empty, and this time she did fall to her knees.
“You have one chance, Wanda,” she heard Dame Branch say, her voice echoing as if down a dungeon corridor, “Turn her, if you can. I’ll watch. But if she doesn’t turn, then croak her. That is an order.”