Chapter 10: The First Rule
Content warnings for this chapter:
Rape apologism; discussion of addiction; details of abusive “troubled teen” schools, and apologism for them; discussion of police brutality.
If you see other material that should be marked (such as common triggers or phobias), e-mail me. I am serious about web accessibility, and I will respond to your concerns as soon as I can manage.(hide content warnings)
It wasn’t hard to get the others to follow along with me. Morrow was always going to follow wherever Alchemist went. Justicar was always going to follow the rest of us to “protect” us. And Alchemist… I wasn’t really sure, but they moved to follow along as soon as I said where I was going. Maybe they wanted us all to get back together with Yali again, just like I did.
So we went where the map led us. Morrow showed us a bunch more tricks for how to use it. Besides just moving to where you wanted to look at, you could also change it to highlight different landmarks. You could change the angle so you were looking at things in three dimensions. And you could make the whole sphere disappear and reappear whenever you wanted, so it wasn’t annoyingly floating around your hand all the time.
The way we were walking, more glass walkways stretched out over the void. At first, we were on a long straight one. But then it branched and expanded into a whole three-dimensional maze in the air, with different walkways curling around each other and joining in loops and stopping at dead ends in midair. With all the twists and turns, it got harder and harder to keep moving. We took what seemed like the obvious way forward, but then it twisted around and hit a dead end. Before long, it didn’t seem like there was any way forward.
We split up and looked around.
Pretty soon, Morrow yelled out, “Check this!” I looked, and he was standing in front of a big… something like a ship’s steering wheel. I hadn’t spotted it earlier, because it was also made of glass and it blended in with all the handrails.
“What does it – Aaaaaahhhh!” I yelled as the floor moved under me. When I caught my balance, I saw what had happened. When Morrow spun the wheel, about half of the walkways also moved through the air to match.
Well, now we could reach a bunch of places we couldn’t reach before. And as it turned out, a bunch of those places had more wheels that moved around different walkways. It was in elaborate puzzle, where you had to spin the wheels to just the right positions to get where you wanted. In fact, pretty soon there were places we could only get to by having one person spin a wheel while a different person waited on one of the walkways that was going to move. It was a puzzle for all of us to solve together.
Not that the four of us knew how to work together. Justicar stood back, thinking through everything logically and telling everyone else what to do. So of course, Morrow did the opposite, running around and spinning every wheel at random, pulling Alchemist along with him. Normally, I’d have been rooting for Morrow, just to piss off Justicar. But this time I couldn’t ignore my rising frustration. We could have been making progress towards Yali, and he was just running around messing it all up! And I also kept having surges of that confident feeling, which meant I was having Blood God thoughts and the loopy thing was shutting them down. It was a relief not to have them, but it actually felt pretty weird. It was kind of disrupting my train of thought.
So, as strange as it was, I ended up working with Justicar. We worked together to get past the parts that needed two of us to cooperate. And for the parts that needed three or four people working together, I tried to coax Morrow to play along.
“Hey, move it back!” I yelled.
Why had I ever tried to work with Morrow? We’d just opened up a way for him to go on ahead, and when he got there, he’d messed things up for the rest of us. The first wheel he’d turned took away my only path away from where I was standing. And now he was cheerfully ignoring me. I was stuck on this one tiny section of walkway, floating in empty space. And the worst part was, I understood this puzzle now. Justicar and I had figured out exactly how to tell which wheels moved which walkways in which directions. And Morrow was the only person in a position to free me. The only thing I could think of was to jump, but all the other walkways looked too far away to reach.
Then again, it couldn’t hurt to try, could it? None of the puzzles here had actually hurt me, even when I did stupid stuff. So I just took a flying leap off the platform, fell into the bottomless void, and landed back at the beginning of the puzzle like usual.
Except, this time, jumping off wasn’t just a reset. The walkways didn’t reset along with you. So if you were at a wheel, you could move it to whatever position was the most useful, even if it trapped yourself, and then jump back to the beginning. By taking advantage of that, Justicar and I were able to get a lot farther without Morrow’s help.
Meanwhile, Morrow climbed up to a weird high spot. “Hey look! Up ahead!” he yelled.
Once I looked closer, I could see what he was pointing at. Ahead of us, the tangle of walkways started to thin out. Eventually, it narrowed to just one, stretching off into the darkness – the end of this puzzle, and the beginning of whatever came next. Or, when I looked closer, there were two walkways into the darkness. We would have to decide which way to go.
Not that it was hard for me to decide. “The one on the right looks closer to Yali. I’m going that way for sure!”
“Hmm…” said Justicar. “Look closely. Both routes begin with interlocks that will only allow two people to pass. So it seems we have no choice but to split into groups of two. That means we have a choice to make – not only which way each of us will go, but who will be paired with whom. A difficult choice, as I don’t believe that any two of you should be left alone together.”
Morrow leaned over a railing, sneering down at her. “Yeeeeeah, and the third one has to be alone with you, so I guess we alllllll have to put up with something we don’t like.”
Justicar ignored him. “Perhaps I should go with the Alchemist. Then, at least, neither of you would be able to be a bad influence on him.”
“What, and leave me with Morrow? I was already stuck with Morrow for ages!” Not that I wanted to be stuck with Justicar, either. “How about Alchemist goes with me and –” Haha, Morrow and Justicar would both hate being stuck with each other. That would be hilarious, and I was kind of thinking it was what they both deserved. But as soon I thought that, the loopy thing flooded me with that confident feeling again.
“Are you alright?” said Justicar sharply.
I must’ve been spacing out a bit there. “I’m fine, I was just thinking about how I’m awesome and you should all do what I say.” Justicar and I got caught up in arguing with each other for a minute. But then, we were interrupted by a loud cracking noise.
We both whirled around to see where the noise had come from. Diagonally above us, Alchemist was… surrounded by greenish-brown vines, growing right out of their hands and coiling over the glass all around them. The vines had tightly coiled around the spot where one of the wheels was mounted, digging into all the gaps. As we watched, the wheel cracked and toppled off, along with a whole chunk of the railing, spinning into the void.
“What are you doing?!” demanded Justicar.
Alchemist was frozen up and unresponsive, looking down at their hands.
“We have to work together! You may have just made this puzzle unsolvable!”
“No, it’s okay!” I said. “I think we can still solve it – like, uh…” I scrambled to find a solution. I hadn’t really figured out whether we could solve it, I was just trying to distract Justicar so she wouldn’t keep going off on Alchemist. “So, without that wheel, we can’t move those two bridges near Alchemist, but we could still, uh… use the central wheel to move those ones over there –”
“– Which would give us access to the rightmost wheel, which, if the pattern continues, should open up the route for the Imminent to reach the left exit,” Justicar concluded. “So that is a solution, but it limits our choices –”
That’s when I realized. Without the wheel Alchemist had just busted, only the two of them could get to the left exit. And only Justicar and me could get to the right exit. “Are you seriously telling me that Alchemist solved the whole rest of the puzzle while we were arguing?! And then figured out which wheel to break so they’d get to leave with Morrow?! Shit, Alchemist, you’re a genius!” I threw them a thumbs-up. I wasn’t even mad that they’d stuck me with Justicar, that was just too brilliant. Now the lovebirds would get to be alone together, for the first time in… ever, actually, now that I thought about it.
“So…” I said.
“So…” said Justicar.
We were alone together, walking along the long, narrow walkway. Morrow and Alchemist were off in their own puzzles now.
This was sure going to be awkward.
“If you’re going to help me find Yali, we don’t have to have a problem with each other,” I said.
Justicar considered this for a few paces before answering. “I am… not against assisting in your search. The Stern God does ask that I seek the Farseer’s guidance, even if it also asks that I not become dependent upon it. However –”
“– however, you’re not gonna, because, let me guess –”
“– No, I intend to assist you, to the best of my ability. I simply do not expect that we will be able to find her this way.”
“You kidding me? Let me guess, it’s because I’d like that, and nothing I like is allowed to happen.”
“The law of the Seeking is to challenge us with riddles. What do you think would happen if your Farseer were here? Although she –”
“She’s not ‘my Farseer’, she’s my girlfriend!”
“– Although she is wise for her years, she is still young. She has not fully grasped the virtue of restraint – to save her abilities for the opportune moment, not to use the Waiting God’s knowledge for every idle pursuit. So if she were with us –”
“You’re saying she’d give us the answers too easily.”
“Yes. The will of the Seeking is for humanity to experiment, to discover new insights, to learn, to change. If we could progress simply by following answers given to us by others, that would contradict the will of the Seeking, so the Seeking will not allow it. Therefore, if the Seeking has shown her location to us, it must have a different purpose. We may reach her in a physical sense, but even if we do, it will be another layer of the Seeking God’s game, not the simple gratification you are imagining.”
“Well fuck you too. I say after I do these puzzles, the Seeking will reward me by letting me get – letting me see my fucking girlfriend. Rewards are part of a puzzle too, you know!”
“You can believe what you like.”
I hated how she said it like that, like she was automatically right and she was just waiting for me to come around. And a horrible part of me was worried that she was right. Conflicting feelings surged up inside me. One part of me was yelling, Not AGAIN! Not ANOTHER thing where I’m going to lose no matter how hard I try! But then it got swept away by the cool feeling of the loopy thing, flooding my mind with peace. It was reduced to just an echo, a subtle anxiety hovering in the back of my mind.
I tried to make the last bits of anxiety go away. Wasn’t the loopy thing supposed to make them go away? But they stayed there stubbornly.
Whatever. I could just put up with it. I gave up and kept walking.
Finally, the long walkway came to an end. A huge wall loomed out of the blackness in front of us, extending into shadow both above and below. The walkway just continued right up to the middle of the wall and stopped.
While Justicar examined the wall, I just started cutting it open with my Blood Blades. It turned that there had been a secret door there already – as I discovered when my blades cut through its hinges, causing it to fall open.
The rooms beyond the wall were much more organized. The floor was divided into a square grid, with each square about a meter wide. A lot of the squares had glass walls rising up from them, forming smaller rooms and hallways within the big grid. Other squares were missing, leaving pits going down into the floor. Still other squares had doors, buttons, levers, and other devices I didn’t recognize.
I pressed my face to one of the glass walls. “I feel like I’m in an aquarium,” I said. “Gotta say, the Seeking God’s got style.”
“Style, perhaps, but it also serves a function. I expect that the walls are made of glass so that we can see the whole puzzle at once. It allows us to examine the puzzle before jumping into anything –”
Well, if she was going to say that, I knew what I had to do. “Alright, time to jump into things!!” I said cheerfully. I danced out onto the floor of the main puzzle area.
Just then, the room roared to life. Glass walls slid open. Control panels lit up. And from nozzles on the walls, jets of fire spurted out, flames roaring and curling through the air. One of the jets was zooming right towards me!
I was too startled to react, but Justicar was quicker. Right away, she leapt in between me and the source of the flames. The flames deflected off of her armor, shooting off at wide angles and dispersing into the air.
“Holy shit, that was badass!” I said.
“Please move,” said Justicar tightly, the flames still rolling off of her.
“Uh, right,” I said shakily. I moved back out of range, allowing Justicar to step out of the flames. She concentrated, and the remaining smoke blew away from her armor, leaving it shining as bright as new.
“So is that armor, like, fireproof? Or, wait, did you just manifest the fire away from you? But the god doesn’t let us manifest on parts of the puzzle –” Even just standing near the flames felt really hot, and trying to manifest my skin to be cooler didn’t help at all. It just made me feel cold and hot.
“The Stern God’s will protects me from all forms of physical harm. This armor is only a physical representation of that will.” She looked at the puzzle ahead of us. “It appears that there are more corridors blocked off by the flames. So that is the first rule of this puzzle: Only the Justicar can stand safely in the flames. For us both to get past those corridors, I will have to block the flames while you run past.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said.
“The question is, how will we get past the dead end directly in front of us? That lever must open a new passage, but how –”
Ahead of us, the glass walls narrowed into a short hallway, leading up to a lever. But before the lever, there was a giant hole in the floor, cutting completely across the hall.
I sized up the hole. “I could jump that, easy.”
“Maybe, but the puzzle might –”
I took off running and jumped clean over the hole. I grabbed the lever and gave it a good heave, smirking. As the lever moved, another glass wall slid open, giving us access to more of the puzzle. Then I jumped back over the hole. “That was easy,” I said. “You could probably jump it, too. Even with that armor, it’s not –”
“I sincerely doubt that my physical abilities are what matters here. But I will try it, if only to illustrate.” Justicar geared up to make a big jump, sprang upwards, and… barely got off the ground. “As I thought. The pit would have no reason to exist if it had the same function as an empty floor. So that is the second rule of the puzzle: only the Blood Child can cross pits.”
The puzzle went on, giving us a series of challenges using these rules. We kept having to figure out who needed to go to what position to pull what lever. In one place, Justicar had to walk me past a series of flamethrowers, but she had to keep going the long way around because the short way was full of pits. In another place, it was me who had to keep pulling levers that opened and closed different pits in the floor.
And then there was a place where only Justicar could get into the puzzle physically – there were flamethrowers on both sides of the entrance, she couldn’t block both of them for me at once. I had to wait in a tiny room, operating levers that changed what Justicar could access. It was mostly waiting, though. Being stuck in this tiny glass room was making me jittery. Justicar was taking a long time, I wanted to be done, I felt like the walls were closing in on me –
“Let me out of here already!!” I yelled. With a Blood Blade in my hand, I stabbed against the glass, but even that didn’t do any good – I was trapped in here –
“I’m solving the puzzle as fast as I can!” came Justicar’s voice.
I was about to yell back when the cool confidence of the loopy thing cleared my head. “Never mind,” I said.
While I was waiting for Justicar to finish, I idly manifested a brick wall to block the fire in front of me. I knew it wasn’t going to work, I was just curious to see what would happen. Sure enough, the flames shot right through it. The wall didn’t even burn – it just didn’t block the flames at all.
Justicar spotted what I was doing. “I told you,” she said patiently, “the Seeking God has set its rules for these puzzles. There will not be a clever trick to bypass them.”
“I thought the Seeking God was the god of clever tricks,” I muttered.
“And thus, it is within the Seeking God’s authority to determine which puzzles may be answered with clever tricks, and which may not.”
At the end of that puzzle room, there was an elevator. At the end of the elevator, there was another puzzle room. I checked the map, and there was a whole series of puzzles with about the same layout. And there was good news for me: The end of the chain of puzzles was pretty much where Yali was.
So I threw myself into puzzle-solving. As we went, the puzzles got a bunch more sophisticated. As well as the levers, we also started seeing big buttons on the floor, which only stayed down as long as you were standing on them. Like, there’d be a button that closed a pit, so I had to stand on the button while Justicar went across. Or a button that opened a door on the other side of the room, and we’d have to figure out how to get one of us to the button and the other to the door at the same time.
At the end of each room, when we got into the elevator to the next room, I actually felt kind of proud of figuring everything out. Except that the only person here to celebrate with was Justicar, and she didn’t seem to like celebrating, and she always acted like she was smarter than me. I wasn’t bad at solving this kind of puzzles, but it always felt like she figured things out half a second before I did, and then she’d be like, logically, this is what we have to do, and then I couldn’t get any credit. Ugh.
Right now we were at the start of another puzzle. We had split up so we could both look around without getting in each other’s way. At least it gave me time to just be pissed off about things without Justicar looking over my shoulder all the time. Time to think about… that thing I hadn’t been remembering to think about… what was it? I felt like there was something really important, right at the edge of my mind, but I just couldn’t remember –
But then it exploded into my mind, stamping out everything else. “Let me OUT of here!!” I screamed.
The Justicar’s voice echoed oddly around the glass walls from the other side of the room. “That’s the same thing you said earlier today, are you –”
“I’m TRAPPED in here, can’t you see it?!”
“There is an open door to your left. If you’re feeling claustrophobic –”
“That’s NOT what I’m TALKING about!! I – I have to – I –” I struggled for words, but all of a sudden, I couldn’t remember what had seemed so urgent. It was probably no big deal.
Justicar was hurrying towards me, her voice tight with concern. “If that is not what you’re talking about, then explain to me –”
I laughed. “Do you gotta treat everything like it’s such a big deal? It’s fine.”
“No, it’s not fine. Listen to yourself! Seconds ago, you were saying you were trapped! I can’t just let you pretend that didn’t happen!” Justicar’s face loomed close in front of me. “Now tell me what is going on!”
I could feel it again, like hot steam hissing its way around the edges of my mind. It was going to come back. It was going to happen again if I didn’t – “Okay, FINE, it’s Morrow’s loopy thing! It’s fucking up! It’s SUPPOSED to just – but it’s –”
“I can remove it,” said Justicar urgently. “The Stern God’s will can purge foreign magics from –”
“Do it,” I barked.
Justicar’s hands suddenly shone with a blinding white light. She pressed them to my forehead, the light stabbing into my eyes. For a few seconds, my mind was suspended with a disconcerting feeling. And then… relief, an angry sort of relief. I felt like I’d been chained to a wall with my underside exposed, and now I was curling up in a spiky ball to protect myself.
“Ugh, remind me to NEVER ask Morrow for help AGAIN!” I yelled, leaning on a wall and covering my eyes against Justicar’s light. The worst was over, but my head was still pounding, constantly on the lookout to make sure I wouldn’t get locked away again.
“Have a seat,” said Justicar tiredly. She manifested a wooden bench and awkwardly took me by the shoulders, guiding me down until we were sitting side-by-side. Then she took her hands off and shifted a few centimeters away.
“Bet you’re gonna say I told you so,” I muttered.
“I wasn’t going to. It seemed you had suffered enough.”
“Way to rub it in!” I snapped. A bitter resentment was howling inside me. I didn’t even want to be snapping at Justicar. But my mind couldn’t think of anything else.
“I wasn’t trying to rub it in –”
“Well, GOOD! I don’t need any more lectures from you Stern hypocrites!! I’ve had enough of that back on Earth! Mom and Dad making up all kinds of rules they don’t even follow themselves, teachers acting like they know shit about what’s good for me –”
“Bet you’re gonna tell me I have to respect them or some shit –”
But when I looked up, Justicar wasn’t looking all Stern like I expected. Her head was a little down, like she was deep in thought, her face clouded by a look of… concern?
“No,” she said quietly. “They may very well be hypocrites, as you say.”
I gaped at her.
Justicar looked me in the eye, speaking seriously but gently. “Did you think that I would defend your parents and teachers, whom I have never met, simply because you say they represent the Stern?”
“Well, yeah, all you Stern types do that.”
Justicar shook her head sadly. “There is much more to the wisdom of the Stern than simply obeying whichever humans believe their authority is legitimate. Perhaps no one in your life has been able to show you that wisdom. But you should not toss it aside simply because of their human failings. In truth, very few who claim to follow the Stern truly uphold its ideals.”
Having Justicar act gentle was weirding me out. I didn’t trust it. “I bet you truly uphold its ideals, though,” I said sarcastically.
“It would be arrogance for me to claim that I am certain of my own virtue –”
“Oh, quit being humble and tell the truth. You think you’re hot shit. You’re some kind of perfect Stern stick-in-the-mud –”
“I am far from perfect,” said Justicar severely.
“I was not so different from you once. At your age, I thought the world was there for my amusement. I did whatever I felt like in the moment, and I refused to believe that any adult could know better than me.”
I smirked. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“When you violate the law, as I did – when you harm yourself and others, as I did – it shows itself to be a bad thing.”
“And you think I’m like that? What the fuck do you know about me, anyway?”
Justicar tapped her foot. “For one thing, I know that you are a sixteen-year-old who has never been outside the city, but has handled fireworks for long enough to imprint them, when said fireworks are illegal in the city without a permit that is unavailable to anyone below the age of eighteen.” Ugh, that made me feel kind of exposed, having my crimes revealed just because I’d manifested the wrong thing. Yali was right, Justicar didn’t miss much. “What other forms does your recklessness take, I wonder? Attending parties with underage drinking, perhaps?”
“Sure, I’ve been to some of those. Only we don’t call them ‘parties with underage drinking’, we call them ‘parties’.” I manifested a glass of beer and whooped. I was mostly just messing with her. Normally, getting drunk just made me feel bad. But now… I felt plenty shitty already. I was stuck between Justicar’s preaching on one side and the Blood God’s grinding impatience on the other. I felt like my head was full of voices yelling at me from all sides. Maybe the alcohol would make them all just shut up for once. I downed my beer angrily, then followed it up with another. As I filled the glass a third time, Justicar put her hand on my wrist and stopped me.
The beer sat uncomfortably in my belly. Stern take it, I should have thought about the fact that I was technically drinking on an empty stomach. And I couldn’t stand how Justicar was looking at me. As much as I had gotten a kick out of making her think I was a heavy drinker, I was kind of regretting it now. “I, uh, I don’t usually do this,” I said awkwardly. “The truth is, I hardly ever actually drink. Look at me – I’m tiny. I go from zero to wasted in, like, ONE beer.” The first time I had ever gotten drunk, I had tried to kiss an older girl – and missed, and smashed my face into the table next to her. At least, that’s what I’d heard from the other girls who’d had to take care of me and drive me home, while I kept hitting on them even though I couldn’t sit up straight and had a huge bruise on my face. So a couple weeks later I went back to the next party with the same crowd, and that time I stayed completely sober while I went up to the same girl and started making out with her in front of everyone. And then she had taken me up to her room, and… haha, good times.
“You can use manifesting to stop being drunk,” said Justicar.
“Well, I’ve come this far. Let’s, uh, get this party started.” I manifested some big speakers and a new copy of my phone, plugged them together, and started blasting some upbeat party music. I picked a song with a strong beat and a sexy voice. As soon as it came on, I wanted to jump up and start dancing, even though it was just me and Justicar here. So I did. I grabbed Justicar’s wrist and tried to pull her up with me, but she wouldn’t budge.
“Fiiiiine, be that way,” I said, as I started happily bobbing my head to the beat.
Pretty soon, the music started glitching in and out. Right, the speakers I’d manifested were some old ones my dad had been keeping since, like, last century. They were flaky as shit. I was about to give them a good kick when I noticed Justicar glancing at them and twitching. Well, if she was annoyed –
Before long, Justicar manifested a different pair of speakers and re-plugged them. The music sounded fine now. Well, worked for me.
I strutted and spun across the floor, my body pumping with the pulse of the music. “Don’t tell me you don’t know how to enjoy yourself,” I laughed in Justicar’s direction.
“Is that all you see in a party like this one you are mimicking? A harmless way to enjoy yourself?”
Why did she have to make everything into some sort of serious issue? “Like you’d know anything about it,” I snapped.
“On the contrary, I know far too much. When I was your age, I went to parties like this nearly every weekend. I constantly lied to my parents about where I had been and how late I had stayed out.”
“You’re bullshitting me.”
Justicar sighed. “I am a Justicar. I cannot lie. I cannot speak any statement I do not believe to be true. So you can be certain of my honesty when I tell you this: I did not respect myself. I was a heavy drinker. I literally cannot count the times that I drank until I was blacked out or vomiting on the floor. My friends tried to stop me, but I persisted, even knowing that I was making them clean up after me. I ruined my relationships with them, one by one.”
I swayed. How could that be the same person as Justicar? I almost wondered if she had lied about not being able to lie. But it didn’t feel like a lie. What was I supposed to think? The beer was starting to kick in, it was hard to get my thoughts in order.
Justicar went on. “But even as my life fell apart, I refused to understand that it was myself who had caused it to happen. I had been a star student, working hard and earning top marks, but I took it for granted. Even knowing how much my parents had suffered to make sure I would have a better life than they did, I always wanted more. To fill that void, I reached out in every direction except the one that would truly restore me. I experimented with every kind of drug I could get my hands on, I had sex with many different men –”
Well that was something I knew how to respond to. “Haha, that’s where you went wrong. Shoulda had sex with girls instead.”
Justicar looked a little frustrated.
“You got a problem with that? With me liking girls?”
Justicar sighed. “I won’t rise to your provocation.”
“So you do have a problem with it!” I said triumphantly.
“I am not homophobic!” said Justicar angrily. She struggled to find the right words. “It didn’t matter who I was having sex with! I –”
“And, liiiiike, you say you ‘had sex’ with these men when you were totally wasted. Isn’t that, like, rape?”
“I put myself in that situation willingly.”
“What, like you got wasted because you were planning to have sex with some dude?”
“I didn’t plan on it when I was sober, but –”
“Then I don’t see how it was consensual,” I concluded.
Justicar glared at me. “Are you so eager to avoid taking responsibility for your actions that you must see victimhood everywhere, even when I tell you myself that I was not a victim?”
“What the fuck! Of course I take responsibility for my actions! When I hurt someone else, that’s my responsibility. When someone else hurts me, that’s their responsibility. It’s not that complicated!”
“So, according to you, any time you have sex with a drunk person, that’s rape?”
“Uh, generally,” I said. I felt like she was trying to pin me down with some sort of clever logic. And I wasn’t sure all of the girls I’d been with had been totally sober at the time, so that was a little uncomfortable.
“Then you could just as well say that I raped some of those men.”
“Haha, maybe you did! Did you check in with them afterwards or anything? It’s not like they’d come up to you the next day and be like, ‘By the way, Justicar,’ or whatever your real name is, ‘you actually traumatized me last night, just so you know’!”
Justicar was smiling – the smile of someone who’s being patient with a little kid who’s talking nonsense. Stern take it, if I wanted to get through to her, I couldn’t just keep saying the first thing that came into my head, even if it wasn’t wrong. “So, what, do you think drunk girls are just asking for it?!” I snapped.
“If you would give me a chance to explain the actual principles I follow, you would know I do not believe anything like that. It is always wrong to force yourself on someone else. But no one forced themselves on me. It was my own choice to devalue my body like that. I chose to allow men to use my body for their pleasure, to distract myself from how I was squandering the true worth of my life. I had no self-respect.”
Up to this point, I had mostly just been messing with her. But now… a terrible ache pulled at my heart. This was deadly serious. Her words were a violation, a gaping wound, trying to twist my blood out of its course. Coldly, I stated, “That’s your real problem. It’s not the sex. It’s not the drinking. It’s the self-respect. But –” I made a fist in front of my heart “– I’ve got loads of self-respect. If anyone doesn’t treat me right, they can fuck right off. And if they don’t fuck right off, I make them fuck right off. I’m nothing like you.”
Justicar raised an eyebrow. “When I was your age, I too believed that I was being assertive and empowered.”
Ugh, what was even the point of being serious with her? She was just going to keep saying fucked-up stuff either way. “Yeah, so, maybe I’m in denial. Or maybe you’re just wrong. You ever think about that??”
“You can believe what you like,” she said.
Maybe getting drunk wasn’t such a good idea after all. When I wasn’t arguing with Justicar, we still had these puzzles to do. In the latest one, there were a lot of long dead-end hallways that each had one button at the end, and we had to remember what each of the buttons did, so we could know which one to press when we needed it.
I pressed one of them and watched what happened. “So this one opens the third door on the red path. Just like, uh, the last one.”
From the other side of the room, Justicar squinted back at me, peering through several sheets of glass. “No, not like the last one. You only think that because you’re in the same hallway as last time.”
“No I’m not.”
Justicar raised an eyebrow.
“Okay, fine.” I stumbled back out of the hall and turned right to go to the next one. But instead, I walked headfirst into a glass wall. “Ow, that hurts.”
“If you insist on remaining drunk, why don’t you step out of the puzzle and let me solve it by myself? You are not being helpful.”
“No, I can totally help, I can –” I said as I walked into another wall.
Justicar sighed. She found her way out of the spiral hallway she was in, and briskly walked up to me. Without another word, she put one arm around my shoulders and started firmly leading me out of the puzzle.
I couldn’t think straight enough to resist, so I just stumbled along with her.
“At least it’s only alcohol, not koltac…” she muttered.
Koltac was an alchemical drug that some people used to get high. It supposedly made you feel a sense of purpose, like you knew exactly what you were doing. But I knew a couple of guys who used it a lot, and they kind of… weren’t all there. When they were using it, they said things that didn’t make sense. When they weren’t, they were short-tempered assholes – and not in a fun way, either. And their skin was dry and cracked all the time… wait a minute. Justicar’s skin had always looked kind of dry and cracked.
“I don’t know why I’m bothering to say this,” she went on, “but if you remember only one thing from what I tell you, remember never to touch koltac. No matter how it makes you feel in the moment, it will always –”
“Of course I’m never going to do koltac! That shit fucks you up! Uh, I mean, not that you’re fucked up because you did koltac. You’re fucked up for completely different reasons.” I said, jabbing my finger into the chest plate of her armor. “Ow, that hurts.”
“Please stop being drunk,” said Justicar wearily.
“Yeah, orrrrrrrr, you could start being drunk,” I said. I manifested a wine glass and pressed it to her lips.
Justicar’s hand struck the glass violently, shattering it to pieces.
“Woah…” Fuck, I was really drunk now. Belatedly, I pulled my hand away. It was bleeding from the broken glass, but I didn’t really feel it. Languidly, I looked up at Justicar, and saw her shaking with anger. “What’s the matter?” I mumbled.
“You will not take away the life I have taken back!” she shouted. A bright white light blazed from her in all directions, stabbing at my eyes and feeling like it was shining right through my chest. My drunkenness was stripped away from me, my mind forced to clear again. “Now heal your hand and stop this foolishness!” she ordered.
“Fine!” I made my cuts close. “But seriously, what is your problem? Why’d you have to –”
“You have no idea how much I have had to sacrifice to get away from that life! You treat this as a game – just as I did! You have no idea of the depths to which one can sink!”
“Fine, then, tell me! Tell me the rest of your stupid life story, see if I care –”
“Then I will, and maybe you will care,” Justicar declared. She took a deep breath – not that it helped. She still seemed pretty tense afterwards. Then she began again. “Even after everything I had done to myself, I was never able to admit I had a problem until the day when I woke up in the hospital after an overdose. Even then, I refused to believe it was over. Not until my parents walked in. They did not listen to my excuses. They simply told me that I would be going to the Borson School in Walthridge from then on –”
“Isn’t that the place that was in the news for abusing all those kids??”
“You are thinking of Bolsard Academy, in Calmouth. They are separate institutions.”
“As I was saying, they simply told me of their decision. They did not give me a choice that would have allowed me to continue my mistakes. And for once, I did not try to fight it. On some level, I was aware of how badly my actions were destroying my life. I would never have been able to make that decision myself.
“By the time I was able to leave the hospital, my bags were already packed. They drove me directly to the new school. We did not stop at my home. I was not even allowed a moment with my phone to say goodbye to the few friends who would still talk to me –”
“That’s horrible,” I breathed.
“It was exactly what I needed. A clean break from the world of the self-destructive habits I had developed.”
“But–! You… Argh!”
“At the Borson School, nothing was done for us. We students had to do our own laundry, to clean our own dormitories. Did I accept it at first? No, of course I did not. Selfishly, I rebelled by leaving my clothes dirty and unkempt. I wanted to them to see that I did not respect them. Only after weeks of being singled out and punished for my disobedience, I learned.”
“Learned what, that people are horrible?”
“Discipline! I learned to be responsible for myself –”
“Are you kidding me?! That’s the most –”
“Will you let me speak?”
“Not if you’re gonna keep saying all this bullshit! You’re all like ‘oh I learned to be responsible’ when you didn’t even –”
“You will listen to me! You mock responsibility, because you do not want to have to reconsider your own behavior –”
I laughed in her face. “You think I have something against responsible people?! Yali is responsible! Think about it! She even – gods, she even tells me what to do all the time! I literally don’t have anything against responsible people who tell me what to do all the time! Only you Stern types! Look, I’m irresponsible and I know it, but I know what being responsible IS. Yali has it. You. Don’t.”
Justicar raised an eyebrow. “I must admit, I was not expecting you to accuse me of irresponsibility.”
“Argh, do I have to spell it out for you?! You’re telling me a story about how some people forced you to do what they told you to, by punishing you until you gave in. And you call that being responsible for yourself? That’s not being responsible, that’s – argh!” I couldn’t even think of the words for how twisted that was. “That’s just someone else making all the decisions and you doing all the work. Being responsible is making your OWN DECISIONS!! And now you just do whatever the Stern God wants, too! Out with the old boss, in with the new boss!”
“You speak as if the Stern God’s wisdom has no value.”
“What about the value of your own heart?! You were alone, you were in pain, you needed a way to feel like you mattered! For YOU! Isn’t there any room for that? Don’t you believe in anything that’s more important than some jerk teachers forcing you to –”
“If they had not forced me, I would never have learned! I would have wallowed in my own filth! Their rules were NECESSARY for me to learn discipline! It allowed me to SEE what I could accomplish if I applied myself! It was at the Borson School that I found the Stern, that I found the discipline I needed to rebuild my life! It was NECESSARY!”
“Didn’t it hurt? Didn’t you feel humiliated, to be put through –”
“It doesn’t matter if –”
“It doesn’t matter? I’ve never heard anything so messed up! How you feel matters! Even when you’re in pain and doing everything wrong! Especially when you’re in pain and doing everything wrong!”
“I was a selfish, petulant CHILD!! YOU are a child, you know NOTHING about the world, and you dare to lecture me about my own life?! You should be –” Justicar stopped herself and looked away. She took a deep breath. “I apologize for losing my composure. You have a way of getting under my skin. I did not mean to argue with you.”
“Nice apology,” I said sarcastically.
Justicar glared at me. Then she took another deep breath. “I apologize for venting my emotions in my previous apology. It was not fair to you.”
“You kidding me? We were just getting somewhere! And now you want to apologize and make it disappear? Morrow was right, you do shove your feelings down a dumpster!”
I was trying to provoke her into arguing some more, but it didn’t get through at all. She had somehow completely controlled herself. “You can believe what you like,” she said.
“And I’m sick of you saying ‘you can believe what you like’! That’s just what you say when you don’t want to think about what I’m saying!”
“You can believe what you like,” she said.
Now that I was sober again, it should have been easy for me to help with the puzzles again. But of course, the Seeking God went and threw something in the way of that.
The next room had all the usual parts – walls and levers and flamethrowers and stuff – but they were just scattered all over the space, not forming a puzzle at all. Instead, they were all mounted on rails so you could push them wherever you wanted. You could go straight to the exit elevator – but of course, the elevator wouldn’t open. The only puzzle-like part was a little opaque wall hiding an alcove, which only Justicar could get inside. And when Justicar looked in the alcove, she found some sort of diagram, which was really complicated, but apparently hid the key to figuring out what to do. There was probably some secret way to arrange all the pieces to make the exit open, which you could only figure out from the diagram. So… only Justicar could solve the puzzle?
“This is no fair!” I said. “I thought the Seeking God wanted us both to be solving puzzles! It should have given the secret key to me, because you’re the one who’s better at the logic part! Then we’d be even!”
“It does seem unfair…” said Justicar thoughtfully. “The Seeking God must have some purpose, but I do not see it. Now, you can still participate if…” She tried to manifest a copy of the diagram, but the puzzle didn’t allow it. After that failed, she tried to explain what was on the diagram. I tried to follow along, but it was hopeless. Justicar was describing a whole bunch of shapes and lines and colors and directions, and every time I thought I knew what it looked like, she said I had gotten it all wrong.
“Look, how about you just figure out where everything should go, and tell me where to put it?” I said.
“The Seeking can’t possibly intend for you only to be the manual labor…” Justicar looked back at the hidden diagram, deep in thought.
While she was doing that, I just had the whole jumbled room to myself. So I started pushing the things around, just to give myself something to do. First I sorted all of them into categories. It was funny, even the pits were surrounded by pulleys that were mounted on the rails, and if I moved the pulleys, it moved the holes in the ground too, even though that didn’t physically make sense.
I kind of wanted to build something with the pieces, but you couldn’t really stack them on top of each other, you could only put one thing in each square of the grid. So the only thing you could build with them was mazes or puzzles.
Justicar was still thinking. Idly, I put a bunch of pits in a row to see how many I could jump over. It turned out that I could jump over exactly four squares of pits. When I tried five, I fell into the fifth one, and not only that, but I fell straight down and didn’t have a chance to grab for the ledge. My movement was definitely being controlled by the puzzle, like Justicar had said.
After I fell in, I was back at the start of the puzzle. Now that I thought of it, none of these puzzles had used the trick where you fell in a hole on purpose. I started wondering how you’d set things up to make that be the solution. Before long, I was sliding the walls and pits around, putting together a simple puzzle based on that concept.
An hour later, I kicked the last wall into place and double checked to make sure my puzzle was just how I wanted.
“Hey Justicar! Justicar!”
“What is it?”
“Check it out, I made my own puzzle!”
Justicar stepped out from the alcove and swept her eyes over what I’d built.
“See if you can solve it!”
“This isn’t really what we –” she began. Then she looked over it in more detail. “Well, you did work hard on this. I suppose I can indulge you.”
Justicar frowned. “The Justicar clearly needs to pull that lever in order to let the Blood Child reach the exit. But pulling the lever would open the pit and leave the Justicar trapped –” I smirked, but fortunately Justicar was looking at the puzzle and didn’t notice “– unless the other wall is open at that time, which seems impossible. So either I have missed something, or you made a mistake and the puzzle is truly impossible –”
“I didn’t make a mistake!” I laughed. “You’re missing something.”
Justicar kept studying it for a few more minutes. But then she got it. Together, we went through the motions of solving my puzzle to make sure it worked. When we met up at the end of the puzzle, she said, “That was actually clever. Although you are a Blood Child, you have a strong Seeking streak as well. Perhaps you have a career in designing puzzles ahead of —”
The real exit elevator slid open.
“How did you make that part happen?” said Justicar.
“What? I didn’t do anything! I’m as surprised as you are!”
“Regardless, we should probably –” Justicar and I hurried into the elevator, just in case it was temporary or a trick or something. Fortunately, it worked normally.
As the elevator started moving, Justicar turned to me. “So the purpose of that room was for us to design and solve our own puzzle?”
“I guess so!”
“It does fit the Seeking…” she said. “However, there is one thing that seems out of place. What was the purpose of the diagram?”
“I don’t know, I mean, it didn’t seem to do anyth– wait, if the diagram hadn’t been there, we’d have still been working together and I would never have gotten bored enough to make a puzzle! It was there to distract you!”
“That seems… possible, but not consistent with the other puzzles –”
“No, it was totally a distraction, I’m sure of it!”
“Aren’t you jumping to conclusions?”
“Like you don’t jump to conclusions,” I snapped.
“I endeavor to give any perspective a fair hearing –”
“You’re saying that to me?! ‘Hey Yali, are you suuuuuure you want to stand next to your girlfriend? Don’t you know she’s daaaangerous?’ You’ve got no right to –”
“Have I not considered the alternative? Have I not gone out of my way to give you the opportunity to prove yourself innocent?”
“Yeah, guilty until proven innocent, got it –”
“– that’s not what I meant –”
“– you’re just like every other Stern asshole out of the Stern Temple who thinks they –”
“Don’t compare me to the Stern Temple!” Justicar shouted.
Justicar’s words seemed to echo around the elevator we were standing in. She pulled back, realizing she had raised her voice more than she had meant to. It took me a moment to realize what it implied.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “what’s your problem with the Stern Temple?”
“I suppose I never did finish ‘telling you the rest of my life story’, as you put it –”
“Oh gods,” I muttered. “Bet you’re gonna go on about how great it is that everyone bossed you around. Again.”
“I cannot force you to believe me. But it truly was the strictures of the school that saved me. Before I went there, I had no ability to control my self-destructive cravings. And now, I do have that ability. I can stop myself from using risk-taking behaviors as a means to feel valued.”
“So,” I said, summing things up, “what I’m hearing is, first, your life sucked. And then you ‘found the Stern’. And now, your life still sucks. When was the last time you enjoyed yourself?”
“It is not important whether I enjoy myself. What is important is whether I stay true to my principles. Perhaps you don’t understand how important that is, but –”
“Hey, I stick to my principles too! It’s just that my principles are ‘have fun’ and ‘do whatever I want’!”
Justicar smiled patiently. “– But I won’t allow myself to be sidetracked again. You asked a question, and I intend to give you an answer.
“As I have said, not all who claim to follow the Stern truly uphold its principles. And the Stern Temple is no exception. Even the highest ranks of the Stern Temple are full of – have more than their share of hypocrites.
“After I graduated from the Borson School, I was given a second chance at life – a privilege that not everyone receives. I wanted to make the most of what I had been given. For the next four years, I held down a steady job, and moved into my own apartment. It was a life I could not complain about. But knowing how I had been saved by the Stern, I wanted to give back to society. I began training to enter the Stern police force.”
“You’re a cop?! I thought you said you weren’t a cop!!”
“I said that I am not a police officer,” she said with a tight smile. “I was dismissed from the force. The official records would tell you that it was for obstructing the duties of my fellow officers. But as I prefer to see it, I was dismissed from the police force for enforcing the law.”
“Okay, there’s gotta be a good story behind that one.”
“During my training, I was a star student once again. My superiors praised my hard work and sense of duty. Hypocrites, all of them. I simply did not yet know it. Not until I completed the program and began my real duties.
“I had thought I could be proud to serve in an organization dedicated to upholding the will of the Stern. How foolish I was, assuming that the humans who worked for the Stern Temple would respect the will of the Stern as I did. I was asked to overlook bias and petty corruption. I was asked to show undue leniency to residents of our wealthier neighborhoods, simply because they could create trouble for us. I asked: Did we not follow the Stern? Did we not have a duty to enforce the law impartially, regardless of any risk it might bring upon us? But if I thought they would show a scrap of integrity, I was mistaken. I was barely tolerated. My fellow officers laughed and scorned my questions. My new superiors assigned me to the most isolated and thankless of patrols. But the Stern teaches that even when we are hated, we must be true to our convictions. Every duty they assigned me, I carried out to the fullness of my ability.
“But I was not oblivious to what happened around me. Most of what we did was lawful, but that is not enough. We cannot call ourselves a Stern Temple if we tolerate corruption within our midst. And I could not help but notice how conversations died when I entered the room. Things were being hidden from me. For a time, I ignored it to focus on my own duties. After all, we cannot control the choices of others, only our own. But when I began to notice a pattern of unexplained bruises appearing on our arrestees, I could ignore it no longer.
“So I began to investigate. I coordinated with the few people I thought I could trust. I kept track of which officers had access to those who were being battered. I chose unpredictable days to arrive early for my shifts.
“It was in this way that I came to witness one of my ‘fellow officers’ beating a handcuffed arrestee.
“I arrested him immediately, of course.”
I snickered. “Haha, that’s gotta sting. Imagine being a cop and getting arrested in your own police station.”
“I would prefer to say: Imagine committing battery in plain view of a police officer and getting arrested. If you commit a crime, you are not a police officer, you are a criminal.”
“Ice cold,” I said, grinning.
“The Stern Temple did not see things the same way as I did. I was placed on leave before the day was out, and dismissed from the force less than two weeks later, with no opportunity to defend myself. I challenged my dismissal through what should have been an impartial process, but they shut me out in every way they could. The few people who had supported me were suddenly too preoccupied with saving their own careers to do anything to help. My old mentors, at the temple where I had trained, refused to speak to me. I finally cornered the high priest himself, but before I could even speak, he told me he was ‘not interested in routine personnel issues’. I could easily see that it was a prepared response. The entire hierarchy of the Temple was complicit.”
“But now,” she smiled grimly. “it seems that the god itself has vindicated me.”
As if on cue, the elevator came to a stop.
Justicar was content to stop the story there and start looking at the next puzzle. That was convenient for me, because I wasn’t really sure what to say about it. I wanted to be on her side, like, fuck all those Stern assholes, but she was so overbearingly Stern about it herself. Ugh, what was I supposed to think? If I just said whatever came into my head, it would make Justicar look smart and me look stupid. Hating the Stern had always been simpler than this. I’d spent plenty of time on the foreign-hosted chat apps where you could get away with posting memes about the temples. Like, there was even a whole meme format that was just a picture of the Dauntless Gate with a speech bubble saying something evil and pathetic. And there was that one viral post with the ex-cop who – Wait a minute…
“Hey, Havi!” I called out across the puzzle.
“Yes?” said Justicar. Then she whirled around angrily. “How did you know my name?!”
I grinned. “This was a few years ago, right? You had a whole post about it! You were all like ‘The so-called Stern Temple are a DEN OF HYPOCRITES!’ and ‘They will remember the name of Havi Hasayet until –’”
“Please don’t remind me.”
“I remember because my friend Dehel kept reposting it from a meme page. He always reposted it with just a whole bunch of thinking face emoji, I love how sarcastic that was.” I sensed that Justicar was trying not to listen. “Wait a minute, why don’t you want to be reminded about this?! You were kickass!”
“I gave in to my selfish resentment. It was not the appropriate way for me to air my grievances with the Stern Temple.”
“Ugh, you’re so Stern that even when you hate the Stern you have to be more Stern than they are??”
“Everyone has a duty to be more Stern than they are.”
The conversation sort of died down, and we focused on the puzzle instead.
This next puzzle didn’t have any weird twists like the last one – just more regular twists. The puzzles were getting bigger and more elaborate, combining a lot of the different rules and strategies we’d seen in the earlier puzzles. Each one took longer than the last one, with more thinking, and they were proportionally more satisfying to solve. It felt like they were building up to something – and they were. On the map, we were getting closer and closer to Yali.
We were in the elevator again, taking a brief rest as we approached the final puzzle in the chain. How many days had we been at this now?
The elevator felt like it was taking ages. Justicar was sitting straight-backed as usual, staring straight ahead, while I slouched against the wall of the elevator. I was seriously sick of being stuck with her. She never just talked about shit like my real friends did. I felt isolated, craving any sort of connection. But all I had was her. And the more I learned about her, the less I liked. She had been a cop! An actual cop! Sure, it was pretty badass that she had tried to take down another cop, but the way she talked about it was just infuriating.
And even though I had a copy of my phone again, I was long since bored of all the games I had on it, and a bunch of them didn’t even work without a signal. Messing with Justicar was the only entertainment I still had.
“So…” I said, trying to sound sly but probably just sounding like an asshole, “when you were a cop, how many people did you put in prison?” I couldn’t resist asking her that. I just knew she was going to come up with some reason not to answer.
Sure enough, she completely avoided it. “Police officers do not ‘put people in prison’. It is judges and juries who determine sentencing.”
This was gonna be good. I quickly tried to plan out all the ways I could keep messing with her. But then, another thought shot through me, a much more serious thought. “Now who’s not taking responsibility for their actions?!” I demanded. “You arrest people, then they go to prison. And somehow that doesn’t count??”
“We each do our own part in the system, and only our own part. If a conviction is unjust, that cannot be laid at the feet of officers who were only carrying out their duties.”
“Are you kidding me!! That’s like – that’s like – If I throw someone in a pit full of vipers, do you think I get to say, ‘oh, it’s not my fault, I’M not the one who put those vipers in that pit’!?! Or do you want to lay the blame where it fucking belongs?”
“But where would that lead? If officers cannot make arrests because of the possibility of an unjust conviction, how will the order of the city be preserved? I believe you may not have thought this through.”
“Or maybe I just don’t care about your so-called ‘order’ as much as I care about people’s lives! I don’t care what kind of excuses you have! If you’re the one who did something, it’s your fault!”
“Very well.” Justicar opened her arms. “If you want to hold me individually responsible for every violent act ever performed under the authority of the Stern Temple, perhaps I should hold you responsible for the damage inherent in your ideology.”
“And what’s that?”
“The collapse of society. Mass starvation. Gangs slaughtering each other in the streets.”
“Oh yeah? When did that happen?”
“The only reason it has not happened is the fact that the Stern are still in control. Our laws are what prevents the city from collapsing into anarchy. What would –”
“Wait a minute, you said the whole Stern Temple is corrupt! Don’t they make the laws? How can you support the law when it’s made by assholes?!”
“I will not say there has never been an unjust law, influenced by human manipulation. But even so, the laws are made in consultation with the Stern God itself. There are limits to –”
“And what’s so great about the Stern God? Doesn’t it get part of its soul from human Ravellers? So it could be corrupted by humans just as –”
“You flaunt your disinterest in the Stern, and yet you assume you can understand how it operates? The Stern God does not simply absorb the soul of any passing stranger. The corrupt are not chosen to be Justicars, and the Justicars undergo many stages of filtering and purification before the Stern God absorbs a single thread. The god and its temple have seen their procedures proven by the test of millennia. You think you know better than they? What would happen if we put a child like yourself in charge of society? You claim to value people’s lives above order, but that is a contradiction, because order is the way that people’s lives are preserved. Even at the most basic level, if laws against shoplifting cannot be enforced, then shoplifting will run rampant. If people can steal things as easily as buy them, how will stores make money? If stores cannot make money, who will be incentivized to import goods into the city? Who will even import something as vital as food?”
“Get your story straight! If you’re putting me in charge, I can just tell someone to import food! So don’t act like you –”
Justicar’s voice smoothly cut through mine. She was so calm, it was like she didn’t even realize what a heartless system she was defending. “Because you have seen how a tower is shaped, you imagine that you could tear one down and build another from the ruins without any tools. It is all too easy for one such as you, a child who has never lived without the benefits of law, to imagine that those benefits come for free, and are not the products of hard-fought –”
“You’re good at making yourself sound smart, but you’re not,” I said aggressively. “It’s all just a bunch of fancy words to try and justify what you Stern do to people. Why don’t you just be honest and beat us up like the others?!”
“That is not –”
“I grew up down the street from that kid!” I shouted over her. I had only barely figured out where I was going with this, but a righteous rage was building in my chest. “Javin Mawr! He went to prison for stealing a pair of headphones! He was sixteen, just like I am now! No corrupt cop beat him up! It was legal! Everything they did to him was legal! They gave him twelve months in jail! A year of his life, GONE! For a half decent pair of headphones!!” My face was hot, tears springing to my eyes. What was I feeling? I had never really cared about Javin before – in fact, I’d always thought he was kind of a dumbass. But it was like I had suddenly woken up to how wrong it was. All the pain, the humiliation of being trapped by a system that never cared for him. It had opened the lid to a bottomless well of pain and rage. I couldn’t stop ripping into Justicar with my words, straining my throat just to spit out the barest shadow of what it would take to set things right. “He got out last year, and he just hasn’t been the same! He doesn’t want to talk about it, he just clams up! You think maybe he was traumatized there, just a little?!”
“If he was abused in prison, that is not the will of the Stern! You cannot blame –”
“Prison IS abuse, Justicar! You think you’re innocent?! A year of life! That’s what your Temple took away! Was that a worthy sacrifice for your order?! Your precious principles destroy people’s LIVES, Justicar! Don’t you dare call me the evil one!”
“Just the manifesto I would expect from a Blood Child,” she said. “Full of passion and fury, lacking in consideration and foresight.”
Rage surged up in me. I wanted to punch the smug indifference right off her face. But my heart was weighed down with a heavy thought: this is not my true enemy. That was definitely the Blood God again, not me. Why was it thinking that? Whatever. I settled with just yelling again. “Did you listen to a word I just said?!” I demanded.
“The law is not naive,” said Justicar, oblivious to the struggle inside me. “Judges can, and do, let common thieves go without prison time, when the circumstances allow. If your friend was given twelve months, he may have been a repeat offender, or –”
“Like that changes anything! If he stole a few more times! He could have stolen another pair of headphones every day for the enire year and it still wouldn’t be worth as much as what you sacrificed!”
“And still your solution is to throw away the law and the entire justice system that we have. How very like the Blood God.”
“You know, I wasn’t a fan of the Blood God before, but the more you talk, the more I think maybe it’s got some good ideas.”
“You will not find your enlightenment down that road,” said Justicar. She continued, speaking like she was reciting a practiced statement. “The lower gods act without thinking. The upper gods tarry in thought, rarely taking meaningful action. Only the Stern, which stands in the middle, has the balance necessary to administrate a society. That is why the Stern Temple officially controls three fifths of the city, and why –”
“Wait a minute. Only three fifths?”
“The Waiting Temple has formal authority over the first ring. The Seeking Temple, the second. And the Stern Temple is based in the third ring, but also has authority over the fourth and the fifth –”
“– the fifth ring, which should go with the Blood Temple,” I finished instinctively.
“Which did belong to the Blood Temple before its collapse and dissolution.” Something about that description felt completely unfair. But I couldn’t figure out how to express it, so I just glared at her while she continued. “But the Blood Temple was disorganized and corrupt. As I was saying, only the Stern is capable of the organization the city needs. That is why the Stern Temple was given the lower rings, and why the Stern God maintains equal influence in the Ravelling, despite what it lacks in raw power.”
“Lacks in…? I thought all the gods were equally powerful!”
“No. For one, the Broken God’s power vastly exceeds that of all the others.” That did sound sort of familiar. “Among the others, the Waiting God has the most, but rarely uses it. Then comes the Blood God – or perhaps it no longer does, now that it has been deprived of rejuvenation. The Stern God is, or was, second to last, and last is the Seeking, which spends its power frivolously.” Justicar waved an arm, indicating the elaborate puzzles all around us.
“How come you and Yali get to know all kinds of stuff about the gods? The Blood God never told me anything cool.”
“This knowledge does not come from the Stern God. At least, not directly. Once I found the Stern… I simply learned to pay attention in Divinity class.”
“Fuck you too.”
Once again, we were interrupted by the elevator coming to a stop.
The great doors slid open, revealing the final puzzle.
The room in front of us much smaller than the others. I checked the map. “This has got to be the last puzzle before we get to Yali!!” I said, trying to just be excited about that and forget about Justicar. I could practically feel her being skeptical behind me. Well, screw her anyway.
The puzzle in front of us looked really simple. Justicar and I were forced into separate corridors. On my side, there was a closed door, then a room full of perpetually roaring flames. On Justicar’s side, there was also a closed door, but in front of it, there was a button. And that was the whole puzzle, as far as we could see. There was also a place on my side where the corridor branched off, but it just led to a dead end with another flamethrower in it. Why?
“Guess you’ve got to stand on that button,” I said. “I’m literally looking at a closed door here. I can’t do anything.”
“Understood.” Justicar stood on the button. The door on my side slid open, and the flames disappeared from the room beyond.
“Ooooo-kay…” I said. “I guess I’m going to walk into the fire room now. You better not step off that button.”
“Understood,” said Justicar tiredly.
Tentatively, I poked my feet into the room. Now that the flames were gone, I could see what was inside. But it wasn’t much. On the far wall, the only exit was another closed door. In the middle of the floor, there was another button. “I guess I’m going to stand on this button,” I said. “That’s literally the only thing we can do. There’s no way the Seeking God we give us an easy puzzle at this point, is there…?”
Not thinking of anything else to do, I stood on the button. The door on Justicar’s side slid open.
“This is completely useless!” I yelled in frustration. We had been talking about the puzzle for ages, but it still seemed impossible. The only way to open the door on Justicar’s side was for me to stand on the button in the fire room. But if Justicar wanted to walk through that door, she’d have to step off the button that was turning the fire off. And then I’d be locked in the room and barbecued. That was probably bad, although it was seeming more tempting by the minute.
“There must be something we’ve missed…” muttered Justicar.
“Like what, a secret switch that lets us skip the puzzle?”
“No. These puzzles are about applying the established rules in new ways that the solver may not think of. The god would not change the rules this late in the sequence.”
“Wait, why not? I mean, I was being sarcastic, but maybe we actually should look for –”
“Though it may seem random, the Seeking God does everything with a purpose. If the puzzles have built up to this point, it must have a lesson for us that is more complex than a simple deception. It would waste the potential of the situation.”
“Fine, but if you haven’t figured out what the lesson is, I’m going to look for a secret switch, just in case.”
I searched all up and down the walls. There wasn’t much to search. I felt like Morrow trying to search the gray room from earlier. Eventually, I just started pacing around and staring irritably at the various parts of the puzzle.
There wasn’t much to stare at, either.
“What I really don’t get is this extra flamethrower over here on my side,” I said. “It doesn’t do anything. It’s literally just down a dead end, not blocking off anything!”
“In that case, it is irrelevant to the puzzle. It may be intended as a distraction.”
“It’s out of place, though. It’s too obvious to just be a regular distraction… It’s gotta mean something!”
I walked up close to the spurting flames. I tried to look at them from every angle, hoping I’d notice something new. But it didn’t look different than any of the others. Unless there was something different about the nozzle itself – it was kind of hard to see from where I was standing. To get to it, I’d have to walk through the flames, and this one was always on – none of the buttons turned it off. So…
“Wait. I have an idea! Something this flamethrower could be meant for!” A thrill shot through me. I stepped towards the flames.
“What are you doing?” said Justicar.
I brought my hand close to the fire. It felt burning hot, as if getting any closer would burn my hand to cinders. But I pressed on, bringing it closer and closer. The fire stayed hot. But it didn’t get hotter. Before long, my fingertips were brushing the edge of the flame itself, and I hadn’t been burned yet. I turned my hand around, and my fingers looked fine. There wasn’t a mark on them – they looked the same color as the rest of my skin.
When I really concentrated, really paid attention to how they felt… they weren’t even warm.
“Stop that!” said Justicar. She probably still thought I was playing with real fire.
I smirked. With a flourish, I jumped into the center of the flames. Then I turned around and leaned my back against the spurting source of the fire, stretching and yawning as if I was relaxing in a hot spring or something. It actually hurt a lot, but it was worth it to watch Justicar panic. “I get it now!” I said. “This one was here to teach me! To teach me that none of the flamethrowers ever mattered! I could have walked through them all along!”
And it wasn’t even just that I would have to walk into the flames. In this puzzle, I didn’t have to do anything except stand in the middle of the fire room helplessly, while Justicar had to turn it on.
Justicar must have realized the same thing, because she immediately tensed up. “That cannot be what we have to do! There must be something else!”
“Nope! This is totally it!”
“But the Seeking God wouldn’t – well, the Seeking God is a god of tricks and illusions… so if they are only an illusion… if you will not actually be harmed…”
If that made it easier for her… “Actually, it still hurts a lot. I was just pretending earlier.”
“Then there must be another way! Even if the flames do not actually injure you, that only means that the Seeking God did not want to inflict injuries simply because a person broke the rules. They still represent an impassable barrier! The puzzle will have a more proper solution –”
I grinned savagely. “No, it won’t! You said it yourself! If there was a way to get out of this, it would waste that potential of the situation –”
Justicar glared at me.
“I take back everything bad I ever said about the Seeking God, this is great! You’re going to have to admit that you were wrong! You were wrong from the very beginning!”
Justicar sighed. “If it comes to that, do you think I will have difficulty admitting that I was wrong? No one can be correct every time. The Stern asks that we remain humble and admit to our mistakes when they do occur.”
“Oh, you’re no fun.”
We didn’t find any other solution, of course. Justicar took forever to convince herself, but she finally gave in. Now, she was standing on her button, and I was on the button in the fire room, about to do what we had to.
“You are sure you’re ready for this?”
“’course I am.”
Justicar closed her eyes. With a strained voice, she recited, “Let me strike when I must strike, even if it costs my life; but let me yield when I must yield, even if it costs my pride.”
“Oh, get on with it,” I said, a little louder than I meant to. I knew I was safe, but just standing here waiting to be torched was giving me the jitters.
Justicar sprinted towards the open door on her side. I didn’t see much after that, because there were flames all around me. Searing pain struck at the entire surface of my skin. It actually felt kind of kickass, standing proudly in the middle of the inferno, tensing my whole body to resist the pain.
A minute later, the flames fizzled away. The door out of the fire room was open in front of me.
“Blood Child, are you all right?” said Justicar anxiously.
I couldn’t resist. I hunched over, pretending I was still in horrible pain.
“Tell me you’re all right! You can come out of that room now! I’ve opened the exit! Come on out! Please! Rinn!!”
I straightened up, grinning. “You actually called me by my name!!”
Justicar relaxed immediately. “I should have known…” she muttered. “Just come over here.”
I hurried out of the fire room. After the doors we had just gone through, the two sides of the puzzle joined together again, and there was only the final exit door left. It was another huge doorway, leading into a cylindrical tunnel. The tunnel’s walls were shiny and black and perfectly smooth – it looked nothing like the series of puzzles we’d just done.
“Looks like we just finished the last puzzle! High-five!”
To my slight surprise, Justicar actually high-fived me back. “Yes, this is an accomplishment we can be proud of.”
I headed for the exit, expecting Justicar to follow me.
“But there is still something I wonder,” said Justicar dourly. “These puzzles were constructed for both of us. If you are correct, and the solution we used was the one the Seeking God intended, then I have to admit that it did have… some form of lesson for me. But then, surely, somewhere in this, there must also be a lesson for you?”
I smirked. “Nah, it just means I was right all along! I’m the one who thought, uh…” Actually, when I thought about it, I hadn’t really disagreed with Justicar about anything. I had just sort of… gone along with… “Oh. My. GODS!! I can’t believe it, I seriously can’t believe it! I’ve gone this entire way, this ENTIRE way, acting like I hate the rules, like I think they’re all bullshit! But when you told me what you thought the rules were – the very first rule you told me – I BELIEVED you! I could have checked any time I wanted! I could have stuck my hand in the fire whenever I wanted to, and then I could have skipped past all the puzzles! But the Seeking God knew I wouldn’t do it! It knew I would just –” the words came reluctantly to my lips “– trust you.”
“An interesting thought, but how was that my rule? Anyone could have assumed th–”
I paced back and forth, not even listening to her. I COULDN’T get distracted! Now that I had this insight, I had to keep going, seeing everything it meant before I lost my train of thought! “I’ve been looking at this all wrong from the beginning! I’ve been doing all this stupid shit just to annoy you – I’ve been treating you like you’re just a fact of life that I’m fed up with! Every part of the Stern – I break the rules, I make fun of the teachers, but at the end of the day I go home and do my homework like it’s just how things are! Would you believe that when I heard about Javin, the first thing I thought was ‘what an idiot’ because he got caught?! How!? How could I have been so – victim-blaming?! How could I have believed in the Stern?!??”
“That is not what ‘belief in the Stern’ m–”
“I will never believe in the Stern again! By my blood, not a single thing you do is just a fact of life. You’re a –”
– a monster who should never have been formed.
– a poor, vulnerable human clinging to a lie.
– not my true enemy.
“Oh? What am I?”
I clutched my head, trying to calm my warring thoughts. I should have had something brilliant to say that would totally shut down all of Justicar’s bad arguments. But now the feeling of insight was gone, leaving my mind in a jumble. Which part was me, and which part was the Blood God? Could they all be the Blood God? For fuck’s sake, why wouldn’t it just leave me OUT of its family squabbles? And now it was squabbling with itself, too?!
“I don’t know. This is stupid. Never mind.”
“No, you clearly had something to say. If you start something, you should finish it.”
I stared back at her. I almost wanted to say something defensive, but if there was one thing I had just learned, it was that I really didn’t have to listen to her. “Let’s just go find Yali,” I said exhaustedly.
The exit doorway was right in front of us, leading to a tunnel into the blackness.
The next area wasn’t like the others. On the map, the Watchful Eye – Yali – was in a small cluster of rooms, barely bigger than my house. And around that, the map was blank. The tunnel in front of us wasn’t marked on it.
I stepped up into the tunnel, entering the blank area. Justicar followed me.
The tunnel was so smooth and dark that it was hard to see where the walls were. And it was actually perfectly cylindrical. Justicar and I were stuck walking single-file, because otherwise it was too hard to balance on the curved floor.
“This almost seems like a maintenance tunnel,” said Justicar. “Like the backstage of the puzzles. Something unfinished.”
“Well, if I don’t have to do more puzzles, I’m not complaining.”
I made the map appear in my hand. As we walked, I kept checking it obsessively, almost every other step. The Watchful Eye was so close to us. The tunnel curved in an irregular, wavy pattern back and forth. As we rounded each bend, we got closer to Yali. And closer. And closer.
And… the same distance? And farther away?
I turned around.
“Where are you going?” said Justicar.
“The tunnel’s bending back! We’re getting farther away from Yali this way!”
“You see? I told you the Seeking God would never allow us to reach the Farseer this way.”
I kept looking at the map in my hand. Going too far in one direction took me further away from her. Going too far in the other direction also took me further away from her. I found the closest point, and glared at the wall there. On the map, the little Burning Heart was nearly touching the room Yali was in. If I could just get through this wall, Yali and I would be in the same room…
“She’s just beyond this wall!!” I yelled. “I will not be denied again!” I snatched a Blood Blade out of thin air and swung it against the wall.
The blade glanced off the wall’s infinite smoothness. But I wasn’t done. With my next heartbeat, another blade pulsed into my other hand. I whirled around, slashing both my blades against the wall, but every time they slid away.
“You can’t ignore me forever!!” I yelled at the wall.
“Tell me when you are done trying to intimidate a god,” said Justicar tiredly.
There was much more I could do than just smacking it with a couple of sticks. With each heartbeat, I allowed more power to pulse into me. The Blood Blades merged into my arms – there was no longer just a hand gripping a handle, but a single, long, bladed arm, glowing red with heat. I whipped them against the wall, not trying to cut so much as to splatter and bludgeon. With each swing, extra droplets of blood sprayed in every direction around me, and pooled, sizzling, like an acid trying to eat away at the walls and floor.
A short distance away, Justicar manifested a glass barrier to keep herself clean. My blood burned through it like it was tissue paper.
But the wall was still utterly smooth, impervious to everything I was throwing at it. I couldn’t just keep beating on at aimlessly. I needed leverage. What could I push off of? If I wanted to hit the wall harder, I’d have to brace myself against something in the other direction, and the only thing in the other direction was –
The opposite wall of the tunnel.
I called the power into myself again. I turned my body into one long, lean, mass of muscle. My legs stretched out, growing into powerful hindclaws. More blades sprouted from my back, forming jagged ridges like shredded wings. With every new blade that grew out of me, I braced myself more and more against the opposite wall.
And then, I made my weapon. I focused a Blood Blade down to a single point, a vividly sharp, hard, exacting spike. I gripped a long handle in both hands, aiming it straight-on into the wall. I heaved my full strength into it with no worry that it could slip left or right.
My spike bit into the wall.
It felt like a distant scream. A wave of energy passed over me, an aching splash of color at the edges of my vision. Near me, I saw Justicar raise a hand in front of her face, as if protecting herself from an unseen force.
“What are you doing?!” Justicar yelled.
I grinned savagely. If the Seeking God was in pain, that meant I was winning. I heaved again, flexing and straining with every muscle along the length of my body. The screaming exploded into my ears, like a jackhammer and a gong and a crying baby rolled into one. Reality flickered around me, becoming a mass of discordant color and stench.
“That’s enough!” shouted Justicar. “Stop this immediately!” She stepped forward, her sword bouncing at her side as she summoned a shard of white light in her hands. I could feel her light as a blank spot in my thunderhead of rage. If that light touched me, it would scrub away my strength, erase everything I was fighting for.
Before she could get to me, I heaved a final time.
The world shattered.
I stumbled and landed on my hands and knees.
What had just happened? I had expected more explosions, but now it was all quiet as if nothing had happened. Around me, all I saw was a foggy landscape of sand and smooth rocks, along with a bunch of ladders sticking vertically out of the ground. This wasn’t somewhere special. It was just a normal place in the Seeking God’s world.
I summoned the map in my hand, a horrible feeling sinking into my chest. On a gut level, I already knew I was fucked. But I had to know. Staring into the map, I zeroed in on the Watchful Eye, right where it was before. And then I looked for where I was, for the Burning Heart. I saw the map zoom away from the courthouse, sweeping past every puzzle Justicar and I had done, sweeping past the fountain room itself. And it didn’t stop there. I saw caves and castles and labyrinths sweep by, impossible landscapes and mazes of flowing ice. By the time it reached the Burning Heart, it had gone further than the entire distance I’d travelled in this world. I was the farthest away from Yali that I could possibly be.
“I’LL KILL YOU!!!” I roared. I snatched up a rock in my hand, pretending that it was the Seeking God, and smashed it to pieces. Then I sprouted a Blood Blade from my heel and stomped on the broken rock, slicing it into smaller and smaller slivers. “YOU THINK YOU CAN JERK ME AROUND, LIKE THIS IS ALL A BIG GAME?! I AM BLEEDING ON THE FLOOR, AND YOU STILL USE MY HEART AS A PLAYTHING?! I DON’T CARE IF YOU’RE A GOD! I WILL TEAR YOU TO PIECES!” I whirled around, my arm whipping into a long blade with a bleeding edge, my eyes trying to zero in on whatever looked most like the heart of the god.
But when my eyes began to make sense of what I saw, it was only more ladders and rocks and fog. And behind one of the ladders – scarcely two meters away from me – the frozen, terrified face of the Alchemist.