Double-Blind: A Modern LITRPG - Chapter 182
- Keep the affairs of the Order of Parcae shielded and secret from outsiders.
- Answer official queries from Order authority figures truthfully and completely.
- Limit equipment purchases to the Order’s vendors and tradesmen.
- Report all active system-assigned quests to a member of the Court or equivalent authority within twelve hours.
- Disclose any outside extracurricular activities involving one or more members of the Order for pre-approval.
- Place the Advent and associated quests above all.
- Do not sabotage or bring harm to your guild-mates, directly or indirectly, unless doing so directly conflicts with the previous tenets.
Each rule emblazoned itself in the stone between us as the woman recited them. She had an odd, ethereal way of speaking, giving me time to reach one notable conclusion. Either Sunny and Aaron found a way to circumvent the geas, or they were both abusing the hell out of the last two rules. Sunny ordered a hit on Cameron and Aaron let it happen, despite ample warning beforehand. It was possible that their positions granted them a little leeway but considering how Cameron had effectively nothing to incur it, I couldn’t imagine it gave them that much.
No wonder Nick was so damn vague.
The rules were thorough, granting very little wiggle room to play with. All that was missing was some Orwellian edict to report suspicions or witnessed malfeasance from other guild-mates—and with the way they set it up, that was almost entirely unnecessary.
“Are you prepared to proceed with the oath?” The woman—Seer, as I’d begun to think of her—asked. On her face, the luminescent blue scarring seemed to pulse in rhythm with my racing heart.
“Not quite. So far, you’ve only told me what you require. What’s in it for me?”
Seer studied me. Just like before, at the bus stop, it was like she was seeing through me entirely, evaluating my every action, past, future, and present. “A chance to start over.”
“Isn’t that what this is already? The world is unrecognizable compared to what it was only a few months ago. The internet and all the information on it is gone—probably for good, unless some unkempt mongrel in a basement somewhere backed it all up offline. No more background checks, no more credit karma. It’s all gone.”
She smiled, amused. “And that’s what you’ve found? Just like that, the sins of yesterday have vanished, never to haunt us again?”
Miles and the tribunal came to mind, and I looked away.
Seer continued. “Forgive me for making light. Perhaps I spoke in error. A new start calls to mind the image of a man at the exit gates of a prison yard, or a transient who arrives in an unfamiliar city. Their environment, their future prospects and possibilities forever altered. But the person themselves—their actions, their tainted history, their very soul—remain static.”
“You’re offering to alter my soul?”
She shook her head. “No. Rather, to elevate it. And make you the person you were always meant to be.”
I wasn’t buying it. But I could see how someone like Nick, or one of the suits, many of whom seemed too adept at organized crime to not have some sort of background in it, would fixate on the opportunity. Nick had taken to self-improvement during his recovery, immersing himself in pontificating audio books and seminars on YouTube. And I’d tried to tell him. That listening to some faux-enlightened, over-educated guru completely out of touch with the modern world wax poetic on the similarities between humans and crustaceans and how the importance of a clean room was a waste of time. At which point he politely told me to get back to my practice LSAT and fuck off.
Seer made an odd noise in the back of her throat. A “hm,” that sounded like the cross between an observational tick or the beginning of a laugh. Then she just waited. I knew this tactic well—maintaining an awkward silence, forcing the other party to show their hand—and being on the other side of it, for once, was irritating.
“So, what happens now? Say a few words, swear my allegiance, and you magically fix all my problems?” I asked.
Seer tilted her head quizzically. “People take flight through the sky overhead, illuminate dark streets with magical lights that draw from no earthly source. And our understanding of magic is nascent. Is that so hard to believe?”
“I have a lot of problems.”
Her sudden laugh startled me. It was a light sound, as if the idea of earthly difficulty was foreign to her. “It might surprise you. Compared to many who take shelter here, your troubles, your desires, are diminutive. But of course, it is not so simple. We must sow before we reap.”
You’ve certainly sowed.
“Instating the court as a power center.” I said, presenting the guess as a foregone conclusion.
Again, she made that odd sound in her throat. “You see authority as your enemy. Be it a governing body of mortals, or the gods themselves. And why shouldn’t you? Over and over, they’ve promised change for the better. Justice. Peace. False promises that die stillborn once they’ve achieved their personal goals.”
“But not you. You’re different.”
“I am but a vessel.”
“The retainer in violet. Hastur.” There was a sudden stirring as she spoke the name, like a breeze rippling through the lichen that surrounded us, though the air itself was dead. The subtle glow pervading the room grew darker, more oppressive.
I licked my lips, suddenly nervous. I’d guessed that the suits had a patron. A deity. It was the only conceivable way of explaining exactly how they’d gotten this far ahead. The combination of along with and the supposedly granted me some protection from deities. But as I’d seen, that insulation was hardly perfect. And I hadn’t expected to come this close to the source so quickly.
“The court will pass no laws, convene no judgements. They exist purely to guide the whole as they each follow their own path and illuminate the way before them. And if necessary, protect them from those with malice in their hearts.”
And the bubblegum and rainbows kept coming. But my feelings on the topic didn’t matter. I wasn’t here in good faith. If she told me their patron wanted to turn everyone into tiny elves who sat in trees and marketed cookies, I would have accepted that. Because my gut was rarely wrong. And my gut told me that Aaron’s plan, and the rosy picture this woman was painting, were mutually exclusive.
No matter how lofty the organization’s vision appeared to be, the only person Aaron cared about was himself. It wasn’t a question of whether he had an angle. It was only a matter of finding it.
“Are you ready to continue?” Seer asked.
I stalled half-assedly, asking for a moment to review the rules. When she nodded, I made a show of tracing the text on the ground with my fingertip, silently reciting it to myself.
”Azure?” I prompted my summon. He’d been uncharacteristically silent ever since the bus stop.
”You’re going to hate me.” Azure whispered.
”For the same reason you don’t like alcohol, and have smoked nothing more potent than a cigarette. I knew you wouldn’t agree unless you were up against a wall. But I also knew how important this was. And how deeply you’d regret it if you let the opportunity pass. As underhanded as it seems, I did it this way for you. I really did.” Azure’s distress rang clear.
”If you wanted to talk about it, we should have done that earlier. We’re out of time. Now what do you have.”
”Do you trust me?”
Did I trust Azure?
It was impossible to banish the events of the Adaptive Dungeon from my mind. Azure had opened old wounds and flayed me to my core, exploiting every potential weakness in a manner that was as effective as it was cruel. I understood he didn’t see it that way. That his inhuman mind viewed his actions as an artist’s depiction of truth, and that there was some element of growth through suffering in his “work.” He wanted to watch me overcome the obstacles he created, and when I did, he’d clung to me out of a mix of madness and co-dependence at having that desire finally realized.
Because I’d created him.
Knowing how dangerous Azure could be, I kept him at arm’s length until Miles forced my hand. But after the threat had receded, I’d never really reinstated the distance. He’d handled the trial run masterfully and respected the boundaries I’d placed—even if he poked at them from time to time—and he was too useful to keep in reserve.
On some level, I’d been prepared for this. Azure was borderline gleeful whenever he had an idea, no matter how sinister. He didn’t have a moral compass, or if he did, it was entirely alien. And considering the lofty pedestal he placed me on, his reticence was derived entirely from my approval, or lack of.
All things considered, I trusted Azure as much as I trusted anyone.
”Any means necessary. Do whatever you have to do.” I commanded.
As I continued to trace the text, my finger twitched. It felt too strong to be a muscle spasm.
”You’re fighting me.” Azure said.
My finger twitched again. ”If I am, it’s subconscious.”
”Just relax your mind.”
I did my best to follow his instructions, focusing on my breathing, doing my best to place myself in a meditative state, despite the circumstances.
“I’m ready.” I said. Only, I didn’t say it. The words, and the way my hand folded over my lap were all involuntary. I tried to make a fist, and it was like the signal died in my mind before it made its way to my body.
Azure had taken over. However necessary it was, losing control made me profoundly uncomfortable. The only thing keeping me from outright panic was knowing it was Azure in the driver’s seat.
The woman dipped her fingers into the small bowl at her side and drew an unfamiliar symbol on my forehead. “Do you accept these mandates as ironclad and agree to be bound by them?”
“I do.” Azure spoke through me. A strange buzzing reached my ears.
“Will you submit yourself to the authority of the order and the geas that safeguards it?”
“I will.” Azure said. The buzzing grew louder.
“Repeat after me.”
Azure repeated the words back carefully. “I, Myrddin, pledge my fealty to the Court of Parcae. To uphold their ideals and protect the weak, to accept the guidance of those above me and foster those beneath me. To follow the guidance of Hastur and reform the city, and eventually the world itself, as a perfect, balanced, utopia.”
All around us, lichen rippled violently. The blue luminescence grew vibrant, losing color, blue fading to an all-encompassing brightness that burned like white phosphorous. A vaguely humanoid figure covered in coarse lichen struggled to rise. Every inch of his skin was covered in organic green and glowing blue. Gaping holes in the place of his eyes and mouth radiated white.
Suddenly, I was fully in control of my body, scrambling backward. I mentally reached out to Azure and received no answer.
The woman suddenly straightened, still kneeling, her body ramrod straight as she stared at me with astonishment. “The blessed retainer graces you.”