“And that’s ironclad, right?” asked Jillian. “He’s forced to destroy everything he’s got for Flower Power? Stockpiles, facilities, recipes, whatever?”
Brother Labeler blinked and nodded slowly. “Of that, I am confident, Princess. But this is the section I’m concerned with,” he said. He had meticulously transcribed the revised Deal of a Lifetime contract for her, in his exacting and beautiful hand. “Special to your contract. Please read that carefully.”
A breeze blew through the patio garden, just enough to ruffle the parchment on the green stone table. Jillian bent over and read what it said.
Section VII - Experimental Thinkamancy/Healomancy Procedure
Part 1 - Contractor’s Responsibility - Contractor will apply proprietary magicks (Arkendish) to link with Healomancer and fashion such spells and procedures to Client as are necessary to substantially diminish or eliminate Client’s dependency on Flower Power. Should the first attempt fail to achieve these aims, Contractor will make up to three (3) additional attempts, utilizing Healomancer(s) provided by Client or at Client’s own expense. Contractor will, to the best of his ability and in good faith, attempt to cure Client and minimize lingering symptoms.
Part 2 - Client’s Responsibility. Client will present herself in a timely manner within ten turns of Turn of Effect, and cooperate with Contractor and Healomancer. Client will submit to treatment involving Healomancy and Thinkamancy with the understanding that these are unproven and largely undocumented procedures, with unknown risks, including (but not limited to) Life, Signamancy, identity, sanity, and basic functioning of client as a unit and a Warlord. Client expressly grants permission to Contractor and Healomancer to apply changes as needed to the functioning of Client’s mind, at Contractor and Healomancer’s sole discretion.
Jillian looked up at him, then at Betsy. “Huh. Yeah, I guess that’s a little frightening.”
Betsy leaned forward and looked her in the eye. “I will be in the link, so you needn’t be concerned, Princess. Charlie can’t do anything to you unless I help him. I will watch his actions carefully.”
Jillian nodded, and looked at Labeler. She took a deep breath. “Okay, if you’re sure this will force him to ditch the flowers and cure me, then I’m ready to sign.”
The binding of the Deal took all morning, and Jillian couldn’t remember anything but the dull ache of boredom. They broke for lunch, and she walked out into the sunshine, prodding the parts of her mind that had been shackled by the contract. She could remember that Charlie was a Carnymancer, but “Ch—” was as far as she got, when she tried to say it out loud. She was rewarded with a headache like a bolt through the brain.
She wanted to talk to Jack, but he’d made himself scarce lately. She’d clear things up with him soon, but for now, if Jack Snipe wanted to hide then only the Titans themselves would be able to find him.
Instead, Jillian found Marie and Wanda, who were eating sushi by the fish pond. She sat down beside them. “I signed.”
Wanda had been looking better every turn since the cure. She chewed and swallowed a big, healthy bite. “How do you feel?”
Jillian looked up at the clear sky. “Um, I feel...like talking about anything but that one topic. You know the one.”
So they did. It was a nice lunch, and in truth, she felt fine. They talked about the trip home: the kind of country they’d be seeing, what they’d do with the horses once they reached the tunnels. They’d be loading up a caravan tonight and going home tomorrow, and Jillian was finally feeling fairly okay with that. Banhammer could run the side the way he wanted to. He was the King. She would do her job, swinging a sword for him while he looked the other way and kept his nose in a book, if that’s what he wanted.
About the only thing bothering her was the need for a flower. But before long, it was time to go back to the Hall and get over that, too.
The grand corridor approaching the Wizard’s Hall was still too dark, too empty, and too long. Jillian remembered her blind run through here. It was just one more bit of wrongness about this city that would be righted tomorrow, when they made a crater of the place and left it behind.
Three hundred or so boring paces, and the Chief could see all the way to the dais as she walked the distance. The diminutive Betsy sat there way up there in the light, in a motionless, meditative pose. There was no big green floating head or shooting flames.
The Healomancer only moved when Jillian finally stepped up beside her. Without opening her eyes, she pointed at the stone altar with the cushions on it.
It wasn’t Betsy’s voice, so the link must already be active. Jillian hopped up on the altar without a word. High overhead, the four brightest powerballs in the city shone down on her face.
“Close your eyes,” said the caster, looming over her. She put cool fingertips on Jillian’s forehead. “It will be like the buds, at first.”
The reddish light that penetrated her eyelids deepened to total darkness. Then the darkness folded into itself, and she was in some sort of internal space. It wasn’t really like the buds, with distinct images and the feeling of inhabiting other worlds. She was still in her own head.
In fact, that seemed to be exactly what the place was. She floated within her own mindspace, within boundaries formed by her own ideas and conceptions. Nothing felt unfamiliar in here, the way it did with the dreams...
Ideas lit up, when she thought of the buds. A network of pink, like veins or the branches of a river system showed her at once how much of her mind had been touched by the Flower Power. It was into everything.
“That’s the trouble there,” said the idea of Betsy. It was something like a statue, or the carved woman on the masthead of a frigate. Similar to how Jillian had seen her in the smoke dreams, but not slowed down. It stayed on the edges, among the pink. All the concepts around her were confined to the outer skin of this space, but sometimes formed blisters and bubbles that floated free. “That’s where we start. Keep it lit for us.”
“Much simpler than the Croakamancer,” said a million insects at once.
Jillian’s viewpoint floated in space, kicking and flailing for a moment. The idea of Charlie was everywhere, on everything. It crawled and swarmed out of every crevice. Without hands to swat or strike at him, her sense of where she was could not do anything but float there in horror.
“Where’s the root cluster?” asked the Betsy concept.
“I don’t know yet,” said the swarm. It flowed along its own network of little crawling and flying horrors, similar to the pink’s pattern, but moving.
Jillian could say nothing, but she needed to scream. The bugs touched everything. Every memory, her every hope and love and fear had Charlie-bugs upon it.
“What about the others?” asked Betsy.
“Aggression’s obvious,” said the bugs, as a honeycomb pattern lit up with the idea of everything she knew about warfare, everything she’d ever fought. “Here. It’s structural. If you want to take that out, you have to fill it in with something major, or the mind will collapse.”
“It’s there,” whispered the swarm. The voice was a clicking of pincers and a rasping of cricket legs and beetle carapaces. A humming of hornet wings. “Conscience is interwoven in the aggression structure. It’s all one framework.”
“What? How can that be?”
“It’s a framework of moral comprehension. Simple. But it’s too big a job, for what you want to do.”
“No,” said the Betsy sculpture. “There’s a channel we can block or divert. There has to be. Something.”
“You do what you like,” said the insects. “I’m here to clean up. Still looking for something specific...”
All through the conversation, Jillian kept trying to lash out. To say something, scream something. What did they mean? What were they doing to her? But there was no her there to kick or claw. She could make things change on the walls by thinking, but she could not swat the bugs off.
She got one. A smear on the surface of her mind: wasn’t that a smashed ant or something? The idea of smashing had actually smashed one.
Or so she imagined.
No, that was the point. Imagination was an effective defense. The concept of a hand slapping Charlie formed against the walls of her mind. A fist to strike with. A scream. A battle cry. Bugs mashed in a fist. It coalesced from that aggression web they’d shown her.
And there was a scream. The very word “scream”—and the idea behind it—rang out through her mental space. The idea of a scream was scream enough in here.
“Watch it,” rasped the scurrying bugs.
“Titans...” said the Betsy sculpture, dodging and ducking as Jillian imagined lashing out.
Come on, Warlord! No, the idea of the warlord. The champion. The fighter. It filled her mind. It took a shape.
A surprising shape.
“Trap!” shouted the bald jester. “You fell for it! Get out, get out!”
The little fat clown was back. In the flower dreams, he was impotent. Here in her headspace, he wielded a warhammer and was smashing bugs on everything.
The insects hissed as a group with each strike. “Ssstay bahhhck!” they warned Betsy. “Thiss iss what I was looking fohhr!”
Jillian tried to yell to the jester, but she still had no voice. How? How can I get out?
The blows of the hammer seemed to be making the mindspace ring and crack. Could she fly out? Out of her mind? What would happen? Could the idea of escaping get her out of here? It was all she could think to try.
“What is it?” asked the Betsy concept.
The jester was covered in insects now, and his screams were more tormented than defiant. “Get out!”
“Tool of the enemy,” snapped the insects with a crackle of chitin. “Hhhelp me kill it!”
“Jussst hhold it down!”
The Betsy sculpture raised its arms and swam, fishlike, at the jester. She caught its hammer arm by the wrist and pinned it to the concept of an unbreakable wall. The little man was held fast against what might have been the limit of Jillian’s own comprehension.
The insects covered the jester. He stopped screaming, then stopped moving. In seconds, he was completely devoured.
Betsy drifted away, toward something like Jillian’s ideas of happiness, contentedness. Green meadows and safety. Jillian’s viewpoint began to dissolve a bit, as the insects fanned out over her mind and resumed their network of pathways.
“What was it?” asked Betsy. “A tool of what enemy?”
“The only one worth fighting,” said the insects. “Don’t ever find out. Trussst me.”
Viewpoint-Jillian lacked the will to try anything else, and let what passed for her attention wander curiously over the surface of all she knew. There was a nice little bubble in the fabric of her understanding which contained all she knew about mountains and caves. Another that held the taste of sweet things. Teacakes and apples and key lime pie.
The Betsy statue put its hands together and looked around. “What do we do now?”
“Like the contract says,” said the Charlie-bugs, “we cure her. Let’s start with the addiction. You can pull out whatever else you don’t like in here. I really don’t care.”
They began tearing things out of her mind. Memories. Opinions. Pleasures. Hatreds. She knew what these were as they were seized, but then the things vanished as concepts. Everything she knew about Charlie, the insects picked out and ate clean.
At some point, near the end, they pulled out her comprehension of the situation itself. The negotiations, the contract, the link-up. For a fleeting moment, she knew the magnitude of her defeat. This was worse than croaking, worse than losing her side. She would be herself no more, after this, with no idea what had been taken from her, or by whom.
And then she did not know that anymore.