They walked in a diamond formation with the two Singletons in the center. Mad Eyed Brendon was at the front, still carrying their prisoner, Wanda and Clinio to the right and left, and Matilda and Ellison brought up the rear. A couple of other mercenaries were walking through the woods, ahead and to the sides.
“And there was one other thing.” Wynefrede glanced back at Ellison and Matilda. “One of the guild guys — I don’t know who — said that there was a crate in the castle.”
“It was Sewell,” said Raphe. “Sewell told Rambo that there was a crate waiting for him, and that was the only thing they were going to get.”
“I don’t know what that means,” said Matilda. “But we should probably tell someone.”
“Tell who?” asked Ellison. “The Armforge Guild already knows.”
“Maybe the Royal Season?”
Clinio looked back at them. “It could be evidence that the guild was working in concert with the kidnappers,” he said. “But it won’t be admissible in a court of law.”
“Because of the privacy and anti-spoiler laws?” Matilda asked.
“Because anyone can say anything,” said Clinio. “There’s no way to prove identity. If there’s a note, no way to prove who wrote it. Not without getting a subpoena for grid records.” He walked silently for a couple of minutes. “I don’t think we have enough yet for a court order.”
“Not even after we found Raphe and Wynefrede?” Matilda asked.
“They were only held for a few days,” said Clinio. “As far as anyone is concerned, that’s just normal life on a gaming grid.”
“It’s not a gaming grid,” mumbled Mad Eyed Brendon. “It’s a way of life.”
“But what if they do something to cause brain damage,” asked Wynefrede. “And then keep people for years?”
“We’d need proof,” said Clinio. “They could have just been trying to fake you out.”
“But Finnbogi Sturluson has actually been missing for years,” said Matilda. “That’s not fake.”
“That doesn’t mean that the prisoner was actually the same guy,” said Clinio. “I admit that it sounds far-fetched that they’d have someone pretending to be one of our Singletons from three years ago. But it’s more likely than them actually having kept Finnbogi a prisoner all this time. Odds are, the guy just wanted to get away from things for a while. He did have some issues at work, and personal problems. And a stalker.”
Matilda looked away.
“And who wouldn’t want a break?” Clinio said. “I mean, I’ve been tempted to turn on my auto-responder and go live in some fantasy world for a while. A little sabbatical. A palate cleanser, if you will. Reevaluate my life, all that kind of thing.”
“They weren’t faking,” said Wynefrede. “I swear it. I don’t know why they’d want to keep people prisoner, but they do. Are you at least going to try to find them?”
“Sure,” said Clinio. “We’ve got time. The court case will probably drag on for years.” He looked back at Ellison and Matilda. “Can you guys work on it?”
Ellison glanced at Matilda. “I don’t know,” he said.
Matilda sighed. “I’ll recuse myself.”
“She’s got a personal stake,” Ellison explained. “But I’ve got other local talent I can call on for help.” He’d met most of them through Matilda, but decided not to mention that.
“Talk to Pleasance Pratt,” said Clinio. “She’ll authorize the budget.”
“I’ll help,” said Wynefrede. “I’ll have my company hire your agency directly. I want you to find these guys.” She elbowed Raphe in the side.
“Sure, sure, I’ll pitch in,” Raphe said.
“I especially want to find out if this was orchestrated for business or political reasons,” said Wynefrede. “If it was, then everyone in my company, or my family, is at risk whenever we go to any private world.”
“Or if we take physical trips,” said Raphe. “Did I ever tell you how I wound up losing my physical body?”
Wynefrede shook her head.
“I was on a ship to the asteroid belt, and we were hit. Our proximity sensors hadn’t picked anything up. At first, we thought it was just a random fluke. Maybe something moving a close to light speed from outside the solar system happened to pass through at just the wrong time. It happens. That’s why we have life insurance. But then the Inner System Aerospace Administration started its investigation and they recovered some computer parts that seemed to indicate that our systems went offline and the ship was steered directly into the path of an asteroid.”
“You were hacked?” Wynefrede said.
“We were hacked.”
“Why haven’t I heard anything about it?”
“It was around the same time as the Civinos disaster,” said Raphe. “What’s the loss of five people, compared to the deaths of thousands? Especially since we all had life insurance, and were back at work within weeks. Plus, it took more than a year for the ISAA to figure out what happened, and by that time it was all old news.”
“Did they ever catch who did it?” Ellison asked.
“No,” said Raphe. “But they suspect it was the same people, because of the timing.”
“The Humanists,” said Ellison.
“Right,” said Raphe. “Though I don’t see why the Humanists have a problem with asteroid mining.”
“Maybe they decided to kill you for real,” said Wynefrede. “Kill both of us.”
“How?” asked Clinio. “I mean, yes, the Krim terms of service says that the shock of dying in-world can cause some people to die in real life, but that never actually happens.”
“It happened once,” said Matilda. “And we almost didn’t get the guy back.”
“What if…” Ellison waved his hands in the air in front of him. “I’m just spitballing here, but what if the Humanists had a way to keep people from being resurrected. Something like what they did in Civinos, but on a more targeted scale. And what if they had a way to kill people over and over again on Krim. Say, because they control the gate and can keep bringing people back so they could kill them. Eventually, they could die for real.”
“That sounds far-fetched,” said Clinio. “I doubt you can get anyone to buy it.”
“Civinos was far-fetched too, but it happened,” said Ellison.
“It only happened once. And, since then, more safeguards have been put in place,” said Clinio. “I don’t think that it’s something to worry about.”
“I think I’m going to worry about it, anyway,” said Wynefrede.
“Me, too,” said Raphe. “I didn’t like dying the first time. I don’t want to die again.”
“Now I sympathize with you a little bit more,” said Wynefrede. “But I’m still not going to forgive you for betraying me.”
Raphe looked away.
They were almost back at the encampment now. Raphe pointed through the trees, at where the bridge had been built. Ellison could see piles of lumber scraps still there. Further beyond that, the woods were clearer again, and he could see the remains of tents among the pine trees. The tents had all been ripped apart, probably by Matilda’s mercenaries looking to make sure that nobody was hiding inside.
The fighting was mostly over.
They walked past an abandoned firepit with a circle of collapsed tents around it, then towards the bridge.
Ellison could see the last remaining fighters of the Armforge Guild were fleeing across the ravine to Saugerties Castle, shields up to deflect falling arrows. As he watched, a fighter was hit and knocked down onto the rocks far below.
The mercenaries were using axes on the bridge supports.
“Stop that!” Raphe yelled and rushed at them.
“He helped build the bridge,” said Wynefrede. “He’s emotionally attached now.”
“You said something about Stockholm Syndrome earlier,” said Clinio.
“That’s exactly what it is,” said Wynefrede. “But Raphe is actually right. They shouldn’t be trying to hack through the supports. That will take hours.” She pointed at the ropes supporting the bridge from above. “Cut through those and the whole thing will collapse.”