The castle somehow recedes into the mist around the travelers, leaving them isolated with Doctor Infinity.
“I am so close,” the villain growls. “Why are you interfering with me?”
“You are damaging time itself,” Charlotte explains calmly. “I am protecting the natural order.”
“You?” Infinity scoffs. “Half a ghost, like Everard, like Max Galliard in the other world. Did you know that every Magus was so? That they have never been truly mortal?”
Charlotte, taken aback, has nothing to say. Summer steps into the silence. “It doesn’t matter. You’re hurting people. Alycia, when she saw you in the future. Jordan. You’re even using Rossum and Nono for your schemes.”
“You of all people should understand,” Infinity breathes. She considers for a moment, then lunges at Summer. “I’ll make you understand.”
Summer feels Infinity’s hand grasping at her forehead. In the same moment, she feels an intrusion in her shell - a physical attempt to get at her brain! She fires her emitters at full blast, pushing Infinity away, and the mecha-medica begins to heal the damage immediately.
“Open your mind, sister,” Infinity invites. “I’ll give you everything you want to know about me.”
“By turning me into your mental clone?” demands Summer, anger bubbling to the surface.
“My thousands of lifetimes will overwhelm your few paltry years of authentic recollection, it’s true. But you’ve been a thorn in my side all this time. It’s fitting that you’d finally be a help for once.”
Summer wants to fly at Infinity, fight her - but she looks back at Sam and Nassir, worriedly.
“You needn’t fear,” comes King Paimon’s hoarse voice, and both cop and lawyer are shrouded in a layer of the mist. “The mortals are under my protection. You may freely… resolve this dispute amongst yourselves.”
Charlotte and Summer glance at each other, and nod. If Infinity must be forced into confessing her plans, so be it.
For her part, Infinity needs no help to see what the two heroes intend. She takes the initiative, unleashing a torrent of energy bolts at Charlotte and Summer. Charlotte weaves a shield around herself and Summer, deflecting the bolts away and into the mists of the underworld. King Paimon is as good as his word - a few blasts pass through Sam’s location harmlessly, as though she were nothing more than an illusion made of smoke.
Summer channels power - so much more than she had before - into her new emitters. As Charlotte collapses the shield, she fires.
The blast knocks Infinity back, and makes her raise her eyebrows. “What would Leo think of you, with those weapons?”
“What would he think of you?” Summer demands.
She can see this question hits Infinity hard - harder than anything else that’s been said or done so far.
The pieces begin to fit together. “Nono. She knows a lot of people, but she knows Leo. Where have you sent her? When have you sent her?”
Infinity channels her own energy into a seething sphere held between her hands, and releases it. Charlotte lowers the Agate Staff, and concentrates power through it. The countermeasure is enough to deflect the sphere slightly, but even then it explodes, knocking the two Menagerie heroes into the mists of the underworld - and out of sight of each other.
Summer deploys her butterflies, sending a few in every direction and letting the others orbit her protectively. While she waits for telemetry, she thinks more.
Where would Nono and Leo meet? Halcyon High South, then Gardner Academy, where they both went to school. Nono didn’t really interact with Leo outside of school, probably due to her shyness at that time.
Where would Nono do the most good to Infinity?
To answer that, Summer realizes she needs to know something else. What does Infinity want?
She needs time paradoxes, specifically.
Why? To undo some horrible–
Something happened to her Leo.
An energy blast comes hurtling out of nowhere. Summer’s butterflies project a light barrier, absorbing the destructive force of it. The new ARCANE shell is really earning its keep.
She traces the path of the blast backward and launches herself through the mist after its source.
Charlotte focuses on the Agate Staff, feeling for what her high-tech friends might call “an energy signature”, and what she thinks of merely as “presence”.
“You’re as selfish as Everard,” comes a voice from around her.
Charlotte tilts her head. Very well… “I’m sure you’ll do me the courtesy of explaining your insult.”
“You want to defend the natural order. But why? Because you like things ordered. You like being in control. You want to enforce etiquette on the whole world, because our future is madness to you.”
Charlotte isn’t flustered in the slightest by this. “I do prefer propriety, but I’ve adapted to my new home, even if its ways seem strange. Strange isn’t bad.”
“You’re destined for godhood,” Infinity’s omnipresent voice replies. “Pandemonium is only the weakest, most flawed form of the potential inside you. You’ve incorporated other ghosts into the Magus armor already. When you achieve your apotheosis, even your mildest personality traits will be magnified to divine proportions. You’ll forget the niceties of friendship, because such things will seem so small to you. And then you’ll order the world as you like.”
Charlotte narrows her eyes. “A hinted-at, far-off future will not dissuade me from stopping you now.”
“It’s not so far off as you think,” Infinity whispers in her ear.
“If I stray from my path, I expect my friends to correct me.” Charlotte grips the staff. “How long has it been since you had someone willing to do the same for you?”
“I know my path,” comes Infinity’s voice. “My cause is just. As you well know.”
“How do I know that?” Charlotte asks lightly.
“Because you’ve lent your strength to the aggrieved dead once already. Or… is it only righteous when you do it?”
The whispering voice fades away.
Summer flies toward where she thinks Infinity came from, only to find… nothing.
I’m wasting time.
No, she’s wasting my time.
To get at Charlotte.
Summer realizes there’s something else she can do. She just has to follow the smell of North Carolina barbecue.
She emerges back into the castle, finding Nassir Amari, Sam Echevarra, and King Paimon waiting patiently.
Urgently, Summer explains what she wants to Sam. “The demon has a connection to Doctor Infinity, yes? Infinity has a deep emotional connection to someone named Leo Snow - someone who must have died. That means they must be here, somewhere, in the underworld, right?”
Sam takes this in and turns to King Paimon. “Pursuant to the binding, I request the presence of the individual named by my associate as ‘Leo Snow’, or information about his whereabouts and disposition–”
King Paimon rolls his eyes. “Your formality bores me, mortal.”
Sam stares at him.
“… But this does not invalidate your request. Very well.”
Charlotte and Infinity emerge from the mist, locked in a struggle with each other. But it quickly ends as Infinity sees who else is now in the throne room of King Paimon’s castle.
The shade of Leo Snow, still dressed as he was on the day of the crack-up, smiles at her. “Pneuma.”
Infinity’s face and voice register absolute, abject terror. “No - no no no no!” She claws at Charlotte, trying to escape her grasp, turning away that she can no longer see the ghost.
“Explain the justice of your cause to him,” Charlotte commands.
Infinity wants to flee, to dart back into the underworld, to be anywhere but here. But the brand of King Paimon on her arm acts as an invisible leash, and she’s physically dragged back to the center of the room.
The shade of Leo walks around Infinity, and she shrieks and shrinks away. He kneels down beside her, and starts talking quietly. He doesn’t touch her, nor get too close.
“It’s good to see you again, Pneuma.”
“Stop - no - I’m so close to bringing you back,” she whispers, as tears stream from her eyes. “Don’t do this to me.” She turns, seeing Charlotte and Summer, and screams at the top of her lungs. “DON’T DO THIS TO ME!”
“Look at me,” Leo commands quietly.
Infinity’s head whips around, seemingly out of her control. Her face is contorted in frenzied fear, and she trembles, but she looks.
“Talk to me, Pneuma. Tell me what you feel.”
At the invocation of the old bond, she almost seizes up, and Leo’s shade reaches out a steadying hand. She flinches for just a moment, but accepts the contact.
“After- after- the incident - I - I - I told myself, I could fix this. I could find a way to undo it, you know? Because it was time travel, because if you can go to the past you can change the past, because if you have the freedom to go anywhere in time, why can’t you? Why shouldn’t you?”
She’s blubbering, but more words come out regardless. Leo’s shade only watches, a warm and encouraging smile on his face.
“So - I took the Keynome from Adam - he, no, he gave it to me - I mean, I tricked him - but I got it. I started… I started learning the rules, you know? How it all worked. I learned - I learned - about the time-waves, the Sitka Transduction, you know, the Double Thread Dependency Conjecture, I learned - about all that stuff. Paradox. And I thought, you know, if I could create a paradox, I could… I could undo it. I could fix it.”
Leo watches and listens. Finally he asks the question that shatters Infinity.
“Didn’t you feel like you could go on without me?”
She gapes at him, in shock, in disbelief, and with the briefest shake of her head gives the only answer she can.
“Are you sure?”
Through her tears, Infinity manages to form words. “I’m nothing without you.”
Carefully, Leo’s shade pulls Infinity into a hug. “Pneuma… you’re everything,” he whispers in her ear.
Against the background of her sobs, he keeps speaking. “You’ve always been strong. You’ve been stronger than me, a lot of the time. You had the courage to leave me once. You made the right choice then. With or without me, you have so much potential.”
Charlotte takes a few cautious steps forward. “The Concordance has channeled negative emotions into Earth’s underworld for thousands of years,” she explains. “Infinity. No - Pneuma. All your time travel, all your trips to the past and future, have sent you swimming through that sea of despair. All your attempts to undo your past have been poisoning your soul.”
Summer, too, steps forward. “I said my goodbyes to my Leo. He’s still my best friend. But I am my own person.”
“I can’t be you!” Infinity howls.
“You can be yourself!” Summer shouts back at her. “Aria is helping my Leo with his business. Me? I’m a barista and superhero. If you spun that big wheel of occupations, or you closed your eyes and picked out a hobby at random, or you saw a need somewhere, you could do it! You’re smart, you’re friendly, you’re immortal. You could make anything of yourself you wanted.”
Summer sighs. “Listen. I met a boy named Colin. We are - were - dating. It’s weird, there’s a lot going on, don’t ask. But listen. One important thing he said to me was that in the movies, the girl robots are always defined by who they fall in love with. And I told him, that’s the stereotype, but we don’t have to obey it.”
She takes another step forward. “Pneuma is like the wind. She can go anywhere, live any life. Don’t turn your back on yourself. Please.”
“Everything I did… it can’t be for nothing,” Infinity manages, between sobs. She turns tear-filled eyes to Leo’s shade. “You couldn’t forgive me, if you knew.”
He smiles again and shrugs. “But I do. I’m stubborn like that.”
Finally, finally, Infinity seems to take hold of herself. She turns to Summer and Charlotte. “But absolution from Leo isn’t enough, is it. You two want to know where Nono is. What I’m having her do.”
“We do,” Charlotte affirms.
Infinity wipes her eyes, and takes several long, steadying breaths. “Then I’ll tell you.”