Things had advanced further than I’d hoped. The island was a small pocket of Hell already. Illusionists are more sensitive to some thing than other people, and the sickliness in the air radiated out almost to the ship. The seawater was, as Apophany had hinted, clear of the taint. Everything else was more yellow than it should be, smelled more like bile than it should, felt oilier than it should. The air felt warm and my face was flushed. I looked at the others.
“So. What are we feeling?” I asked. I’d not fought in an Infernal regio before, but apparently this was how the professionals prepared themselves.
“Pride in my coming ascension.” answered Apohany, going first. I’d expected that. She spent so much time contemplating her own mind that changes should be obvious. She looked to her left and said “And you?”
“I want a drink, and lots of sex.” answered Malvolio. He was being flippant, but it was his serious flippancy.
“Gluttony?” asked Apophany
“Yes.” he said. “Very much so.” He looked to Benvolia and asked “You?”
“God yes. Booze and sex. Cheese. A decent bath. Sleep. For it to be over. Sloth.”
“Really?” he asked. “I wouldn’t have picked that as sloth.”
“I want to not have to be responsible for this. Spiritual sloth.” She nodded. “So, you Mirarius?”
“Wrath.” I answered.
“You need to say more.” she said. “You know we need to know more.”
“I’m sick of it too, but I want to take it out on people. I want to do such terrible things to them no-one will ever dare cross us again.”
“That’s not anger. That’s pride.” she said.
“No it isn’t.” I answered. I was calm with her. She was one of my people.
“If I crush them, is that enough?”
“Ah. No. You’re right. Pride.”
Malvolio quipped in “You are allowed to have several at once. I’ve got some gluttony going on to be sure, but there’s more than a little lust in here.” He made an obscene gesture toward his groin.
“Right. Thanks. Good. So, now we know. We watch out for each other. We tell each other if we are acting oddly. Like, well, that, Malvolio. Visual comedy’s not you.” He looked down at his hand, looked shocked, and then sort of shrugged and straightened up. He doesn’t hold himself to high moral standards, just high aesthetic standards.
Apophany nodded “We share each other’s virtues.”
“So, we need to know what’s going on.” I said.
“The island is so tiny we can probably just use Eyes of the Eagle.” said Benvolia.
“Good idea.” Malvolio said. “As I understand it, demons can spot illusions. We should do as much passive work as we can before we do anything that’ll call to them.”
“One spell or four?” I asked.
“Four, but we take them easy. No need for anyone to botch. We all look. We all say what we see, regardless of how obvious it is. We discuss anything that’s out of place, regardless of how small.” The rest of us nodded. I noticed that I’d just lost command of the mission, then reasoned that actually I’d never had it on this run. That felt fine, but I second-guessed that the reason I was fine with it was that it meant that I wasn’t in the co-ordinating role, so that would let me cut loose when thing got hot. “Apophany, do you mind if I give the orders? I need the..mental distance?”
She looked at me and asked “Have I ever given you orders before?”
I answered “No. Not like this. Only in emergencies, or specialised settings.”
The four of us looked at each other. Malvolio spoke for all of us when he said “Well, this is just a ridiculous situation. I want this over swiftly.” He lost me when he continued with “It’s preventing me from enjoying my petty, purely mental, vices.” but I understood what he meant. The problem fighting in Infernal areas is that you really can’t second-guess yourself continually. It takes too much energy, unless you are a Criamon and like that sort of thing.
Benvolia said “So, for the sake of throwing off sloth, let me be the first to cast.” She did. Her sigil was that her spellcasting made people around her feel happy, which I’m sure the crew enjoyed. We each followed suit. We each started saying what we could see. I noticed the Apophany’s list started with the aura itself, and then prioritised items by their arcane significance. I looked at things from a military perspective: threats first. Malvolio described the humans in terrific detail. Benvolia was looking at the mortal objects, trying to find ways to use the environment to our advantage.
My recollection is, of course, tainted by my perspective. There were three magi that we could see. Malvolio noted the humans had fine clothes, portable magic items, and thumbstick talismans. That meant they were Diedne magi. They were old. That meant they were probably powerful. That they were absent from Bard’s Isle at a time like this made whatever they were doing extremely significant.
They did not have any large demons with them, although there were three small creatures in attendance on them which might have been familiars. Apophany noted that demons, being prideful, tend to give away how powerful they are via their physical features. Very few powerful demons are little. They had little wings and were humanjiform. They were sprites, perhaps…but given the Aura, best to imagine they were imps.
Benvolia was most interested by the huge wooden structure in the centre of the ritual space. It was a human figure, eighteen feet tall, made of wood made magically fluid and woven into a human shape. Its legs and arms were stuffed with human figures in cassocks. She said they were already dead. That would explain the Infernal regio. There was another human in the head. He was older and was in a cassock, but he wasn’t a monk. Benvolio caught her breath, and then drew our attention to him. “People, cross check me on this: who is in the head of the wicker man?” We all looked. She was right.
Apophany said “They must be desperate.”
“It could be a coup.” answered Malvolio.
Apophany shook her head in the diagonal which on her meant “Maybe yes, probably no.”
Benvolia said “So, the plan where we rescue the sacrifices is wrecked.”
I answered that one. “Not really. We don’t want him sacrificed to whatever they are trying to call up.”
True, she said” but this makes it more difficult. If he cuts his own throat in the ritual space, is he still a sacrifice?”
“Yes.” said Apophany, “Yes, he is.”
“We could drown him in the sea.” I mentioned.
Benvolia answered me “I want to say that’s you going for pride and anger, but it might work.”
“Then you do it.” I suggested in a way that was more an order, “You’re sloth: you do the active killing bit.”
“Before we go,” said Malvolio “we need a plan.”
Apophany asked “Who likes my original plan? I speak my lie. My physical form becomes a monster. You use the confusion to grab the Primus.”
I answered “I don’t like it on the basis that it’s precisely what your pride would want.”
“I had the plan before the Aura. I’m just staying the course.” I looked at that from several angles and said to the others “I find I’m in favour of that. Is that just me wanting mayhem?”
Malvolio said “I’m fine with it, and it doesn’t;t lead to either sex or wine.”
“I find that perversely reassuring” said Benvolia. “So, two teams?”
“Yes.” I said. “We kick off the distraction. You do what you need to do. We meet back at the boat. The boat thing falls through…we get back to Blackthorn however we can.”
“Is that it?” Benvolia asked?
“Then it’s time for goodbyes?”
I’d been ignoring this part deliberately. I closed my eyes for second. “Apophany…it was an honour to serve with you.”
“Thank you Mirarius. We were friends. You meant a lot to me.”
Benvolia looked deeply stricken. Malvolio looked like he wanted to make a sexual quip and was restraining himself through force of will. They also said completely inadequate things. Apophany hugged each of them. She didn’t;t hug me: she knew me too well. They hurried away. We waited fifteen minutes, for them to get into place. During our wait, the druids started chanting.
Apophany leaned in close to me. We were hiding behind a bush, covered with the best illusions we could manage. She whispered. “I’m ready now.”
I answered “Do I need to be further away?”
She laughed “Probably. You do need to hear the lie, though.”
“Alright. Goodbye Apophany. Travel well.” What an inadequate thing to say.
“Goodbye Mirarius.” she said, and smiled. “Quickly, before my pride gets the better of me, let me tell you my lie.”
“Whenever you are ready.” I whispered back.
“You will take the hand of one of the Diedne, the Primus by preference. After the Battle of Bard’s Isle, the Foolish Fires will be asked to survey the site. You will find an inconspicuous place. You will use the hand as a stylus to write the following into a wall. ‘We shall last as long as the wind blows hot on the backs of your necks, as long as the storms pound your tower walls, as long as the waves smash the sides of your ships, as long as the merciless sun looks down upon your abominations, sees your sins, and calls out for vengeance. We will return to haunt you.’. and then her body collapsed, and a pale coloured shadow of Apophany stood over her writhing, darkening, swelling corpse.
Her ghost continued “It will prevent the war…” she said, and then noticed her body had fallen away. “Oh, Mirarius!” she said, in the distant, breathy way of ghosts. “Run!”