It’s taken them an extra day to get to Cincinnati, after having chantry trouble and being stranded in Kentucky for a while. Really, with as much as this chantry has been through it’s a wonder it hasn’t had trouble sooner. An Etheric engine is a little more complicated than an oil change, but America is much better-equipped to handle that than she was before—repairing the chantry’s engine likely would have been a months-long project.
It’s no wonder this chantry has always had a Son or Daughter of Ether living in it: no other paradigm has a sanctified room in it.
They’re about half an hour out from Cincinnati and the Ohio River, getting an update on Kal‘s homunculi. They’re almost all dead. In the past day, since Will got the information out, Virtual Adepts and others have hunted seven of the homunculi, all except Kate and Johann, the Ecstatic.
“I thought she’d never leave. Hello Will, hello America.” Comes a German-accented voice, sitting up on a table. America and Will have never seen Johann Erdoğan before in their lives, but they’ve doxxed the hell out of him well enough to recognize his school photos, they certainly know who he is when he appears in their chantry. The German has his back to a wall, one grey-socked foot tucked under himself, his other leg swinging.
He holds up a hand. “Peace. If I wanted to fight I could have done it already. I just came to talk.”
Will wouldn’t have let the rest of his cabal leave without some easy way to reach him, either, so one way or another they have cause to celebrate Victor’s defeat. He largely leaves the chantry repairs to America. She may or may not interpret that as what it is to Will: a sign of increased trust and respect between them. This is their shared home, but his inheritance from his mother. He feels pretty possessive about it.
He’s been focused on gathering and collating information on the homonculi, not to mention putting a calm word in here or there when his wounded Tradition seems to be taking things a bit too far. Will has also been going out of his way to keep Ursula informed, personally. A few months ago he never would be willing to work so closely with a Technocrat, but he recognizes powerful allies when he sees them.
The Virtual Adept is just reading an unrelated email when the homonculi appears in the room. He rises to his feet, his thumb bringing up his list of macros immediately. “Excuse me? You were trying to kill us before and you’ve already blown up an entire continent. We pick off a bunch of your spies and now you want to talk?”
America doesn’t reply. Instead, she spins on her heels and activates the no doubt beeping horcrux detector. The top opens and a fireworks display sparks and sprinkles through the air, filling the room briefly with twinkling lights like a tacky 70s Christmas tree.
The Daughter of Ether turns around again, picks up her gauntlets from the bed to prepare, and while she does that, turns to look at the German intruder. “Talk,” she says flatly.
Johann seems both bewildered and accepting of their reaction. “That’s not me,” He says to Will. “I’m not Kal. I’m here in my own capacity, not as an Archmage.”
His eyes follow to America. “Kate’s been the most powerful for a long time now, but I was the first. I’m the most independent of Kal, but I lack his wisdom. I was curious about you.” His finger trails between them, encompassing them both, before floating up toward the ceiling to indicate the rest of the chantry. “I thought you, too, would be more curious to learn than ready for a fight you might not win.”
Will isn’t into splitting those hairs. They’ve seen Kal act through Kate before. “Funny, with Kate spying on us I figured you’d all have all you need to know,”
“What’s it like, not being real?” America asks with venom on her tongue. She flexes her fingers and taps her gauntlets, confirming that technomancy is still five by five.
Johann doesn’t seem peturbed by their tone, answering America. “You were created by God, however you define it. I was created by Kal, which makes him my god. Beyond that I don’t see much difference between us. You, too, were created by an Archmage,” He says to Will. “Differently than me, but maybe not too differently. You couldn’t have been an accident.”
“What do you actually want, Johann?” Having tea and cookies with one of Kal’s homonculi is really not on the list of things Will wants to do. “The clock is ticking for you. Everyone already knows who you are and what you all did. Meanwhile, since we’ve all got to live in this shithole you and Kal created for us while aiding and abetting Nephandi, we have work to do. What are you doing here?”
“Killing Kate or me is going to be harder than killing most of the others,” Johann answers simply. “And Kal can always bring me back if he wants me, once this is all over.” He shrugs a little. “I just came here to see what you were like in this world, and because you’re the smart ones. I just want to understand why you’re fighting. You can’t go back and fix the world the way you want it.”
This thing lacks empathy, that’s for sure. America’s face twists in disgust at the realization that Johann is genuine in his curiosity. “Grief,” she says as if it is obvious. “You’ve scarred the world, scorched the sky, and in this fucking cataclysm you created who knows how many have died and will die. Genius, art, science, it is all mourning the avatars that are gone. Just fucking gone!”
The outburst causes tears to well up and wash down America’s cheeks. She looks back at the glass cage where Kouamé is and hears the echo of his own grief at the loss of his avatar, his potential expired.
Will crosses his arms, his handheld still in his palm. Not being particularly close to America, seeing her in tears makes him kind of awkward – he politely averts his eyes, fixing them on Johann instead. “Our friends died trying to stop this. Half my Tradition was lobotomized in a heartbeat, by my own Mentor. We aren’t trying to go back, you idiot. We’re just trying to survive with what’s left. Kate tried to kill us first, and Kal is targeting our allies. Excuse the fuck out of us for making a few pre-emptive strikes before you wipe us out.”
“This cycle has been going on longer than any of us have been alive,” Johann answers. “I had my part to play, as did you.” He hesitates, his gaze lingering longest on Will.
“Look. Take the homunculi as a win. Let’s say you get Kate and me and the mages feel like they’ve won something. Leave off on Kal. If he sees you’re not a threat, he might let you live.”
“Live and let die, huh?” America says, getting the saying wrong, but assuming the Paul McCartney song was how it had always been intended to be said. “What happens when Kal decides to crack the Earth in two like an egg? Do we let him do that? If we survive that catastrophe like we have this one, do we let him get away with it?”
The Daughter of Ether paces back and forth, clearly agitated. She moves to Johann’s 3 o’clock comparative to Will facing him front, causing the German to pick which of the pair to address as they talk.
“Kal won’t leave us alone,” Will shoots back. “If ”/characters/daniel-amar" class=“wiki-content-link”>Daniel gets any better at time magick than he already is, Kal will kill him too. Or me, or Alex. Why are you telling us this? What do you care if we live or die?"
“Then don’t get better at Time,” Johann states the obvious. To America, “He’s not going to do that. He has no reason to. He just wanted things the way they’re supposed to be.”
He’s quiet for a moment, not looking at either mage as he answers. “Because ”/characters/aaron-spaulding" class=“wiki-content-link”>Aaron and I were friends once, and I didn’t want him to die. I’d rather it not happen to the people he cares about either."
The Daughter of Ether looks to make eye contact with Kouamé as Johann addresses Will. If he is paying attention, he would know she is seeking his attention.
America can’t help but laugh at that last part. So much has happened; so much madness and yet Johann is so calm. “You want us to have faith that your God isn’t planning any more world ending murder events?” she says from beside him. “Fool me once,” she says without bothering to finish.
Will frowns, uncertainty flickering across his face. There’s that name again. On some subconscious level, he knows Aaron. “Get out of our way, Johann. Help us or get out of the way. If Nephandi were truly the first ones to use the network, then this can’t have be the way things were meant to be. Kal has been stuck in this same loop for a long time, and he’s so powerful he can’t see past his own hubris.” He hesitates. There was something Matt said about his prior cabal that niggles at him. “What actually happened to Aaron in the end?”
From his cage, Kouamé stirs. He had been resting and recuperating before he met with the vampires, but America drawing his attention brings him out. He gestures at Johann, not recognizing the mage.
Johann licks his lips, hesitating at how much to say. Then his face smooths out. “Aaron went to confront the Time Devourer, as he conceptualized the threat. I knew what it was, and tried to convince him not to go. Evidently he managed to reset the loop. I asked Kal not to kill him,” The German says slowly. “He was… contained. He’s the only focus point from a previous loop not to be erased from the Book of Fate.”
“Why’d Kal listen to you?” Will asks suspiciously. He won’t share the fact that Daniel met Aaron with Johann, if he doesn’t already know somehow. “Contained where? Look, if you don’t want Kal to kill us then why don’t you do something about it besides telling us to stay away? You must already know we can’t do that. Daniel won’t just stop passing Seekings, and we aren’t the only mages on the planet at risk.”
“What way does Kal think the world should be?” the Daughter of Ether asks. Did he really want what the Nephandi wanted? How was this destruction necessary?"
Johann is already shaking his head. “I’m not going to tell you where. That would defeat the whole—” He stops, looking at America. “The way it was before ”/characters/gabrielle-harrison" class=“wiki-content-link”>Gabrielle Harrison wounded time to stop it. Maybe you’d do the same, if you had his Understanding." He adds anemphasis on understanding.
The homonculus jumps down to his feet. This isn’t going anywhere. “I don’t know why Kal listened to me. I think maybe he approved of me showing independence.”
“You know, Victor or Kal or whoever just tried to gilgul one of the weakest members of our cabal. I can’t believe you showed up here to suggest that we play nice in the hopes that he just goes away.” Will is sounding increasingly exasperated. “Everyone with any amount of useful information whatsoever has been jerking us around since the moment we discovered the Network. When I talked to Kate, she wouldn’t explain why Kal thinks the original timeline is the right one. Now you’re just trying to handwave it too. Motherfucking Archmages think they know everything, but they’re human and fallible just like the rest of us. We aren’t gonna just lay down and let him do whatever shit he wants just because he’s gone through so many time loops that he’s gone crazy.”
As the tension in the room increases, America positions herself further out of Johann’s peripheral vision. She adjusts her right gauntlet and raises it behind her towards the glass terrarium. A silent wave of etheric dynamism pulses towards the glass, exciting the particles into collapsing back from glass into sand. She gives her savior, Kouamé a look and then returns her attention to Johann, all as quietly as possible.
Johann doesn’t turn his head. “Nice try, but I told you I’d be harder to kill than Victor.” He abruptly vanishes, the threshold on magick not enough to stop him. The Ecstatic causes ripples in the ether as he passes, like a fish struggling in water before it escapes.
They reach have a thought, almost unobtrusive except they know it’s not theirs: You have time. Fríða will be next.