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Worth the Candle

Chapter Text

I strained against the collar that held my neck in place, trying to get a better look around. My hands and feet were both cuffed, with thick metal bars connecting the cuffs to each other, resulting in no give at all. I had a gag in my mouth as well, but that was a little bit looser.

Five seconds ago, I had been passing notes in fifth period English.

I could see other people bound just like I was in the dim red light that came from regularly spaced bulbs. We were in two lines that faced each other. There was a loud droning sound that I imagined it would be hard to talk over, if I hadn't had the gag. That sound, along with the vibrations in my seat and the curved walls, told me that we were in a plane, though I had no idea where we were going, or where we were.

I didn't see anyone that I knew. I had been in English class, so given that I was abruptly transferred into bonds aboard some bare bones airplane, it stood to reason that perhaps others from my class had been too. The other boys and girls were around my age, but they didn't look like they went to school in Bumblefuck, Kansas. Part of it was the hairstyles, which over-represented mohawks and bright colors. But more than that it was the hard looks on most of their faces, a defiance that I associated more with terrorists on television than high-schoolers.

A man in army fatigues walked down the middle aisle of the plane, between the two lines of knees. He stopped just in front of me, which allowed me a good look at him. He was cleanly shaved and grey at the temples, with a scar that ran from the bottom of his chin up to his nose. His eyes were filled with an intense, burning hatred as he looked at us, which was accentuated by the way he grit his teeth.

"Rebels. Traitors. Murderers. Dissidents. Thieves. You are the scum that has floated up to the surface. A less civilized society would have put you to the sword the moment you were caught. We believe in our ideals though. Strength through adversity, righteousness through struggle. If you survive, you will be stronger for it. Make it to the outpost, and a place in the Host is waiting for you, your crimes forgiven."

With that he walked away. I had questions, but I couldn't raise my hand and my attempt at yelling just came out as a gurgle around the gag in my mouth. None of what he'd said sounded comforting. I'd already been flush with bewilderment, but now fear had finally added itself to the mix.

The boy across from me was shaking his head from side to side. He'd been doing it for a while, but he'd started speeding up. With a quick jerk he hooked part of his gag on a bit of metal surrounding his neck and pulled it off completely. He showed no satisfaction at that, instead opting to start speaking.

"We're allowed to cooperate," he shouted. "We stand a better chance of survival if it's us against them instead of everyone for themselves. We can --"

He was drowned out by the airplane opening up its belly. A mile below us were farmlands in the half-light of an overcast day. I struggled against my restraints and prayed that I would wake up, even though I knew in my heart that this wasn't a dream. My feet were dangling into the open sky now.

Some loud mechanism was making a clank. I still couldn't move my head much, but in my periphery I could see people dropping down into the sky below us. As the sequence got closer to me, I saw that none of them were wearing anything resembling a parachute. What the army guy had said was ringing in my ear: strength through adversity. That seemed like the kind of thing you might say right before you murder someone.

Then the mechanisms released me and I fell, free of restraints.

The wind rushed past me. My stomach lurched at the feeling of weightlessness. I spread myself out, almost instinctively, trying to brace myself against the wind. I had let out a scream when I'd first started falling, but stopped when the wind started trying to force its way up my open mouth. I was going to die, just like all the others, and there was nothing that I could do to stop it. From this height, even an impact against water was sure to be as hard as against concrete.

I looked to the others that were falling, hoping that one of them had a solution.

Instead, I saw a murder. A boy with a pink mohawk had swooped down to collide with a girl. He struggled against her, holding onto her with one hand and a leg wrapped around her, and with the other hand pushing her chin up. When he applied sudden force, her neck snapped, and he detached himself from her as her lifeless body twisted and tumbled toward the ground.

To my horror, I realized that he was coming my way. I had no idea how to maneuver while skydiving, short of "spread out to slow down, put your hands to your sides to go fast". Given how fast the mohawked murderer was coming toward me, I elected to go fast and pinned my arms to my side. It took a few seconds to stop myself from spinning, but I certainly was going faster.

That meant that the ground was coming up towards me at a frankly alarming rate. I must have hit terminal velocity fairly quickly, but the perception of speed was greater the closer the ground got. I tried to think about why that was, and got as far as wondering whether it had to do with the viewing angle before deciding that I didn't really want to spend the last moments of my life trying to recreate physics knowledge from base principles.

When I looked back behind me, the pink-haired guy was gone. I could only see a few of the others in the air, as well as a few tumbling bodies that I assumed must be corpses.

The ground had gotten really close, close enough that I could start to make things out beyond just the irregular grid of farmland and a smattering of houses. To my left was a vast cloud so close to the ground that it must have been fog, but in the general area where my body was going to splatter was what looked like a gas station. There were no cars around, but there were people; they were looking up toward me with glowing red eyes. I might have found that ominous if it weren't for the whole imminent death thing. I closed my eyes as my heart hammered away in my chest. As deaths went, at least it would be fast.

I kept my eyes screwed shut, right up until the point where I realized the wind was dying down. When I looked around, I saw that death wasn't quite so imminent as I had thought; I was slowing down. There was a glowing rune on my right hand which I would have sworn wasn't there five seconds ago. By the time I finally got to grips with the fact that perhaps I hadn't been thrown out of the plane to my death, I was sliding down from the sky at a rather sedate pace. I was going to land maybe a hundred yards from the gas station in a big field. Four of the red-eyed people were nearby, but they were moving toward a girl who had already touched down. I could see now that these people had pallid skin and torn clothes, which, along with their shuffling gait, screamed ‘zombies’ in ten foot high neon letters.

As soon as my feet touched the ground, I heard a pleasant chime and words popped up in front of me.

Achievement Unlocked: Down, But Not Out …

I blinked twice and the message vanished. I had no idea what the hell that was about, but I had bigger things to worry about, like the zombie shuffling toward me. I had on black jeans, white sneakers, a leather belt, and a dull gray T-shirt. There was nothing I could use to fight it with, but I wasn’t about to try, given how slow the zombie was shuffling toward me. (I also briefly wondered who the hell had dressed me, since black jeans weren’t my thing and I never wore a belt.)

I heard a scream of “Get the fuck off me!” from over to my left. I turned to look at the girl I’d seen from above, careful to keep the zombie near me within my eyeline. The girl had somehow gotten surrounded. Her eyes caught mine and she yelled to me, “Help me!” There was something indignant about the way she said it, like she was offended that I wasn’t doing anything.

I hesitated, and when I did, one of the zombies lunged toward her, moving surprisingly fast. She pulled away from it, but I could see that her shoulder was bleeding.

I started running. Not toward her, but away, steering clear of the zombie that was next to me. I had no weapon to speak of and I had only managed an orange belt in middle school karate, which is what they hand out to basically anyone who sticks with it a few weeks. I could hear the girl screaming, and I wasn’t sure whether it was at me or the zombies around her. Then her scream was cut off.

More words appeared in front of me. I looked at them more closely this time, though I didn’t stop running. The words moved with my eyes, like a heads-up display. They were just out of the center of my vision, but stayed in focus no matter what I was doing with my eyes. The words didn’t make me feel too good.

New Affliction: Cowardice!

I made my way toward the gas station, running at a jog and trying to conserve my energy. There were no zombies near it, and no people either. It would have been hard for me to forget that I’d seen someone get murdered in the air. I had blinked away the message calling me a coward, but I could feel my cheeks flushing with anger the more I thought about it. I had seen someone fucking die and I was supposed to just throw myself into a melee to help someone I didn’t even know? That wasn’t cowardice, that was just common sense.

Just before I got to the gas station, another message popped up.

Skill unlocked: Athletics!

I didn’t know what that meant either, not in this context, so I double-blinked it away and looked at the gas station, or at least at what I had thought was a gas station. Up close, it was clear that I was wrong. It had some of the hallmarks of Midwest gas stations, like the cheap cinder block construction and the unadorned metal doors. Where there should have been gas pumps, there were instead black shards of obsidian jutting up from the pavement. If they hadn’t been surrounded by cheap concrete curbs, or so evenly spread apart with metal trash bins between them, I might have thought that they had sprung up from the ground.

There were other incongruous notes, like the stack of clear barrels sitting out front, or the signs that showed advertisements for fresh frongal legs. That word, ‘frongal’ tickled at my mind, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

The road running by the building looked like normal asphalt, with a double yellow line down the middle. There were power lines running alongside the road and cars sitting in the parking lot, though there was something off about the shape of the cars, not just their 1950s style but something having to do with the way the hoods swelled up.

All of it was in a total state of disrepair; the grass I’d been moving through was two feet high and there were weeds surrounding the building where they’d managed to grow up between the cracks in the sidewalk. The building itself was covered in grime and two of the windows were busted out, with shards of glass visible on the ground.

I stood where I was, trying to work things out.

“Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” I muttered to myself. That had always been my dad’s thing; he said it whenever we went on a trip and crossed state lines.

My plan had been to get to the gas station and … well, I didn’t know what. Gas stations had people, food, phones, and transportation. If this thing wasn’t a gas station, I had some hope that wherever I was it was a proxy of one, but that didn’t help the fact that it was completely rundown and deserted. My gut was telling me that if I went inside I would find spoiled food or ransacked shelves, with no power to speak of and a phone that was non-functional. My gut also told me that if I went in there, I’d be easily cornered by anyone - or anything - that came after me.

My heartbeat was starting to slow down. The zombies that I had left behind were still shuffling towards me, and there were others out there, further away, which were visible mostly by the red pinpricks of their eyes. I looked at the building that was not-quite-a-gas-station and tried to steel myself. If nothing else, maybe there would be a weapon inside, or something I could use as one. I jogged forward and peered in through the busted out window.

The bad news was that it was almost exactly as I had feared. The shelves were almost entirely bare of supplies and the foul smell coming from the place seemed to say, “Hey, all this food is rotten and gross”. I still held out a little bit of hope that I would be able to find something in a can that hadn’t gone bad, assuming that wherever I was actually had things in cans. This whole world I seemed to have (literally) landed in was just one step to the left of reality as I knew it. About 90% of it could have been straight out of Bumblefuck, Kansas, if everyone had just gotten up and left for a few years, but that last 10%, like the red-eyed zombies and black crystal shards … well, they kept sending a chill up my spine.

When I slipped into the gas station, I saw a guy’s feet sticking out from behind one of the shelves. I almost yelped in surprise, but managed to hold it back. Now, my big fear was that this guy was going to rise as a zombie, or that I would round the corner to find something chowing down on his body, both of which I considered a real possibility. Another part of me thought that this was my best chance to get either a weapon or some answers. I had already checked my own pockets and found them empty. I picked up an empty rack for greeting cards, raised it over my head like a bat, and stalked forward.

Skill unlocked: Improvised Weapons!

The sound that accompanied the appearance of the text did make me yelp in surprise. I’ll admit that I was a little keyed up. Just after that though, I saw the foot twitch.

I’d always been far at the ‘fight’ end of the ‘flight or fight’ spectrum. I don’t say that because I want to sound tough, more to excuse the fact that my dumb ass ran right around the corner and started beating the life out of the corpse on the floor, which all things considered was probably not what I would call smart. I hit him twice on the head before the rack partly broke, then two more times until it fell apart completely.

Skill increased: Improvised Weapons lvl 1!

The corpse was still moving, slowly crawling to its feet. I glimpsed a handle beneath its torso and grabbed for it; to my surprised pleasure I found I was holding what looked to be a rusted machete.

Skill unlocked: One-handed Weapons!

I blinked away the message as I brought the machete down on the zombie, just as it twisted its head around to look at me with glowing red eyes and a slack expression. The machete hit him right in the forehead, with my weight entirely behind it. I heard a crack of the skull splitting --

Critical hit!

Skill increased: One-handed Weapons lvl 1!

-- and the machete wedged itself halfway down his face, embedded between his glowing red eyes.

If there had been any justice in the world, that would have been when he stopped moving. His red eyes would have faded like at the end of Terminator , and he would have slumped back down onto the floor. Instead, he lurched toward me, opening his mouth. The only thing that saved me from getting bit (since my reflexes were essentially non-functional) was the fact that I was still holding the machete and it was still halfway through his head. That was enough to keep him at bay.

When I brought up a foot to kick him backward, a message came up telling me something about unarmed combat, and I put my full weight behind my foot to push him backward while keeping a firm grip on the machete. The machete came out of his head with a wet sucking sound and copious amounts of dark red blood, while the zombie tumbled backward and fell into a pile of garbage. He was back on his feet surprisingly fast though, and stared at me with his glowing red eyes, not seeming to mind the empty air between them.

That was how you killed zombies, wasn’t it? All the comics and movies I’d seen had been clear on that score, destroying the head was the only way to be sure, because they could keep coming if you did anything else. If that wasn’t how this guy was going to die though, what was I supposed to do?

I backed away from him as he shuffled forward. A quick glance out the window showed that more zombies were near me than before, though not so close that I couldn’t make a run for it. I looked back at Split-Face and tightened my grip on my machete. I wasn’t dumb enough to think that I could take all these zombies on without making a mistake, but if it came to it I needed to know what it took to kill one. My heart was beating like crazy in my chest, but I steeled myself.

The crazy messages that kept popping up were like something out of a videogame, that much I had noticed. Maybe that was why I’d been so certain that an axe to the head was going to kill Mr. Split-Face. But that didn’t work . So if I were playing a game, and literally cleaving someone’s head in half didn’t kill him, what would I do? Well, that was a sign that the designer was trying to be a clever little shit by subverting the expectations of the player. Come to think of it, I had done that in a D&D session once, a first level dungeon crawl.

Split-Face was still coming toward me and I was thinking about D&D for some stupid reason. What had I done, when I’d made the zombies’ heads irrelevant? I’d moved their weak point to their heart, that was it. And I’d given them glowing red eyes, just to have some descriptive flair.

Holy shit.

I aimed my machete at Split-Face’s heart, and I was just in time because he lunged at me a split second later, spearing himself straight through the chest. He stopped moving almost instantly and slumped to the floor with my machete still piercing him. That was when his red eyes finally faded to a milky white.

Skill increased: One-handed Weapons lvl 2!

Zombie defeated!

Achievement Unlocked: Rambo

Level up!

That last message came with a sensation that I can only describe as orgasmic. Golden light burst forward from me in a wave that kicked up wind and I briefly lifted up off my feet. It was like someone had jabbed a live wire directly into the pleasure center of my brain.

It was over in less than a second and left me trembling afterward.

“Did I just level up?” I asked the empty air. None of what had happened since I had found myself on that plane had much sense, but what I was seeing the outlines of was so weird that it almost started to make a bit of sense.

First, I was in a game, or at least something that resembled a game.

Second, that game had elements that I personally had created. It wasn’t just the red-eyed zombie variants that you had to stab through the heart, I was pretty sure that I remembered those black crystals out front. I’d called them the blackthornes, and they were used to power an ancient necropolis. Frongals I remembered too, they were giant frogs that people raised and slaughtered like pigs.

Naturally that just raised further questions. I closed my eyes for a moment and sighed, and that was when I saw my character sheet.


2 POW 1 Unarmed Combat 2 One-handed Weapons 0 Two-handed Weapons 1 Improvised Weapons
2 SPD 0 Thrown Weapons 0 Dual Wield 0 Pistols 0 Bows
2 END 0 Rifles 0 Shotguns 0 Parry 0 Athletics

2 CUN 0 Dodge 0 Engineering 0 Alchemy 0 Smithing
2 KNO 0 Woodworking 0 Horticulture 0 Livestock 0 Music
2 WIS 0 Art 0 Blood Magic 0 Bone Magic 0 Gem Magic

2 CHA 0 Gold Magic 0 Water Magic 0 Steel Magic 0 Velocity Magic
2 INS 0 Revision Magic 0 Skin Magic 0 Essentialism 0 Library Magic
2 POI 0 Wards 0 Language 0 Flattery 0 Comedy
0 LUK 0 Romance 0 Intimidation 0 Deception 0 Spirit

At that moment, 0 Luck sounded about right.

Chapter Text

The character sheet appeared whenever I closed my eyes for three seconds. That’s not me being casual with my language, I sat there and timed it after the first time it came up. It was like the messages I’d been seeing that flashed up into my field of view to inform me of achievements, skill unlocks, and things of that nature. No matter where I turned while my eyes were closed, the whole character sheet stayed in focus. If I moved my eyes to the sides, it switched to mostly blank ‘pages’ with nothing more than empty panes and the occasional title like “Virtues”, “Companions”, “Spells Known”, and things of that nature. I did eventually find one that said “Afflictions” which had “Cowardice” listed, but it didn’t seem like that actually did anything, or at least it didn't have a tooltip. Somewhat surprisingly, there was no inventory, though there was a pretty pointless page that gave me a physical description of myself. The only information of note there was that I was level 2, which I’d already guessed.

(I won’t belabor my physical description. My friend Greg had once said that I looked like someone had chosen ‘default’ for every option in the character creator, which I’d tried to laugh at but cut kind of deep. I wasn’t handsome, I wasn’t ugly, none of my features were very prominent, my eyes were blue, my hair was brown, average build, average height … After Greg had made his comment at one of our D&D games, my nickname had been ‘default’ for a while, at least until I stopped pretending to find it funny, and even after that my friends would use similar lines to trash talk me, saying that I was “the most generic man alive”, “a white bread with skim milk motherfucker”, or “the human equivalent of vanilla ice cream”. Not that I was any less of an asshole to them.)

I opened my eyes and looked around the gas station, then to the zombies out front. I judged that they were far enough away that I didn’t need to worry about them quite yet and closed my eyes, even though a part of me (probably my WIS) was saying that it was a really bad idea to just stand there not looking out. I did it anyway; I wanted some answers.

The problem, so far as I could see it, was that this wasn’t a system that I was familiar with. You might think that’s hubris talking, as though I thought I'd have been just fine if the character sheet had been for 5th edition D&D, but at least it would have been a start. 5th is harder to munchkin than Pathfinder, but at least I have a handle on the ins and outs of it. That would have been a huge advantage. I’d thought that on first glance, and thought it even more when I discovered that looking at the abbreviations for long enough brought up tooltips. (Tooltips inside my head!)

There were abilities and skills, which were familiar enough, though if there were thirteen abilities in total that seemed like a bit much. There were four rows of ten, for forty skills in total. They apparently needed to be unlocked before they could rank up. Thirty-six skills were still greyed out, their names just on the other side of readable no matter how hard I squinted at them. If this game was like other games, then I could guess at what some of the missing skills would be …

But there were risks there. I opened my eyes and looked out at the zombies, with their glowing red eyes. The zombies were an idea I’d had, one that I’d presented to my friends in a D&D session, and here they were come to life. I’d put myself at risk thinking that ol’ Mr. Split-Face (he of the slick puddle of viscera on the floor) was going to be like any old zombie I’d seen in TV or movies. If I had been a game designer (and I did consider myself one, in a way, since I did most of our DMIng) then I would have made a zombie like that, placed right at the game’s start, as a way of giving a warning. “You cannot depend on your knowledge of other games,” Mr. Split-Face seemed to say.

I picked the machete up out of the zombie’s body, dislodging it from his heart. The smell hit me in a wave and made me want to puke, but I just barely managed to force a lump of something back down my throat. I went back to the front area of the store, stepping warily and trying not to make a sound. A quick look at the coolers in back showed them in a total state of decay. I didn’t think I would find anything of value in them, nor did I think that my stomach could survive the assault of that stench. Mostly, I wanted to get out of here, except that the fields outside and the long empty road were not exactly as much “out of here” as I might have liked. I tried to remember what the military guy on the plane had said, but came up blank.

I closed my eyes again and looked at what I was starting to think of as my eyelid menu. There was a small, glowing ‘+2’ in the upper right, just outside the character sheet proper. When I looked at it for a second, the character sheet rippled and changed, expanding slightly to allow for some plus and minus signs to surround all the ability numbers. That part was somewhat comfortable to me; I had increased in level, so I had some points to distribute.

I had no idea where to start though. If Rule 1 was “don’t depend on game design to exactly match other games” then Rule 2 was “don’t depend on game design to be good”. I had played enough poorly thought-out games to know that sometimes there were broken abilities and dump stats, but just knowing that systems were sometimes flawed wasn’t enough to know where those flaws were. All I could do was stare at the character sheet and make some guesses.

A third of the abilities were social; those I dismissed out of hand, since the zombies were my main concern at the moment. A third were mental; those I reluctantly decided against, since they were usually good for doing magic, which I hadn’t unlocked, and if the “linear fighters, quadratic wizards” rule applied then I was liable to get my ass handed to me before I could become powerful. That left everything under PHY. Curiously, I could increase either PHY or the three abilities it was tied to, POW, SPD, and END. The tooltips gave me no indication of what the underlying mathematical reality was.

When I tried to put a point in PHY, I saw them both vanish, moving it up by one, which cascaded to the other three abilities and increased those by one as well. Ah . That seemed like a pretty good deal to me; I was basically getting double the number of points, or maybe only half again if PHY didn’t actually do anything on its own. If the game design were sensible, then this was probably a generalist/specialist trade-off, but in order to meet the immediate (and largely unknown) problems I was facing, a generalist approach was probably right.

When I opened my eyes, the zombies had gotten worryingly close. I gripped my machete and stepped out of the gas station’s front door. The zombies were slow , slow enough that I could out-walk them, but the trick was that they would just keep walking, and trying to kill them wasn’t without its risks, especially if they could infect a person with a scratch or bite.

(If I was actually trapped in a game, then basic game design dictated that the game not kill players over something that they didn’t know and couldn’t find out. Of course, Rule 2 was that I couldn’t depend on good game design, and there were some genres or schools of thought where it would be acceptable, like in Call of Cthulhu where deadly wasting sickness was par for the course. Still, if it had been me, I would have had the source of the zombies be something like a dread necromancer putting all his effort into sustaining this undead militia, or some intriguing bit of technobabble like a necrotic field effect.)

There were about thirty of them in all. The closest was twenty feet away. I walked up slowly, cautiously with my machete held in front of me. I remembered reading that stabbing things in the heart was surprisingly difficult, because you had to have your blade dodge both the sternum and the ribs. Worse, machetes were made for getting a lot of power behind a swing. Trying to pierce something with one was like trying to make a hole with a meat cleaver. The basic purpose of a machete was cutting down jungle undergrowth or sugar cane, not poking holes in hearts.

(I didn’t mention it before, but can I say how utter bullshit it is that I only had a 2 in KNO? I wasn’t terribly athletic, I wasn’t great in social situations, and I wouldn’t have even called myself that smart, but dammit, I had drunk knowledge from Wikipedia like I was dying of thirst and I’d read a mountain of books.)

I lined up my strike and swung for the zombie’s neck. She lurched forward right as I did made my attack, and I ended up hitting her in the shoulder instead. I had to push her away from me in order to prevent her from getting her hands on me, and when I did my fingers touched surprisingly warm flesh. It was like pressing my hand against a feverish forehead. I hacked at the zombie again, this time striking her in the collar bone. The crack of bone made me wince, but I reared back for another swing. My arm briefly blocked my view for just long enough that the zombie had time to move. I ducked out of the way of her hand, then backed up to give myself some room.

Skill Unlocked: Dodge!

Well, I couldn’t say that one was too much of a surprise. I swung at the zombie again, hitting her in the temple this time, and one of her red eyes flickered out like a light. I wasn’t sure quite what that meant; when I had made my own version of these zombies, their eyes were nothing special and the glowing effect was purely cosmetic.

The other zombies were getting closer to us, so I attacked again, resolving to turn tail and run if this didn’t do anything. My machete came down from up high in a double-handed overhead swing with all my power behind it and hit right at the place where I had broken her collar bone. There were two distinct wet cracks as the machete cut its way through ribs and then the light in her other eye went out. I managed to hold onto my machete as she slumped to the ground.

Skill increased: One-handed Weapons lvl 3!

Zombie defeated!

I had hoped to kill a few more before leaving, mostly to level up, but they were clustered too closely together now, and I wanted to escape before things got dicey. I moved away from the center mass of the crowd and slipped through them without any problem, then got on the road and started walking at a brisk pace.

The thing was, I didn’t actually know whether the stats I could see written on my eyelids actually did anything. When I’d swung the machete I hadn’t felt any better at it at level two than level zero, and there was no clear relationship between that number and the outcome, at least not to me (with the heady rush of leveling up being the one exception). That meant that staying in one place and trying to kill relatively easily killed things was still too much of a gamble, at least until I learned more.

I’d had a choice when I’d gotten to the road, and I had decided to go toward the distant buildings rather than the flat, seemingly endless plains. It was overcast, so I couldn’t see the sun, and without that I had no idea which direction I was going. I had never really had much experience outdoors. Maybe if I had, I would have been able to find directions without the sun to guide me. There was something having to do with moss, I remembered, but I couldn’t recall what it was. It wasn’t really like directions would help anyway, not when I had no idea what kind of world this was.

I tried to keep a steady pace to my walking, fast enough that I would be able to get somewhere, but slow enough that I wouldn’t get tired. Oh, and the zombies were still following me, as I could see by the veritable field of red eyes behind me. They were slow, but if they kept on me I was going to have to find somewhere to hole up in order to sleep. They didn’t seem to be very strong, though I’d thought I’d seen a few bursts of speed and power from them, like when Split-Face had stood up in the gas station or when they did their lunges. A door might hold them back, but for long enough that I would be able to sleep? I’d need an exit strategy on top of that. The military guy had said to get to the outpost, which seemed like a reasonable goal (and the start of a quest) but he hadn’t said what direction it was in or how far away. Either way, I didn’t think I would be able to get there before I needed sleep, so finding a safe place to hole up was imperative.

Skill increased: Athletics lvl 1!

Right then, brisk walking apparently counted as athleticism, which was good to know. I had been waiting for that one, and I did notice a change this time. My steps became a little more sure, a little more swift, and I straightened my posture slightly. I wondered how much of that, if any, was psychological. Either way, it gave me some more information about the game system, which was welcome.

I didn’t have too much time to ruminate on that though, because I had come close enough to the crop of buildings to get a look at them. It looked like the kind of tiny town that you could find all over the Midwest in general and Kansas in specific, a place that existed mostly because there was a limit to how far farmers were willing to drive for groceries, gas, and a haircut. Three giant grain elevators dominated the town, but again there was a note of the exotic, because each had a large antenna rising up from its side, marked with floating, rotating sigils that were barely visible by the unearthly blue light they cast.

It was with a start that I saw people moving across the main road. They were running, a short-haired blonde girl in the lead and two guys with pink mohawks chasing after her. Or at least, that’s what I thought at first, until I saw the thing following them. It was a blackened creature of corpses, with eyes as large as headlights and a body so big it would had have a hard time hiding behind a gas station. It was moving far faster than the zombies had moved, slamming down its fists and dragging itself to make up for a back leg that was crooked and broken.

I was between a rock and a hard place, with the enormous necrotic monster ahead of me and the horde behind me. I didn’t think either was within my abilities, but at least if I moved on ahead there were buildings that I could hide in and maybe try to loot while the big guy was distracted.

Affliction: Cowardice lvl 2! (WIS -1, POI -1)

“How is that cowardice?” I asked, but I soon realized the answer. I’d gotten ‘Cowardice’ when I had run away from the girl getting attacked by four zombies, right when I’d landed. Here I had been presented with another girl running from both the scary guys with mohawks and a monster, and I hadn’t even spared a thought to running to her rescue. “That’s not cowardice, that’s selfishness, if anything,” I said to the air. There was no response, not that I had expected one.

I began jogging toward the town. The nearest building looked like some kind of mechanics shop; there was a large folding door by the road and while the vehicles in the parking lot were rusted out, some of them also had doors off the hinges and open hoods in a way that suggested some of the disrepair predated whatever it was that had happened here. The biggest point in its favor was that it was the closest place to hide from the Big Ol’ Corpse-Legs, which had disappeared out of my sight.

There were no zombies in sight, and a quick peek through the small window in the side door showed nothing waiting for me. With rusty machete in hand, I opened it slowly and tried my best to emulate what the SWAT teams I’d seen on TV did, sweeping the room from side to side (a technique that probably makes more sense when you have a shotgun or rifle). The room that I’d come into was some kind of waiting area, the kind that in the Midwest had uncomfortable chairs, stale coffee, and a few out-of-date magazines, all of which mingled with the smell of car guts and wheel skins to create a very specific ambiance. Here it was almost the same, but the coffee pot was replaced by a tea kettle sitting on top of a handful of rocks (though the little cups of creamer and packets of sugar were about what I was used to).

The smell was atrocious, probably because of the body. Sitting in one of those uncomfortable chairs was the corpse of one of the guys with pink mohawks. I would have been on guard, waiting for him to rise from the dead, but he had two very precisely placed dime-sized holes in him, one in the center of his forehead and the other right in the center of his chest. He was practically drenched in blood from the chest down.

I think it was only my experience hunting deer and cleaning the kills that got me through that without throwing up. It brought back the same queasy feeling I’d had one summer when I’d shot a buck in the gut and had to chase it all over the hills as it bled out, but I’d gotten through that, and I would get through this too.

I moved further into the building by the light of dirt-clouded windows, looking for anything useful, but mostly trying to make out whether the shapes I was seeing had limbs or heads, and whether the reflections of light that I saw were buttons or eyes. I kept my footsteps as quiet as possible, but it all sounded impossibly loud to me --

Skill unlocked: Deception!

The chime that came with the message caused me to tense up for a moment as my heart hammered in my chest. It had been some time since I had gotten one of those messages, enough that I had almost forgotten. I pushed the questions it raised out of my head. (Did this system use the same skill for both stealth and lying to people? What stat governed Deception, SPD or CHA? What condition had caused the unlock to trigger?) The next door, which based on my reading of the building would lead into the shop itself. I took a deep breath, slowly lowered the door handle, and pushed the door open with my foot just a crack to look inside.

Standing by a workbench, among various car parts, tools, and cans of unidentified fluids, was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.

I’m not really sure what protocol is here, in terms of prose. I mean, I don’t want to sound like a creep, so maybe I should stay as generic as possible and tell you about her dark red hair pulled back in a braid, the glacial blue of her eyes, how starkly alert she looked as she peered over the parts in front of her, or her grease-smeared clothes. Save for her eyes, I wasn’t really focused on any of that. My mind was consumed by tracing her curves, the swell of her tits in her blood-stained t-shirt, the fullness of her lips and the delicate way she had them parted -- and yeah, it was pretty fucked up that the splatter of blood on her shirt wasn’t worth rating much of a mention. I was consumed with staring at her and thinking how gorgeous she was, until I noticed that she was having a powerful effect on me, at which point different parts of my mind were given over to marveling at the sensation of being so attracted to a girl, and others were still focused on her.

Imagine that someone spent a few years studying your likes and dislikes, running through video of your every private moment, somehow surreptitiously hooking up EKGs to measure your physiological responses without you knowing. Then imagine that they sat down with that data and the best photo manipulation artists in the world and made the absolute perfect picture to cause your heart rate to spike, a jolt to run up your spine, butterflies in your stomach, and a cold sweat on your palms. Then imagine that they did this again, over and over in slight variations, until they had a full 4K 60fps 3D movie to show you. That was what it was like watching her.

(And if that analogy sounds a little bit frightening to you, then I think it did its job, because there was a part of me that was afraid of how pretty she was, a part that was angry that someone could provoke such a reaction from me, and a small, mostly unexamined part that was instantly distrustful of someone that could hijack my brain in the way she did.)

She was rooting around in the parts on the bench, occasionally turning one over. She picked up a particular one, a flat little rectangle with what appeared to be a handle. With a smooth motion she held it at arm’s length and swept it to the side until a small hole in the thing was pointed at me. That small hole was roughly the size of the ones in the dead guy out in the reception room, and even in the state I was in, I was able to peg the thing she was holding as a mostly flat, mostly vertical gun.

“Don’t move,” she said.

“Buh,” I said. I’d wanted to say ‘but’, to start some sentence, but it caught in my throat.

Skill unlocked: Romance!

(Har har game, har har.)

“Name,” she said.

Eventually some spinning gears in my mind slipped into a position to do some work, and I realized that she was asking me my name. “Joon,” I said.

“Jon?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

“No, Joon,” I said. “Short for Juniper.”

She was staring at me with her teeth set. There was a tension to the way she held herself, like a bow ready to let an arrow loose.

“Background?” she asked.

“Uh,” I said slowly, trying to play for time. I had a sneaking suspicion that this was exactly the kind of thing that POI was used for, and mine was at a whopping one point thanks to the penalty I’d taken.

“Background,” she said with a curl of her lips.

“Student,” I said. I had no idea what she wanted from me; maybe saying that my dad flew helicopters and my mom worked in a box factory would have been more helpful.

She looked me up and down, or at least as much as she could given that I was still partially obscured by the door. “Which athenaeum?” she asked.

“I, uh, I don’t know what that is,” I said. It was true when I said it, but right after a memory sparked and I recalled the term; it was a fancy term for a place of literacy and learning, taken from the name of the Greek god Athena. I’d used it in a D&D campaign before, when the party had been tracking a goblin ranger through the halls of the abandoned Athenaeum of Quills and Blood.

“Why did they put you on the plane?” she asked. I could tell that my athenaeum answer hadn’t done me any favors. Her gun was still pointed at me, which only slightly dampened my attraction.

What had the guy on the plane said? Dissidents . “I was caught distributing pamphlets,” I said, hoping against hope that she wouldn’t press me on it.

Skill increased: Deception lvl 1!

I couldn’t tell whether she believed me or not, but she lowered her gun slightly so it was pointing at my stomach instead of my chest. “Step out from behind the door,” she said. I did so, lifting my hands above my head and putting my machete on full display so she could see that I didn’t mean to be a threat. “Drop the machete,” she said. I did as she asked.

“The Fuchsia Coterie came down with us,” she said. “They have a mission in the Risen Lands, and part of that mission is putting down anyone who sees them. Ordinarily, one in one hundred survive the journey to the outpost, but the Color Riot will ensure that you don’t even have that hope … not unless we work together.”

Well, that was a pretty shockingly straightforward hook.

“I’m in,” I said. “What needs doing?”

Quest Accepted: Seven Bells for Seven Hells!

Chapter Text

“That is an XC-class soulcycle,” said the most beautiful girl in the world. The thing she was pointing at sat off to the side of the auto shop floor. It looked more or less like a motorcycle, but it had metal wheels instead of rubber and where a gas tank would normally go there was a thick glass barrel which stood completely empty. “Comfort has been picked clean and I think that’s our best chance of getting workable transportation. I can’t do it without you.”

“Two questions,” I said. “First, you haven’t given me a name.”

“That’s not a question,” she replied. “But if you’re Juniper, you can call me Cypress.”

“Second, who or what is Comfort?” I asked.

“Comfort is this town’s name, and from what I saw while I was falling, it’s the only place of note for a dozen miles,” she replied with an arched eyebrow. “You missed the giant sign?”

“I guess I was distracted by all the zombies,” I replied.

Skill unlocked: Comedy!

But apparently the humor was lost on her, because she lifted her gun back up and pointed it right at my chest.

“What did you say?” she hissed.

I swallowed hard. “We, uh, don’t say the z-word?”

She slowly lowered her gun again as her pale blue eyes searched my face. “I didn’t believe you, when you said that you were a dissident. I know that things have gotten bad, especially for the poor, but … there are still traditions worth keeping. There are still rules worth following.” Her eyes left mine as her thoughts went elsewhere.

“Uh,” I said. “Okay. I really didn’t mean anything by it. I didn’t know that calling them z-um thing like that would be a big deal.”

“That’s the whole problem,” she spat. “It’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater, assuming that there aren’t reasons.”

“No, I mean, I’m not from around here,” I said. “I’m from Bumblefuck, Kansas. The first thing I saw of this world was the inside of the plane just before we dropped. I don’t know if I was magically transported here or what, but I’m not even from this world.”

Achievement Unlocked: Full Disclosure

Cypress looked me up and down again, which gave me more time to think about how pretty she was, not that I needed it. I was starting to get annoyed with myself, but that didn’t really stop me.

“I see,” she finally said. “You’ve been dream-skewered.”

“Uh … what?” I asked.

“It’s okay,” she said. “We can still make it out of this and I can get you the help that you need.” She spoke slowly, as if to a child.

“I’m not dream-skewered,” I replied. “I’m from a place called Earth.”

Cypress nodded. “I know it,” she said. “It has seven continents, two large oceans, and it’s a spinning globe with ice at the top or bottom. Right?”

I nodded, slowly.

“That’s the dream that skewers,” she said. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “All thoughts and memories wiped away in an instant, replaced by the dream of Earth and a different life there. It’s a fate only slightly better than death.” She shook her head. “You can still help. We still need the soulcycle up and running so we can escape the Coterie. It’s just going to make things a little bit more difficult.”

I shook my head. “No, I’m sorry, I need to ... “ I paused and tried to gather my thoughts. “I need more. How many dream-skewered are there? Do they all have delusions of being the one to have thought up this place? Do they all see the game overlay? Do they level up like me?”

She bit her lip. There was something new behind her pale blue eyes, a softer emotion. “There have been perhaps a thousand of the dream-skewered,” she said. “They are cared for and studied at the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny. To my knowledge, their only delusions are of their lives lived on Earth. You think that you created Aerb?”

Aerb. That was exactly the sort of laziness that I would have shown if a player had asked me the name of the world and I hadn’t had one available. “Parts of this world look similar to ideas that I had come up with back on Earth,” I said. I didn’t know the full scope yet, but there were about four or five points of similarity so far, and I had only seen a very small fraction of the world. Please, please don’t have Fel Seed.

Cypress frowned. It was a pretty frown. “How narcissistic,” she said. “Nothing against you, obviously, I’m just thinking about it in the context of the delusion. The interesting thing about the dream-skewered is that their records of Earth match up, even if they haven’t had communication with each other. But for you to work elements of this world into your delusion … if, when we get out of here, you’ll have to consult with the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny.”

Quest Accepted: Straddling Worlds!

I’d done nothing of the sort, but I was starting to realize that accuracy of language was not the game layer’s strong suit.

“What about the game overlay?” I asked. She gave me a questioning look. “There are words that appear over my field of view,” I said.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” she said. She looked toward the motorcycle - the soulcycle, I guess she’d called it. “Whatever is wrong with you … it has to wait. We’re safe here, I think, so long as the Coterie doesn’t attack en masse, but that’s only a matter of time. We need damned souls to fuel the soulcycle.” She walked over to the work bench. I noted that she still held her gun in one delicate hand. She picked up a small jar with thick glass walls, put a long spike in it, then handed it to me. Our fingers touched briefly.

“Have you ever used one of -- no, sorry, your memories are gone, of course you wouldn’t remember if you had. Stab the spike into the heart or head of a corpse, it’s spiraled to draw the soul out. If you see someone die, you have thirty minutes to collect before the soul leaves the body. If their heart is still intact, you have maybe three minutes until they rise as one of the undead, but the soul is still retrievable so long as they’re put down before the half hour is up.” She went back to the bench and picked up a glass stopper. “Keep the jar sealed when there are souls within it, they’ll dissipate otherwise. We’ll need seven, I think, to get where we’re going.”

Seven Bells for Seven Hells. That was the first thing that really succeeded in affecting my impression of Cypress. She had killed the guy in the waiting room, I was almost certain of that, but that didn’t really bother me. She had pointed a gun at, variously, my face, throat, groin, stomach, and chest, but a defensive posture was something to be admired in a place like this. Destroying souls in order to fuel a motorcycle that would get us out of here … well, that was pretty metal, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.

“Wait, is there an afterlife?” I asked.

Cypress’ lips formed a thin line as she looked at me. “I was serious when I said that we don’t have much time, Joon.” The sound of my name leaving her lips sent a shiver down my spine.

“Alright,” I said. “You want me to go out and scavenge. I can do that.” I looked at her gun, which she was still holding loosely by her side. “I would probably fare better if I didn’t have to go into melee.”

To my surprise, Cypress handed me her pistol. My surprise must have been evident on my face, because she gestured to the worktable. “I’ll build another,” she said.

Skill unlocked: Pistols!

I looked down at the gun in my hand. The boxy part had roughly the proportions of a deck of playing cards, but slightly bigger and set on edge. A rubber grip with a trigger was attached to it; it wasn’t a normal trigger you’d pull with your finger, but instead the kind of thing you’d find on a spray bottle, where the trigger extended down the length of the handle and was squeezed with all the fingers of the hand. I looked at the hole in the boxy part, but couldn’t see inside. There was no obvious mechanism for feeding ammo into it.

I had a bunch of questions for Cypress, but I worried that she would think they were dumb. Questions like, how the fuck did you build a gun in the hour or so we’d been here? Or, what does this gun even shoot? Or, isn’t this gun going to be difficult to shoot given that you have to squeeze your entire hand? And, given that, how did you manage to shoot a guy in the center of his head with this thing? She knew that I knew nothing about this world though, and had offered me the gun anyway, without deeper explanations, so I figured asking would just get her even more exasperated with me and wasn’t likely to get answers.

“Seven souls,” I said. “I’ll be back when I have them.”

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 0!

I went out the way I had come, back through the dark hallway and into the reception area. The corpse was still sitting there, smelling up the place. I took a moment to take stock of my situation.

Theories as to What the Frick is Going On

  1. Dream theory: I’m either dreaming, in a coma, hallucinating, or having a mental break. This doesn’t feel like a dream, and I can’t really do anything about it if this theory is true, so ... noted but discarded.
  2. Simulation theory: I’m playing a game of some kind, with hyper-realistic visuals, full haptics, smells and tastes, in a world custom-made from elements of my own imagination. That explains the things that have been coming on-screen, plus the near-orgasmic level up, plus how someone as hot as Cypress (Amaryllis?) could possibly exist. It does not, however, bridge the gap between fifth period English class and sitting on the plane … in what was in retrospect, obviously a cutscene. Plus all the tech needed to do an in-depth, personalized simulation like this would basically require the Singularity to have happened.
  3. Actuality theory: This place exists, and I got here through hitherto unknown magic or technology, which slammed me into a body that was identical to my own (as confirmed by a check of the freckles on my arm). That didn’t explain the game overlay in the slightest.
  4. Dream-skewer theory: I was actually a guy from Aerb who was suffering from delusions that he was from a place called Earth, complete with memories of my pet hamster Mildew, the phone number of a Chinese takeout place in Bumblefuck, Kansas called the Great Wall, the time my grandmother had chastised me for using the salad fork during dinner, hundreds of little tiny things like that, along with all the big ones. Cypress had said that happened before, so maybe, but it didn’t explain the game overlay either.

Of course, the truth could be a mixing and matching of some of those theories. Anyway, the real question wasn’t so much what I believed to be true, but how I would change what I was doing on the basis of the possibilities. I considered the chance of Aerb being a dream fairly high, but that wasn’t particularly actionable. None of it was, frankly. If it was a game, the rules were opaque, and whether I was from Earth or Aerb didn’t immediately matter except in the metaphysical sense. It had been awhile since I’d looked at Maslow’s hierarchy, but I was fairly certain that metaphysics was fairly high up it, above more basic things like “not getting killed by zombies”.

Part of taking stock meant closing my eyes and looking at my character sheet. It had filled out a little bit more as I had unlocked more skills, but I was a little bit worried about the negatives to WIS and POI, which left both of them at a single point each. The ‘Cowardice’ thing seemed progressive, which meant that if I got hit with it again, I risked falling to zero on both of them. In various editions of D&D, hitting zero in any stat was special; you didn’t just suck at that thing, you became paralyzed, fell into a coma, or died depending on which one it was. Now, I didn’t know whether that would be the case here, but given that death was on the line I couldn’t risk it, especially since something like paralysis or coma would effectively be death.

But I’d gotten the two levels of ‘Cowardice’ affliction for what I thought were self-motivated but completely rational decisions. I’d been scared when I’d seen that girl surrounded by zombies (and the memory of her bones cracking made me wince) but I didn’t think that was what had motivated me to run. The problem was, if I was going to get punished by the game layer for not running in to be a big damned hero, then maybe the calculus slid the other way. If you asked me, running into a fight you didn’t think you could win solely because you were worried you would be punished with death didn’t exactly scream courageous.

I was also somewhat chagrined that offering to help Cypress by charging into danger wasn’t considered heroic enough to lose at least a level of ‘Cowardice’, but I figured I’d have more of a right to gripe when I had actually done something, instead of just sitting in the waiting room with a corpse. Speaking of which …

I went up to the body. Pink mohawk aside, he was dressed down, with light brown pants made of some kind of canvas and a plain, unadorned t-shirt. I took the small glass jar from out of my pocket (which it sat awkwardly in, like carrying around a can of pop), pulled the spike out from it, and approached slowly. I wasn’t quite sure how long he had been dead, but the blood hadn’t coagulated yet, which made me hopeful. I also wasn’t sure on the procedure, but I stuck the spike in his chest hole, trying to keep my fingers from touching him while I pushed it in. The head of the spike was almost touching his blood-soaked shirt when it began glowing a soft, pale green. I watched it, not knowing what would happen. Within the space of half a second, a ball of light had formed, which unceremoniously dropped down. I managed to catch it in the glass jar before it could land on the corpse’s bloody lap.

Quest Progress: Seven Bells for Seven Hells, 1/7

The instant feedback was welcome. I pulled the now-dormant nail out of the corpse, wiped it off on a part of his shirt that was relatively untouched, stuck the spike in the jar, sealed it up, and let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. I had apparently just captured someone’s soul.

I went to the door, gun in hand and machete dangling from my side. The coast looked clear, but in a videogame this would have been a perfect place for a jump scare. I pushed the door open with my foot and went out into the oppressively gray sky overhead.

This, then, was the town of Comfort. I’d been paying more attention to the enormous monster than to the buildings, and after it was out of sight I was focused on the auto shop. Now that I was paying more attention, I saw something I’d missed: half the buildings were made of cobblestone, with thatched roofs. That fact hadn’t even registered with me. I wasn’t sure whether I had mistaken them for something else or simply not processed them, but it was another reminder that this wasn’t Kansas.

Now then, in a videogame, usually when some NPC gives the player what’s clearly a main story quest, the first thing any right-thinking player does is ignore it completely. Videogames basically trained gamers for it; no matter how many mouth noises the NPC made about the desperate urgency of the task, we knew that it wasn’t really urgent, not unless there was a countdown timer on the screen, and maybe not even then. It was considered poor game design to punish people for taking the time to see the sights and explore the world.

In tabletop RPGs, it sort of depended on what kind of DM you had. Myself, I wasn’t afraid to bring down the hammer hard if the players didn’t react to the word ‘urgent’ with actual urgency. To my way of thinking, if your words of warning meant nothing, then you’d shot suspension of disbelief in the foot. Of course, in a tabletop game it was usually easy enough to route to a different plot point if the village burned down, and I understood that game designers didn’t exactly have the luxury of rewriting the plot around every failure, but that was part of what I felt made tabletop games so much better.

So yes, there was a part of me that was screaming that the appropriate reaction to being in a game was to run back to the area with zombies and level grind until I was a badass so I could steamroll through the town of Comfort. But if this place was on some level influenced or inspired by my thoughts and ideas, then didn’t it become more likely that the game layer would agree with my opinions?

I was stuck by the door awhile, thinking about this instead of moving, paralyzed not by a precipitous drop in WIS, but by my own indecision and over-thinking. Who knows, maybe I might have sat there forever if two guys with pink hair hadn’t crept around the corner.

They started moving almost as soon as I spotted them, both keeping low to the ground and behind whatever cover they could find. I aimed my pistol at them, holding it with both hands. I wished that I had spent some time in the auto shop practicing instead of thinking myself dizzy or fawning over Cypress. One had a length of pipe, while the other, for whatever reason, was carrying a sword. I took aim at the one with the pipe as he scurried between cars -- my first time ever aiming a real gun at another person -- and squeezed the trigger.

The pistol made a little thwip sound, but there was no flash of light like I had expected and the recoil was like being pushed with a feather. At first I thought something had gone wrong with it, but the guy I had aimed at stumbled slightly and when he got behind a car I noticed blood where he’d been.

“Void tunneler!” he called out. “Fuck!”

Naturally, the words meant nothing to me. I carefully watched the cars for movement, which was how I just barely had time to duck out of the way of a brick thrown straight at my head.

Skill increased: Dodge lvl 1!

The guy with the sword wasted no time at all in jumping over the hood of the car he’d been hiding behind and trying to rush me. It might have worked if the brick had hit me, but I was able to recover quickly enough to point the gun at him and squeeze the trigger. Another little thwip and blood started pouring from his chest, but while he was staggered, he was still coming toward me. I squeezed the trigger a second time, but the pistol beeped at me.

Blood had quickly soaked sword-guy’s shirt, and I could practically see his heartbeat by the way the bloodstain was spreading in pulses. He started running toward me, heedless of his wound, and I backed up toward the auto shop, gun still held in front of me. I waited as long as I could, until he was less than five feet away from me, then shot him in the chest.

Skill increased: Pistols lvl 1!

Fuchsia Coterie minion defeated!

He toppled to the ground, dropping his sword and giving out a gurgling moan. I stepped forward and kicked the sword away from him, then turned and looked for his friend just in time to see the pipe coming down on my arm. I heard a snap of bone right when it happened ( New Affliction: Broken Bone ) and would have dropped the gun if I hadn’t been holding onto it with both hands. His follow-up hit me in the shoulder, but it wasn’t the shoulder holding the gun, and I angled the gun under my arm to shoot him point blank in the stomach.

He howled in pain, which gave me enough time to scramble back away from him. He tried charging me, the same as his friend had, but I was ready for it and kicked him square in the junk. I got a notification about unarmed combat, he collapsed on his side, and a squeeze of the pistol’s long trigger caused another thwip that made a hole just above his ear.

Skill increased: Pistols lvl 2!

Fuchsia Coterie minion defeated!

Level up!

The golden light came again, with a wind that blew errant bits of newspaper away from me, and I got that same glorious hit of ecstasy, like the opposite of getting hit in the face with a frying pan. It lifted me up, just a few inches, and when I came down the afterwash of it momentarily made me forget that my arm was broken.

At least, that was what I thought until I tried moving my arm. It felt perfectly fine, and delicate probing soon turned into rough probing as I tried to feel at where the break had happened. I closed my eyes and three seconds later was looking at my character sheet, moving my eyes to the side to switch screens until I got to the one labeled “Afflictions”. ‘Cowardice’ was still there, but ‘Broken Limb’ was nowhere to be seen.

Apparently all it took for me to heal from a broken bone was leveling up. I opened my eyes back up and breathed a sigh of relief. When I had been in 6th grade I had broken my arm doing a stupid BMX trick and spent eight weeks in a cast, which had made the summer one of the most boring in my life. Out here, I figured that a broken arm was basically a death sentence. If I hadn’t leveled up … well, it didn’t do to think about.

I looked down at the two bodies, then at the gun in my hand. It had been a clear case of self defense, but that didn’t really take the sting of guilt and horror out of it. I had no idea what the Fuchsia Coterie’s deal was, but even if they had meant to kill me I didn’t think that meant they deserved outright death. Their lifeless eyes were hard for me to look at, so I tried to focus on something else, which brought me to the glass jar still awkwardly sitting in my pocket. Right. I had a job to do.

The one with the pipe I had shot in the head, so I tended to him first. The spike was just slightly smaller than the hole my pistol made, so it was quick work to slip it in, and I was ready this time, so the soul fell into the jar without incident.

Quest Progress: Seven Bells for Seven Hells, 2/7

The guy who had been coming at me with a sword (a sword!) I had hit in the chest, and I wagered based on the angle that there was a good chance I had hit him in the heart. I stuck the spike, still red with the other one’s blood, straight into the wound and waited for a bit. Nothing immediately happened, so I grabbed my pistol, aimed it right at his forehead --

His eyes snapped open, both of them glowing with a red light. I pulled the trigger almost immediately, which opened up a dime-sized hole in his head, but I realized almost immediately afterward that these zombies didn’t care about their heads at all. I scrambled away from him and drew my machete, then realized what I was standing next to, dropped the machete, and picked up the sword instead. As soon as the zombie got to his feet I was on him, stabbing forward through his chest right next to the hole I’d put in him. His eyes winked out and he fell down, again. I watched him for a moment, breathing heavily. After a brief second to think, I picked my gun back up, went over to the one with the pipe, shot him right in the heart, then went back to collect sword guy’s soul, praying that it would still be in there after he’d turned zombie.

Quest Progress: Seven Bells for Seven Hells, 3/7

Halfway done, I thought to myself, and even though that wasn’t actually true, it made me feel better to say it.

Chapter Text

Look, you probably want to hear more about the sexy motorcycle mechanic or the punk gangs or the giant zombie creatures, but before we go too much further, I need to tell you about my D&D group. I know, I know, but so much of Aerb is a reflection of my scribblings while DMing, so there is a point to this. I’ll try my best to keep it to what’s important.

To start with, “D&D group” is probably a misnomer, because we played a lot more games than just D&D, and the group had a Ship of Theseus thing going on where people came and went until Arthur and I were the only constants, and then eventually it was just me. The only real point of continuity was the Collection. The Collection actually predated the group; when Arthur’s brother had gone off to college, he’d left Arthur with two dozen source books for various tabletop RPG systems, though about half of them were for D&D. We’d added to the Collection over time, keeping our names in the books and sometimes taking them home with us, but for the most part the Collection stayed at Arthur’s house, taking up first one, then two sagging bookshelves in his downstairs den.

Arthur was the backbone of our group. Even when he wasn’t playing a leader, he would take point and ensure that the plot kept moving forward. He was a total geek, but he knew that he was a geek, and didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought about him. When we played, he was usually the only one to put on a voice and stay in character. I was the one making the worlds, but Arthur was the one that really made them come to life, because he had this ability to just instantly invest himself in whatever was presented to him.

More than that, he could read me really well. It was my habit to get an idea in my head and start up a campaign with reckless enthusiasm, then get bored of it after a few weeks and keep chugging on without really feeling that spark of inspiration anymore. Arthur was always the one to bail me out, to say “How about we try something new next week?” without ever calling attention to the fact that I had lost the thread. The first few times he did it, I just breathed a sigh of relief, not noticing that he had been acting in my interest. He was a great guy, super busy with basically every non-athletic activity that our school offered (academic decathlon, mathletes, mock trial, yearbook, etc.), but always there for me despite that.

In the summer of our junior year, Arthur was taking his station wagon through an uncontrolled intersection when he got T-boned by a truck going twenty miles over the speed limit. He spent eleven days in a coma, then died from complications.

There were times, months later, when I would be eating lunch in the school cafeteria and turn to tell him something, only to realize my brain had been running on auto-pilot and he wasn’t there, and would never be there, and whatever dumb thing I had wanted to tell him was just going to get added to the stack of things that he was never going to experience. I’d used to think when people talked about death leaving a hole, they were talking about roles and responsibilities, but after Arthur died I started seeing it in a different light. It was more that he had become a part of me, a person so important to my life that my interactions with him were on the level of instinct. With his death, a long stretch of wiring in my brain became faulty.

Anyway. The Collection moved to my house. His parents offered to let us keep using their den, but my mom told me that it wouldn’t be good for them to have their dead son’s friends coming over twice a week (and yes, those were pretty much her exact words). We kept on playing, though it obviously wasn’t the same. Arthur had been the group’s de facto leader, but now that duty fell on my shoulders, and not only was I the one making things up and running the game, I wasn’t in the best mental state.

I’m telling you this because Aerb had features that were stolen from my D&D games, and all the stuff I was most scared of came from the post-Arthur era. Fel Seed, Nightsmoke, the borogoves, the mimsies … I sent the party into the thresher because I was angry at the world. It was more than just making the encounters too hard and the world unfair, it was beyond the fact that everything I made was grimdark, it was the hopeless despair that infused everything. I introduced villains whose evil couldn’t be undone, where their murder would just be a matter of futile revenge and the world would never be set right.

And now, I was worried I was going to have to face them.


Having collected the souls from the men I had killed, I stopped to take another look at my character sheet. Again there were two points to spend as I pleased. I looked through the other pages but saw nothing, except that the “Companions” page listed “Amaryllis” with a zero next to it and a box below that was greyed out. At least that was a testable prediction, and if it turned out to be her name, then that meant there would probably be a few instances where the game would give me hints or information ahead of time.

It was tempting to put the points into WIS and POI, given that both of them were sitting at one point each and I didn’t know what would happen when they reached zero … but that would be woefully inefficient given that neither was as likely to save my life as the physical abilities were and I wouldn’t get the bonus. So instead, I sunk my both points into raising PHY by one, which raised POW, SPD, and END as well. This time I was alert and aware of my body; I felt the change go through me. It was like straightening up and giving yourself good posture, but without actually changing how I was positioned. I didn’t have much fat on me to start with, but I felt it melt away, and my muscles tightened slightly as they grew. I also felt slightly taller; I wondered whether that would keep up if I kept increasing my physical abilities.

I left the machete where it lay on the ground and hefted the sword. It was a shortsword, with about a foot and a half of blade, a curled crossguard, and a wrapped leather grip. The Fuchsia Coterie hadn’t had any weapons when they came down, at least not that I’d seen when we were all falling, and even if they had I would have found the sword to be a bit incongruous, the same as stone buildings with thatched roofs. It seemed like lazy world-building. If you had mass manufactured plasterboard, two-by-fours, and asphalt shingles, then you didn’t also see buildings that looked like they had been mortared together out of field stones and thatched roofs, not unless they were there for the tourists, and Comfort didn’t seem like it had been much of a tourist location. Similarly, no one but weeaboos and fantasy geeks had swords if there were pistols, not unless there was something like the Holtzman effect from Dune .

The sword didn’t weigh much, but while I had been able to slip the machete through my belt, I was worried that the sword was sharp enough to actually cut. I picked the pistol back up in order to feel what it would be like to hold one in each hand.

Skill unlocked: Dual Wield!

But just feeling them, I knew that it was basically idiotic to try to fight with both at once. What I needed was a sheath or a holster, preferably both, and a backpack in order to have a more convenient place to hold my jar of souls. That basically made my next decision for me; it was time to find the shire-reeve’s office.

The town of Comfort didn’t have particularly stalkable streets. There were alleys, but they were wide ones, and except for the main street, the buildings were spread from one another with narrow strips of sidewalk between them. There were cars lying abandoned in the streets, the same kind I’d seen at the gas station with convex hoods, and most of the frontages were wrecks of broken glass. There wasn’t any sign of clean-up, and no visible attempts to repair the damage to be seen. Whatever had happened here, it had been fast. I had seen ghost towns before, but most of them developed slowly as people moved away and businesses failed for lack of customers.

The building I was looking for was sitting right next to a small, two story courthouse. It only vaguely resembled the courthouses back home; the whole thing was like a pyramid with its top cut off, and instead of faux-Greek columns it had arches coming down from the top and arcing into the ground. The flagpole with a tattered bit of red still hanging to it and large bronze statue of a man were enough that I was fairly certain that it was a courthouse.

I had no idea what the governmental structure of the Risen Lands looked like, but Comfort, though small, followed a pattern I was familiar with. It was surrounded by farms and farmlands, far away from any other town. The whole point of this town existing was that the sparse population of the surrounding area needed a place to go for the essentials they couldn’t grow or make on their own. I was certain that there was a store with farming supplies somewhere, and a hardware store where someone could get some nails and a replacement hammer. But a town like Comfort wasn’t just going to be a collection of shops and the houses of the people who worked in those shops, it was going to have government services as well. Hence, a courthouse, so looking up the deed to a parcel of land or a marriage certificate didn’t take a six hour round trip to whatever the local equivalent of Wichita was. I knew based on the size of Comfort that it was bound to have one -- but it wasn’t the courthouse that I was looking for, it was the shire-reeve's office next to it, because if a farmer needs legal services to be within a half hour’s drive, then he definitely needs a lawkeeper at least that close.

(Again, 2 KNO was bullshit.)

The other reason that I thought it would be here, aside from deductive reasoning, is that I included shire-reeves in pretty much every game I ever DMed. Shire-reeve is just an archaic way of saying “sheriff”, but I thought it had a particularly fantasy feel to it, and it revealed the etymology of the word in the process, which was a personal joy of mine. The place I was looking at had a symbol of a triangle inset with a mushroom instead of the pointed star that sheriffs in America used, and the coloring of the cars out front was light blue with black stripes. There was no reason that they would necessarily be called sheriffs, let alone shire-reeves … and yet as I edged closer to the building, I was able to make out the faded lettering stuck to the window, which did indeed say “Aleister Duchy Shire Reeve’s Office”. Huh.

The glass door was broken and a corpse lay halfway out of it with shards digging into his gut. The blood was fresh, which meant that it was at least relatively recent. I stepped closer, holding my pistol in my right hand and trying to watch the windows around me. The two guys I had come across had melee weapons instead of guns, which I took as a hopeful sign. I wasn’t really interested in a gunfight unless I was the only one that had a gun. On the other hand, Cypress had said that she made the gun (with a box of scraps?) which meant that maybe other people could make them too.

I made it to the body without seeing anyone and bent down next to him. Everyone I had seen on the plane was at least as young as me, and this guy was no exception to that rule. I didn’t recognize him, but I didn’t expect to. With a grimace I raised the void tunneler and shot him in the head. Watching carefully, I could see that a hypothesis I’d had was correct; it wasn’t actually shooting bullets, just making holes by some other means. Knowing that wasn’t immediately helpful and raised more questions, but questions on top of questions were pretty much par for the course at this point. I slid the spike into his head, hoping that I would get another easy one.

Quest Progress: Seven Bells for Seven Hells, 4/7

I breathed a silent, shaky sigh of relief as I screwed the cap back on my glass jar and rearmed myself.

I had no illusions that the shire-reeve’s office would be unlooted. It was the first place that anyone who had landed in Comfort would go. Whatever weapons and body armor they had on hand would have been taken by people who had gotten there faster than me, and if the Risen Lands had been used as a dumping ground for undesirables long enough that Cypress could accurately quote one-in-one-hundred as making it out … well, that meant the chances of usable weapons being in the shire-reeve’s office was basically nil. People would have taken them, then people would have died to whatever terrors stalked the night, and the weapons would have been scattered to the winds.

That still left the other stuff though. I wasn’t confident that I’d be able to find a holster to fit the boxy gun Cypress had (apparently) made, but I was a little more hopeful about finding other things on the long list of things that I’d prefer to have before we left Comfort.

I also had grimmer business here. I still had more souls to collect before I could return to Cypress and have her fuel the soulcycle, and if I wanted to avoid conflict (which I really, desperately did) then that meant finding people who had recently died. As evidenced by the corpse through the door, any place that multiple people had the bright idea to go to was bound to be somewhere I could find work as a vulture.

I swept into the front office, dual wielding even though it felt ridiculous. There was a reception area with a desk that was covered in papers. A corpse sat at the chair there, but it was so old that the skin was shrink-wrapped to the skull and the wispy strands of remaining hair had gone white. I gave it a thwip with the void gun just to be sure, but it wasn’t so much as twitching. A calendar behind it showed a picture of a tall white spire sticking up out of an island that was barely larger than its base; I recognized that almost immediately as one of the White Spires from my Drowned Valleys campaign setting, but didn’t stop to take it in. The name of the month was, apparently, 'Halig'.

I kept on going, keeping my eye out for people, bodies, and zombies. One of the offices had a long-dead man in it with a visible wound where his heart had been pierced, but at his hip was one of the things I had been looking for: he was wearing a sheath for a short sword. I took it off him as carefully as I could, but he slumped to the side and his head fell off in the process. It was the work of a few minutes, but I was happy (and slightly surprised) that my sword actually fit the sheath. I tied it so that it hung from my hip and practiced the draw a few times.

I moved slowly through the shire-reeve’s office, keeping an eye out for the safe that would probably hold their guns and other equipment. I was trying to keep quiet, in case there was someone here (since, after all, the corpse out front had been less than thirty minutes old) --

Skill increased: Deception lvl 2!

I froze as soon as the message came up. I had initially unlocked the skill when moving through the mechanic’s shop, and gained a level in it when I’d lied (poorly) to Cypress. Seeing the skill up meant one of two things. The first option was that trying to sneak across Comfort slowly incremented some hidden variable that had only now rolled over. The second option was that my skills only increased when they were actively used for something … and Deception had gone up because someone was close enough that the skill was actually being applied.

I backed up into the corner of the empty room I was in and hid behind some filing cabinets, trying to keep my breathing shallow enough that I wouldn’t make any noise. The sword and gun together felt incredibly awkward and after a brief moment of deliberation I slipped the sword in its sheath, very conscious of the sound the metal made against the leather.

Skill increased: Deception lvl 3!

I was listening closely, straining my ears to hear something. If the skill up was dependent on someone being close by, that made me wonder what the range on it was. Half a block? Less? The lack of sound either meant that they were far away, or that they themselves were sneaking --

I saw the rifle poke into the room before I saw the person holding it. The barrel swept from side to side and once that was done, another of the Fuchsia Coterie entered into my room. I was mostly hidden by the filing cabinet, but the further he moved into the room, the more exposed I would be. I leveled my pistol, aimed at his head, and fired. He saw the motion and turned but a hole was punched in his head, right through his nose. I got three notifications in rapid succession, each with their own chimes, which almost covered up the sound of crunching glass and a creaking floorboard from outside the room.

I ducked down but stayed behind the cabinets. The guy laying on the floor had long pink hair done up in a bun; he was shaking as he bled from the hole in his head, like he was having a seizure. His rifle lay on the ground next to him; it was much more traditional looking than the pistol I held, with the exception of the curved magazine that came out from the top rather than the bottom and a faintly glowing red symbol on the side.

The situation wasn’t great for me. Someone was outside the room, maybe multiple people, and I had roughly three minutes until the guy on the floor rose up as a zombie. So far as I could tell, there wasn’t much of a risk to them of simply waiting me out. The room did have a grimy, half-broken window to the outside, but that wasn’t going to help me since I’d get a knife to my back as soon as they heard me trying to open the window. Baiting them out seemed like my only option, but before I could do that, someone threw a small purple crystal into the room.

It was connected to a small, dime-sized battery with some wires and what looked like chewing gum. It landed right next to the body. I ducked behind the filing cabinet on instinct, before the thought grenade even had the time to go through my head, I think processing it more by the way it had been thrown than what it looked like.

The explosion was small and subdued, but the effects were immediate as things started falling down around me. The carpet and floorboards were missing near the center of the room, and a quick glance at the body showed only a thin wet strip of it left. The far wall of the office was mostly gone, not blown away but simply vanished with no debris. Without giving myself time to think, I darted forward out of the hole the grenade had made, feeling a cold wet sting on my shoulder as I did so, looking around wildly to see whether there were any threats in sight. When I was covered by the wall I turned around toward the hole I’d left out of and raised my pistol, just in time to shoot the guy coming through in the chest. He grunted at that but raised his own gun toward me after I’d thrown my pistol to the ground, just as I was trying to draw my sword.

Skill unlocked: Parry!

Skill increased: Parry lvl 1!

I got the messages in time with the explosive sound of gunfire, a painful jerking of the sword in my hand, and the clanging sound of a bullet hitting metal. I lunged forward with my sword and stabbed the guy in front of me in his arm at an awkward angle (especially because I had been aiming for his chest). Blood was pumping out of his chest, soaking his shirt, and his breaths had a raspy gurgle. I sliced at his arm with my sword again as his pistol came back toward me and felt it hit bone. When he tried to scream, blood came out of his mouth, and he fell backward.

I grabbed my pistol back up off the ground and aimed it toward the hole in the wall, but no one came through it. I was breathing hard and my back was getting increasingly wet, presumably with blood if the stinging pain and exposure to the open air I could feel on my shoulder blade were anything to go by. I risked a glance back and saw that a palm sized piece of my shirt was gone, along with all the skin underneath it.

I crept forward to the hole and peeked inside, gun leading the way. The office was a wreck. The fronts of the filing cabinets had been removed, as well as most of the files in them save for a few papers at the back. I could see where I’d been standing, how the filing cabinet had been instantly eaten away there, making a hole that was almost exactly the size as the stinging wound on my shoulder.

I took a moment to go back to the guy outside and shoot him in the heart, not wanting to risk a zombie creeping up behind me, and while I was at it I stuck the spike in as well. There was very little left of the corpse inside the office; I tried sticking the spike against part of his skull, but there was no glow and eventually I gave up. When I moved into the hallway though, I found a surprise: there was a third pink-haired member of the Coterie, holding a sword and quite dead. Most of the wall around him had been destroyed by the grenade, save for a few places where there were something approximating shadows. I guessed that electrical wiring or plumbing must have blocked some of it, but not enough to save this guy, who had at least an inch of flesh removed from him in a number of places, including his skull. I shot him in the heart to prevent him from rising and collected his soul as well.

Quest Progress: Seven Bells for Seven Hells, 6/7

That meant one more to go before I could return to Cypress. I did wonder why it had to be seven instead of six or eight; she hadn’t told me and I had stupidly not asked. If the souls were fuel, did that mean we needed seven to get to wherever we were going? She was too pretty, that had been my problem. That, or not enough clear-headedness on my part. It had been distinctly hard to think around her.

I swept through the remainder of the shire-reeve’s station I hadn’t covered. The only weapons I found were those that belonged to the Fuchsia Coterie; the rifle had been almost completely destroyed by what I was pretty sure had been a void grenade, while the pistols fired conventional bullets and seemed worse than what I had. I changed my mind on that score once I found an empty holster attached to the corpse of a decaying husk. It was too narrow for the void tunneler, but I didn’t mind carrying around the extra weight of another gun, so long as it was on my hip.

Most of what the station held were papers. I didn’t have time to give them much more than a glance, even though I was burning with curiosity about this world, not just because it would have an impact on my chances for survival, but because of what Cypress had called narcissism. There were so many elements of it that I recognized as mine. I was afraid of the things I had dreamed up, true, but I wanted to see them all the same, to see the fingerprint of my mind impressed on this place. Annoyingly, the only newspaper I found covered only the goings-on of Aleister Duchy, and while there were hints to other things, mentions of the Cradle King and the Barber’s Edict (both of which I recognized), it was written for people who would already know the basics.

The stripped-off skin on my back didn’t quite crust over, but it at least dried into a sticky patch of blood on top of the raw meat of my shoulder. It hurt more as time went on and I knew that the next fight I got in would be worse for it, because every quick movement on my part would send a shock of searing pain through it. The game layer didn’t seem to indicate any sort of health point, only sufficiently bad afflictions, and apparently this one didn’t rate an entry. The back of my shirt was clinging to me where I had bled.

I walked out of the shire-reeve’s feeling exhausted, in part because the adrenaline of the fight had faded and in part because of blood loss. I hadn’t eaten since … well, since I had eaten a hamburger and fries in the cafeteria of Bumblefuck High School, and I wasn’t sure that counted. I hadn’t had any water in nearly as long.

So when the thing made of thirty corpses came around a building and almost instantly snapped its faux-head around to look at me with burning red pits framed by dismembered arms and legs, I was terrified, certainly, but a part of me thought that I wasn’t going to have enough energy to escape. I turned and ran, back into the shire-reeve’s office, hoping that I would figure something out.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t anything more than a collection of corpses, not that I could see. There was no stitching holding it together, no barbed wire running through it, and not even any visible strands of unearthly purple light. It wasn’t clear how the corpses were stuck to each other either, since they weren’t gripping each other, and there was no real rhyme or reason to their arrangement. I had no idea how it had been made or formed, but at a good approximation someone had taken a giant mold of a creature with four nominal limbs and poured corpses into it. Some of the pieces that made it up still twitched.

I had already given some thought to how to kill it. The zombies were killed by either puncturing or otherwise destroying their heart, but this thing didn’t seem like it would have a clear analog, and even if it did have one it would have been buried behind at least a foot of flesh. The void tunneler seemed not to leave much in the way of an exit wound, the ballistic pistol didn’t seem like it would be much better, and even if I could stab Zombie Voltron up to the hilt with the sword, I put low odds on that working. Which left … not a lot, actually. The power lines in Comfort were dead, so I couldn’t shock it. There were presumably no working cars, so I couldn’t run it over. I hadn’t seen any pits I could (somehow) push it off, no conspicuous cliffs, no lakes to drown it in, and not much in the way of flammables to (again, somehow) burn it down. The only likely thing I had seen was the grenade the Coterie had thrown at me and I didn’t know how to get one of those.

If this were a videogame, I would have pounded my head against a boss creature like this for at least an hour, trying different strategies until I had sussed out the patterns of attack and could manage to grind it out. If this were a tabletop game, I would have killed the party for trying to go up against something that I’d given them several hints was beyond their level. Either scenario ended with death for me, and I wasn’t about to count on getting extra lives or the chance to roll a new character.

So I ran, fervently hoping that I wasn’t going to get another level of “Cowardice”, fall into a stupor from having 0 WIS, and get devoured.

I heard bricks and glass crashing down as Zombie Voltron chased after me down the hallway of the shire-reeve’s station. I hooked left into the room where I’d had my little battle with the Coterie and gave a brief glance backward. As I’d hoped, Zombie Voltron was being slowed down by the need to tear his way through the walls like a goddamn maniac. I jumped over the floor that the grenade had wrecked but landed awkwardly and felt a sharp pain in my ankle just before I tripped and tumbled to the ground.

Critical failure!

New Affliction: Sprained Ankle lvl 2! (SPD -2, Athletics -5, Dodge -5)

I hobbled to my feet, trying to ignore the pain, and began limping forward as fast as I could. It was my left ankle that I’d hurt. Each step felt like I was jamming a nail into my ankle, but I could hear Zombie Voltron behind me as it wrecked its way through the building and I didn’t have much of a choice. When I’d first come into town I had seen it chasing after people and it seemed like they had been faster than it, but with my ankle all fucked up I thought my chances were basically dogshit. Across the street was a building helpfully labeled “Pet Store” with the door hanging half off its hinge, and having no better option, I trundled toward it.

Zombie Voltron had broken out of the sheriff’s office, hopefully twisting his own ankle in the process. He was a lumbering creature, his “feet” nothing more than haphazardly positioned corpses. They were falling apart, not because they were rotting but because every step he took crunched bones and tore at dead flesh.

The pet shop was a nightmare of glowing red eyes, all of them looking my way. I didn’t stop to look at any of them, but those red eyes shone from aquariums with little hamster wheels, habitats with driftwood and fake leaves, and looked at me by the hundreds from murky tanks. I limped past them all, trying not to seize up at the sight of them, motivated by the crashing sound behind me as Zombie Voltron made contact with the shopfront. (I couldn’t help but wonder if the pets had been turned by whatever apocalypse had hit Comfort, or if they had all starved to death in their cages and then risen as zombies after the fact.)

I limped through a doorway with a tattered curtain over it at the back of the shop, then through a stocking area with boxes loaded high, and finally out a door back into the overcast daylight. I stopped when I realized that I couldn’t hear anything behind me. Well that’s ominous. The back of the shop had a small little parking area and loading zone, and beyond that was a wide alley. That meant there was a row of shops between myself and main street, then another two blocks or so to the auto place where Cypress was waiting. I swallowed hard and started limping, trying not to grunt in pain with every step that I took.

“Pssst!” came a voice from one of the buildings in the alley. I spun around and pointed my gun in that direction, but was able to stop myself from firing. There was a boy hanging out a window, leaning over so he could see me. To my surprise, I recognized him. He was the one who’d been shouting about how we were all in this together right before we’d dropped. “Come here!” he whispered, loud enough that it carried.

I limped over to him, holding the trigger-handle of the gun so that I could move it up and fire at a moment’s notice. The pain in my ankle was getting worse, and I could feel fresh blood dripping down my back.

“Inside,” he said, and when he did the door near him opened up. I limped over to it, cursing under my breath.

I was instantly suspicious. I had always been one to look a gift horse in the mouth, ever since my grandmother had told me there would be candy at church and made me sit through a two hour sermon in order to get it. Of course, the root of the saying was more about the appearance of propriety, since I don’t think anyone expected you to just ignore equine dentition altogether. They’re grazing animals, their teeth are important!

There were two people ducked down in the back of the clothing store, one a pallid boy clutching a stomach wound and the other a girl with a scar running from the side of her mouth to just below her ear. She was the one who had opened the door for me, and she closed it quickly as soon as I was in. She spared a glance at my ankle and a longer glance at my weapons, but said nothing. From a different room, the guy who had called to me from the alley crept in. I guessed he was about my age, blonde and muscular like a Nazi recruitment poster. He gave me a strained smile and held out his hand.

“Poul,” he said.

I shook his hand slowly. “Joon,” I replied.

“This is Becca and Sly,” said Poul, with a gesture first to the girl, then to the boy.

“Sly’s not going to make it,” said Becca. She sat down and grabbed her knees. A dagger was stuck in the floor next to her.

Sly gave a weak laugh. “It’s true,” he coughed. “Gonna get added to the undead army.”

Poul grimaced at that. “We’ll find a way,” he said, but he didn’t meet Sly’s eyes when he said it. He let the silence linger for a bit, then turned to me. “The Host dropped a gang with us, as if the Risen Lands weren’t bad enough.” He looked down at the makeshift pistol in my hands, then the sword at my side and pistol at my hip. “You look like a dangerous guy.”

“Not in my current condition,” I said. “Plus even at peak condition I don’t think I could take on the moving mountain of corpses out there.”

Becca was staring at my weapon. Her scar was clearly deep, because her frown was only present on half her face. “What weapon is that?” she asked.

“Void tunneler,” I said.

Poul winced and Becca sucked air through her teeth.

“I shouldn’t be surprised,” said Poul. “The Exclusion Zone predates the Imperial ban.” A forced smile crossed his face. “That confirms you as a dangerous guy then. Did you build it?”

“Yes,” I said immediately.

Skill increased: Deception lvl 4!

It’s pretty hard to maintain a straight face when a message suddenly pops up in front of your face calling you a liar. I decided then and there that I would level up Deception as quickly as possible, if only so I’d stop getting startled by it.

(I should hope that it would be obvious why I lied. I didn’t trust these people yet, and even if I did, that didn’t mean that I could betray Cypress’ confidence. More to the point, the motorcycle we had could take two people at most out of Comfort, and that would give them an incentive toward betrayal.)

“What’s the play?” I asked, mostly to switch topics.

“There is none,” said Becca, but Poul was already shaking his head.

“There are two fronts right now,” said Poul. “That works to our advantage, so long as they’re killing each other. A defensive strategy is the best option, since our odds get better with every kill on either side.”

“Convenient that it also means taking the least risks,” said Becca. “We’re going to starve to death.”

“We can forage,” said Poul.

“No,” coughed Sly. His voice was weak. “My uncle did the math, sent it to me in prison a few days before we dropped.” He was noticeably more pale than when I had first come in. “Graduation rates have been steadily dropping, month after month, year after year. It’s getting harder for anyone to leave the Risen Lands. Reports from those who make it back are that most of the food that was still good has been eaten through. Any car that worked got taken early on, there’s no one to drive them back into the --” he coughed and waved his hand, then kept coughing until blood started coming up from his lips. I kept waiting for him to stop, but he kept going, until Poul moved over and laid a hand on his shoulder. When Sly eventually stopped coughing though, he just lay there, not moving to wipe the blood from his mouth. His chest had been heaving with the heavy breaths he was taking, but now it was completely still.

“Shit,” said Poul.

“He’s going to rise,” said Becca. Her words were soft, as though uneager to leave her lips.

I raised my void tunneler. “Move aside,” I said. I limped forward and aimed carefully as Poul backed up and got behind me. The thwip seemed louder than usual, but that might have just been my imagination. I stared at the clean hole I’d made, the flesh that had vanished from his body.

Maybe I’m a bastard, but my first thought was, Well, that’s the seventh soul I need.

“Fuck,” said Becca.

“I don’t know any last rites,” said Poul.

“Me either,” said Becca. She reached into the pocket of her jeans. “I picked up a few coins though. Thought we might need an obol.” She handed a silvered coin the size of a half-dollar to Poul, who opened Sly’s mouth, slid the coin inside, then closed his mouth again. He turned to me. “Last rites?” he asked.

I swallowed and focused on the body. “May your darkness turn to light. May the burdens lift free of your immortal soul. May you swiftly find your way to heaven and thereby find your peace.” I didn’t think that I’d made a total hash of it, but I noticed movement to the side and saw Becca pulling her dagger from the floor.

“What the fuck is heaven?” she asked me with gritted teeth.

“Calm down,” snapped Poul. He turned from her and looked me over, as if seeing me for the first time. “That was certainly … unorthodox.”

“Sorry,” I said quickly. “I didn’t … I’m not from here, I’m dream-skewered, I don’t know … I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

“Fucking cultist,” spat Becca.

“We need to work together,” said Poul. “You’ve noticed that he’s the guy with the weapons, right?”

That stung a bit. I really should have just been smart and said that I didn’t know any last rites either, but I had thought about my years and years of playing different roles as DM. I was fairly certain that I had made up last rites on a few different occasions. Apparently though, instead of bringing comfort to the two of them, I’d made myself look like an ass. The glass jar in my pocket, the one with six small green souls floating in it, felt especially heavy and awkward. I wondered what their reaction would be to that; Becca had been nearly ready to kill me for saying the wrong prayer.

“We still need to decide what we’re doing,” said Becca. She stood up and looked out over the racks of clothes to the street outside, then quickly ducked down. “Undead have gotten thick. And like it or not, it’s going to be easier to move without Sly.” My ankle throbbed at the mention of moving.

“We can at least wait a day,” said Poul. “That’s enough time for them to stop wandering the streets.”

“The Coterie are here for a reason,” I said. I gently massaged my ankle, which had become swollen and tender. “Whether it’s their purpose or not, they’re hunting.”

Poul and Becca shared a glance.

“Say that again, but slower,” said Poul.

“They’re here for a reason,” I said. I could feel myself blushing. First the thing with the last rites, and now they were looking at me like I’d grown a second head.

“You said Coterie,” said Becca. “As in the Fuchsia Coterie?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Part of the Color Riot, I think?” The term ‘dream-skewered’ seemed to mean nothing to them, which was a problem. I’d gotten lucky that Cypress had been the first person I met.

“Motherfuck,” muttered Becca.

“Bad enough when we thought it was a gang,” said Poul, shaking his head. “But I still think we should stay put. There’s no reason the Color Riot would send one of their cohorts here … Hells, to slip them onto the plane under the Host’s nose? They wouldn’t do that if they were just trying to kill us. And if it really is the Fuchsia Coterie, then we can’t afford to tangle with them.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know what sort of stories they tell about these people, but I’ve already killed four of them. Five, maybe, depending on how you count. There can’t be that many of them left.”

“Who the fuck are you?” asked Becca. The color had drained from Poul’s face.

“There’s a safe place I know of,” I said, ignoring Becca’s question. I looked toward main street, and though my view was obscured, I could hear the milling horde. “And while I may be too slow to make it there right now, I think there’s a way I can fix that.”

“He’s insane,” complained Becca.

“He’s well-armed,” Poul countered. “Do you think he would have gotten to this point if he were crazy?”

“Yes,” said Becca flatly.

“Well if that’s the case,” I said slowly. “It’s at least a beneficial form of insanity.” Dream-skewered. “You can leave and we can meet up later, but I think that’s riskier.”

“We run at the first sign of it going south,” said Becca. “We’re not going to wait while you’re overrun and we’re not going to help you.”

“Deal,” I said. I stood up and limped toward the front of the store. The zombies didn’t see me right away, which gave me some time to level my void tunneler at the nearest one, aiming right for the center of his chest. I had to put some weight on my ankle, which was painful, but I was hopeful that it wouldn’t be for too much longer.

Thwip .

Skill increased: Pistols lvl 4!

Zombie defeated!

I had been trying to ignore the messages as much as possible, mostly because they didn’t help me at all. The character sheet clearly did do something, but it was frustratingly vague and clearly didn’t represent all the game mechanics, especially considering that I didn’t even have hit points or a health bar. (And I did briefly wonder how I was supposed to tell how close I was to death, until I thought just like you did back on Earth, dummy.)



Zombie defeated!

I learned something useful, which was that the void tunneler took four seconds to cycle. I had been careful with it, not wanting to push it too hard for fear of it irrecoverably breaking, and had elected not to do tests with it for that reason. Here though, I had some ability to control the circumstances of this fight. More of the zombies had turned toward me as my pistol kept making its little sound, but the windows to the clothing shop weren’t floor-to-ceiling and the zombies would have to negotiate a wall to get to me.

“You said you had magic,” said Becca.

I ignored her and set my sights on another zombie. They were slow, but still walked at a decent speed, which meant that firing on them was still somewhat difficult. If I could have aimed for the head it might have been different, but my target was their heart, which is quite a bit smaller.

Thwip .

Zombie defeated!

I had now killed three zombies and two members of the Fuchsia Coterie since my last level up, and I thought I had to be close to level four. The zombies were unfortunately starting to mass toward me, and I seemed to have underestimated how many of them there were. With a start I recognized one of the zombies; he had a split in his jeans right at the crotch, and I remembered seeing him back by the gas station. That meant the horde trailing me had caught up and dispersed into Comfort. Frick.

By the time I had killed three more, I was starting to get worried. I glanced back and Becca and Poul and saw that both of them were standing by the doorway, with Poul keeping watch to make sure the coast was clear and Becca staring daggers into my back. I saw her eyes widen briefly and snapped my attention back to the storefront, where the zombies were starting to behave differently.

Where they had been pressed up against each other before, now they were starting to coordinate somewhat, crawling over each other or shifting out of each other’s way. The crowd was forming a tight knot of zombies that seemed more concerned with each other than with me, their movement slightly away from me, in fact. I realized what was happening just as I fired my pistol again and killed one of the closer undead. There wasn’t really anything that I could do about it at that point though; the undead were fused together, lifting up their makeshift torso, and spreading their fused together limbs. Zombie Voltron 2 was slowly coming to life.


Critical hit!

Skill increased: Pistols lvl 5!

Zombie defeated!

Level up!

I was ready for the heady rush of leveling up this time and I leaned into it, taking a huge breath as it hit me, tasting the honey-flavored wind that rippled the tattered clothes still hanging on mannequins in the store. When it had passed, the ache in my ankle was gone and my shoulder was unblemished.

I ran from the zombies just as two of them toppled over the wall and into the store. Becca was staring at me with an open mouth as I rushed toward her, but she managed to pull herself together enough to beat me out into the alley. The three of us ran together; I had given Poul my ballistic pistol, mostly because he kept insisting that if I was killed by the zombies the two of them would be nearly defenseless.

There was no crashing sound of the clothing store being destroyed, but we kept running all the same. It was two and a half blocks to the auto shop, which I had reluctantly told Poul and Becca about. I was still short a soul, but hadn’t dared to try taking it from Sly’s corpse with both of them there, not after the way they’d reacted to my attempt at last rites. (This was cowardice or caution, depending on how you defined things, but the game layer didn’t count it against me.)

We kept to the alley, darting across the street at full speed, past zombies shambling around as their glowing red eyes turned to track us. We were halfway down the next block when an enormous figure lumbered into view at the end of it. For a second I thought that the second Zombie Voltron had somehow outpaced us and cut us off at the pace, but with dawning horror I realized that the configuration of corpses was familiar. This wasn’t the one that had just come together, this was the original. Which meant that Zombie Voltron 2: Electric Boogaloo -- yes, a quick glance confirmed that it was behind us, moving to block the other end of the alley.

“Left!” I called, and darted off down one of the thin sidewalks that threaded between buildings. Poul was just after me, with Becca after him, but as I looked back at her I saw her shirt snag on a bent piece of pipe that was sticking out of the ground at an awkward angle. It ripped her shirt but yanked her backward in the process and she fell to the ground, slamming her head on the cement.

This was the moment that I had been dreading. If I’d had to take a stab at what the rule for Cowardice was, it meant not helping people in need in order to increase my own chances of survival. I turned back toward Becca and sprinted, sliding past Poul as he kept running. My void tunneler was in hand and pointed to the alleyway. I reached Becca just as one of the Zombie Voltrons peered in at us. Up close, his red eyes were bright enough to be almost blinding. I shot at him with the pistol, thwip , hitting him right in his left eye, and though it winked out, I saw corpses slithering around each other, rearranging. My left hand was grabbing Becca by the leg and pulling her backward, out of harm’s way. Zombie Voltron’s arm-of-corpses wormed its way between the buildings and slammed down where her head had been a half second prior.

“M’ fine,” said Becca as I dragged her. Either she was surprisingly light or I didn’t know my own strength. I counted to four in my head, then fired at Zombie Voltron again. I couldn’t see the hole it made, and the creature made no reaction. Becca kicked at me and struggled to her feet, but when she tried to take a step she stumbled and slumped against the wall before staggering back up to her feet.

I moved beside her and got beneath her arm, draping it over my shoulder and holding onto her wrist. I was partly supporting her and partly carrying her. Any thoughts she might have had about protesting had left her and she tried her best to stay on her feet. The space between buildings was just barely wide enough for both of us to pass, but if we’d been shoulder-to-shoulder instead of hip-to-hip we probably would have been stuck.

When we got out from between the buildings, Poul was nowhere to be seen. I’d been terrified that the other Zombie Voltron would come around and box us in, but they didn’t seem to have that level of either speed or coordination. We were back out on the main street now, with rusted out cars and shambling zombies all moving toward us. Becca was putting more of her weight on me as I tried to think of what to do -- thinking that was cut short when Zombie Voltron came out from around the buildings and began lumbering toward us. The way we’d come was blocked; the other Voltron was making its way through a space far too narrow for it, squeezing and wriggling to do so.

The one on the street charged us. I fired my void tunneler at in again, swearing as I did so.

Critical hit!

I had a moment of hope, but all that happened was that one of the corpses which made up the necrotic abomination fell to the ground. I had seen the hole this time, right through the chest of that zombie … oh. Piercing a zombie through the heart killed it, this creature was made up of zombies, therefore all I would need to do was pierce every one of its hearts to kill it. One down, fifty to go.

I slid the void tunneler into the waistband of my pants, lifted Becca up and slung her over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and started running. Running was probably a generous word for it, considering that I was carrying more than a hundred pounds.

I tried my best to weave between the cars, hoping that Zombie Voltron would have trouble navigating them and making up for my deficit in speed. I could hear it after me though, the wet slap of ruined corpse-flesh as it ran and the crunch of bones as it came down too hard. Judging by sound, it was gaining on me. The only point in my favor was that I was still moving toward the mechanic’s shop, where hopefully Poul and Cypress would be able to give me a scant bit of cover, but it was another two buildings to go and I was moving painfully slow. Whatever fight Becca had left in her was gone, and she was nearly limp against me, which made her all the harder to carry.

I heard a loud sound, very close behind, and risked a look just in time to see the end of Zombie Voltron’s arm coming toward me. The ruined mess of flesh that made up its feet was gone, replaced by a dozen grasping hands attached to arms that waved around.

It was too close to me, and I was too slow. One of the hands grabbed onto Becca’s forearm, and as soon as its grip was secure it yanked her away from me, other hands coming to join the first one, grabbing her throat, hair, shoulder, anywhere they could reach. I managed to grab hold of one of her legs before she could fall completely off my shoulders, but the mass of zombies pulled her away from me with a force that nearly pulled my arm from my socket. I lost my grip and watched in horror as the arm made of corpses whipped to the side, smashing Becca against a metal dumpster. The edge of it hit her in the spine and separated her body in two, splattering blood and guts against the ground.

“No!” I screamed.

Affliction: Cowardice Removed!

I could feel my pulse beating in my temples and my vision was starting to blur. I had been angry before, consumed with blinding rage, but it had never been so perfectly paired with adrenaline. With a shaky hand I yanked the void tunneler out and started to level it at Zombie Voltron … then I turned and ran, because that was the smart thing to do.

I swore as I ran, cursing the injustice of it, the raw unfairness of trying to do the right thing and seeing it all fall apart anyway. It was how I had felt after Arthur died, this furious anger at a world that was so indifferent to us, a burning desire to find god and punch him in his fat fucking face for letting a thing like this happen.

I ran until I thought I had lost them, then doubled back, keeping my eyes open. The rage was fading into a firm commitment that I would kill every single fucking zombie in this place before moving on. I’d grab this stupid fucking world by the neck and bend it to my will if I had to, I would mold and shape it against its protests until nothing was so shitty as that had been.

I’d felt the same way on Earth for about six months after Arthur died. This feeling was an echo of that one, or maybe it had just dredged up those old thoughts that I had been starting to put behind me. I had known Becca for all of half an hour, if that, and I had only gone back to save her in the first place because I was worried about my own life. The part of me that wasn’t set on howling against the world could see that this was more of an old scab being ripped off than a rational response to Becca’s death, but that didn’t change how I felt.

I killed five more zombies as I snuck back to the mechanic’s, more because I was angry than because they posed a real threat. The little thwip was unsatisfyingly quiet, though there was some satisfaction to be had in the notifications that popped up. There was no sign of the Zombie Voltron (Zombies Voltron?), which I was thankful for. It had taken an act of will to keep myself from standing my ground and fighting them until they killed me. I didn’t see the Fuchsia Coterie either.

When I reached the mechanic’s shop, I heard someone say “Psst!”. Poul stepped out from around a corner and walked over to me, crouching as he did so. He was looking around and opened his mouth to ask a question, but stopped himself.

“There were three zombies at the door,” he said instead. He patted the pistol at his side. “I figured this thing was a little bit too loud, didn’t want to attract too much attention, so I led them away then came back. Are you … okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Becca didn’t make it.”

“Shit,” said Poul.

I moved to the door and opened it up. The smell that hit me was foul; the corpse sitting in the waiting room had ripened. “Come on, I’ll make introductions.”

Cypress greeted me about the same way that she had when we’d first met; she had a new gun, a rifle this time, which she pointed straight at me. She was crouched in a makeshift bunker of car doors that she must have put together. I had forgotten how deeply attractive she was; that fact had become a point of data in my mind which didn’t reflect the visceral pull she had on me.

“I heard a commotion outside,” she said calmly. “Were you followed?”

“No,” I said. “But I did bring company.”

Cypress jerked her head to the side, the universal sign for “move out of the way then”.

“I have a void tunneler trained on you,” she called to Poul as he stepped forward. “My trust in Juniper, such as it is, does not apply to you.”

Poul made no response to that. He was staring at Cypress. “Holy shit,” he said.

Yes, that had been my reaction too, but at least I was polite enough not to say it.

I’d misread him though, because Poul went to his knees and bowed down. I raised an eyebrow at that; Cypress rolled her eyes.

“Princess Amaryllis,” said Poul from the ground. “I pledge myself to your service.”

Chapter Text

Poul’s prostration didn’t seem to gain him any favor with Cypress, now revealed as not just Amaryllis (as my character sheet had already informed me) but Princess Amaryllis. That raised a whole host of questions, most salient of which was how, exactly, she had ended up on a plane full of criminals.

“Juniper, the soulcycle can hold two people at most, and that’s with one of us riding pillion,” said Amaryllis. “It’s not clear to me that you’ve thought through the logistics of this.”

“I did think about it,” I said. “But I couldn’t leave them to die.”

“Them?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow.

“Him,” I replied with a swallow. I wanted her to give me a sad look or something to show she understood the subtext and sympathized, but she focused her attention back on Poul.

“Name,” she said slowly. “So I know what to call you.” I don’t think it had escaped anyone’s attention that she still had her rifle trained on him. It made me nervous. I had been taught trigger discipline and gun safety growing up and this was a gross violation of that. Never point the gun at something you’re not fine with destroying. Or maybe she’s just fine with killing him. But I wanted it to be an act, a show of force covering softness.

“Poulus Cambria,” he said.

“Background?” she asked.

Poul was silent for awhile. “Soldier,” he finally said.

Amaryllis frowned at that. “How did you end up here?” she asked.

“I would prefer not to say,” he replied.

“Too bad,” said Amaryllis. Her finger was already on the makeshift trigger of the rifle and I saw it move slightly, adding pressure. I wanted that to be a bluff, a tactic to get him talking, but Poul was still kneeling, his face toward the floor, and the gesture would have been wasted on him.

“I was convicted of rape by a military tribunal,” he said.

Amaryllis pursed her lips. “That’s not a crime that often goes punished these days,” she said. “The General Council changed the law to require two witnesses in addition to the victim. Were there long deliberations, in your case?”

“No,” replied Poul.

“Well then,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper, is there any good reason that I should keep him alive?”

“He helped me,” I said, though as I said it I realized that it wasn’t exactly true.

“Rank sentimentality suits no one,” said Amaryllis. “Poulus, is there a reason you should live instead of die?”

He was silent for a long time, long enough that I thought Amaryllis would shoot him for not answering, but even though she was threatening him with death, she was doing so with patience rather than knee-jerk malice. I hadn’t fully understood the background context of their conversation, but I gathered that Poul was guilty of the crime he had been charged with.

“The Coterie are here, my lady, and I believe they are here for you,” he said after a long moment. “There are undead stalking the Risen Lands, some of them beyond your own considerable abilities if you have no competent help. You have said that the soulcycle holds two? Well I would submit that I am a better companion than Joon. I have military training and before my disgrace I was well-decorated with high marks in --”

My mouth was hanging partway open when I realized what he was doing, and even then I had trouble articulating anything. I was saved when Amaryllis interrupted him.

“Shut up for a moment,” she said to him. “Juniper, how did you fare out there?”

I slipped my hand into my pocket and pulled out the glass jar. Six small greenish souls swam about in it, circling the magical spike I kept in there for lack of a better place.

“I have six of the seven,” I said.

“Under what circumstances?” she asked. She was still aiming her rifle directly at Poul, who had not moved.

“Two were scavenged from those already dead,” I said. “Another four were from … from the Fuschia Coterie.” The killings still left a bad taste in my mouth. I’d acted in self-defense, but I couldn’t quite convince myself that it had been a good thing.

“Juniper, if there is only room for two, would you rather it be you or him that comes with me?” she asked.

“My lady,” Poul began.

“Silence,” said Amaryllis.

I swallowed. I didn’t actually think that she would kill him in cold blood, but I was still hesitant. “I would go with you,” I said.


Poul collapsed to the floor and blood began pouring out from the top of his head.

“What the fuck?” I asked. “You can’t just - you can’t just do that!”

Amaryllis ignored me. She stood up from behind her makeshift barricade and calmly walked over to Poul’s corpse, then kicked him over with her foot, lowered her rifle, and fired into his chest.

“The jar, please,” she said.

I was staring at her, and not just for the usual reason. I hadn’t thought that she was going to kill him, and I hadn’t wanted him dead, not even after I had learned he was a rapist, not even after he’d tried to throw me under the bus. I made no move to hand the jar to her.

“We could have let him go,” I said.

“Yes,” Amaryllis replied. “We could have let him go, but he was willing to betray you, which means that he would have been willing to betray me. I wasn’t going to take the chance that he was stupid enough to approach the Fuschia Coterie with information about me, what resources I had, where I had been hiding, where I might be going … and who I was with.”

There was nothing that I could say in response to that. I kept trying to think of some other option that she hadn’t seen, some other way, but all I really had to offer was optimism that I didn’t actually feel. I handed the jar over to her and watched as she extracted Poul’s soul.

“So now he’s going to have his soul destroyed,” I said slowly.

Amaryllis paused and looked at me with a frown. “Do you know why I trust you?” she asked.

I thought about my character sheet, and what it had to say about her. Loyalty 0 . “Do you trust me?” I asked.

“Trust is a complex thing,” she said. “I do trust you though, at least to an extent, and hope that you continue to trust me too.” She let Poul’s soul fall into the jar with the others. (Quest Complete: Seven Bells for Seven Hells!) There were some differences, but they were nearly indistinguishable from one another. “You wouldn’t have done as I asked and returned here if you didn’t trust me. On some level you had considered the worst case option, where I killed you as soon as you came through the door.”

I hadn’t thought of that at all.

“The reason that I trust you is because you revealed that you were dream-skewered,” she said. “There are many stories that a covert agent might give, but it would never occur to the intelligence operations of the various kingdoms to present as so incredibly out of depth and without power. More to the point, there are perhaps a dozen covert agents in the entire world who could successfully fake both a profound ignorance of the world and a deep steeping in the history and culture of Earth.”

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” I said. My mind had drifted slightly while she talked as my eyes focused on the flawless curve of her collarbone.

“I know more of the dream-skewered than most,” said Amaryllis. “There was a time I took an interest in cosmology, and Earth was always one of the lingering questions in that field. That bit of ignorance you just displayed … that’s a trademark of Earth, a nearly sure proof of origin.” She held up the jar of souls. “You think that destruction of a soul is a bad thing.”

“It’s not?” I asked.

“Where do you believe people go when they die?” she asked me as she moved over to the soulcycle.

“I … I don’t,” I said. “I was never --” I thought for a minute about the cultural gap that might exist between us and how to say what I wanted without making assumptions on her knowledge. The misstep with saying last rites for Sly had left me a bit skittish … and Amaryllis’ description of Earth had been more along the lines of how continents and oceans it had. “There are things on Earth called religions,” I began.

“We have them too,” said Amaryllis. “Organizations built around the gods?”

“Do literal gods exist on Aerb?” I asked. “Literal in the sense of … there’s incontrovertible evidence of their actual presence, not just natural phenomena attributed to them?” I was tensed up; my personal conception of gods was that they were basically Lovecraftian in nature, elder beings of incredible power and inscrutable goals, and yes, that interpretation of gods extended to most major world religions. That view had been reflected in the worlds I’d created for D&D. If I was in a world where a Cthulhu knock-off was real ...

“There are five gods,” said Amaryllis. She unscrewed a bit of thick glass from the tank of the soulcycle and poured the seven souls into it. They sat at the bottom, floating over each other. I couldn’t help but notice that the soulcycle’s tank was only a tenth full, and if the glass barrels I had seen around town were any indication … well, that meant a truly staggering number of souls. A bit of tension released from Amaryllis’ shoulders as she screwed the cap back on. “I’ve met three of them in the flesh.”

“Okay,” I said, when she didn’t continue. “Well, on Earth there’s no evidence that any gods exist, and I’m one of the people who thinks that they don’t. And as part of that, I don’t think that anything happens to people when they die, they just … cease to exist.” I could feel a tightness in my throat as I thought of Arthur and pushed forward before my emotions could get the better of me. “But we don’t have immortal souls on Earth, at least not that anyone can identify.”

“Hmmm,” said Amaryllis. She turned her attention from the soulcycle and looked at me. I could feel my heart pounding away as our eyes locked. She had killed Poul without emotion and it seemed like an affront to morality that I would still be able to look at the perfection in the curve of her lips and feel such attraction toward her. “You know, that’s not the answer that I thought you would give. Most of the dream-skewered believe that there is an afterlife which exists as a reward and one which exists as a punishment. They look on the destruction of a soul similarly to you, because there’s this presumption that everyone is going to the good afterlife rather than the bad one.”

“And?” I asked. “You use souls as a sort of fuel or something, because no such presumption exists in your society?”

“There are nine thousand hells,” said Amaryllis. “The highest hell is slightly better than Comfort, in its current state. Our infernoscopes can penetrate only down to the five thousandth hell, but there only brief reprieves from torture and pain exist, and those reprieves are marked by fear and anguish.”

It took me a bit to connect the dots from what she was saying to the question Becca had asked me. ‘What the fuck is Heaven?’ she’d asked. That was a reasonable question, if your standard cosmological model didn’t include one.

“You don’t believe in heaven,” I said. “You don’t even have a word for it.”

“We do have a word,” said Amaryllis. “We call them antihells. It’s a term you’d find in scientific papers but even then is somewhat blasphemous.” She pursed her lips. “We know what awaits us after death. Destruction of the soul is a mercy.”

She seemed to believe it. And yet … it was hard for me to believe that morality and utility were so well aligned. It would be like if the giant chugging factories of the industrial revolution made everyone healthy and wise instead of belching out noxious smoke that poisoned the lungs of a few generations. It wasn’t that I believed the world (worlds, I suppose) were zero sum, but I was instantly suspicious of how motivated the thinking might be.

“Alright,” I said instead of prolonging the conversation further. “So what’s the plan?”

“We ride,” she said simply. “Seven souls will get us up to maybe fifteen miles per hour. That will have us in Silmar City within two days, even if we stop and hole up during the night tonight. With two of us, we could trade driving duties, but it’s difficult to sleep on a soulcycle.”

Quest Accepted: Out of the Frying Pan!

I waited, but she had begun an examination of the soulcycle’s metal wheels.

“What’s in Silmar City?” I asked.

“It’s complicated,” she answered. She turned from her inspection and looked at me. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Then you’re an idiot,” she replied. “Do you realize that I sent you to your death when I asked you to go retrieve those souls? It’s a profound miracle that you returned with them. I knew that when I sent you out but I coated my words in hope and honey. You have no reason to trust me.”

“I told you before, I see words and numbers in my head,” I replied. “Your name is there. You’re listed as my companion.”

“Ah,” said Amaryllis.

“I have proof,” I replied. “When I close my eyes I can see more information. Some of that I can change. When I do, there are actual results in the real world. Watch me closely.” I closed my eyes and waited the three seconds to look at my character sheet, the first time I had done so in some time.


4 POW 1 Unarmed Combat 3 One-handed Weapons 0 Two-handed Weapons 1 Improvised Weapons
4 SPD 0 Thrown Weapons 0 Dual Wield 5 Pistols 0 Bows
4 END 0 Rifles 0 Shotguns 1 Parry 3 Athletics

2 CUN 1 Dodge 0 Engineering 0 Alchemy 0 Smithing
2 KNO 0 Woodworking 0 Horticulture 0 Livestock 0 Music
2 WIS 0 Art 0 Blood Magic 0 Bone Magic 0 Gem Magic

2 CHA 0 Gold Magic 0 Water Magic 0 Steel Magic 0 Velocity Magic
2 INS 0 Revision Magic 0 Skin Magic 0 Essentialism 0 Library Magic
2 POI 0 Wards 0 Language 0 Flattery 0 Comedy
0 LUK 0 Romance 0 Intimidation 4 Deception 0 Spirit

I was sorely tempted to put the two points into MEN or SOC, mostly for the purposes of preventing any abilities from going to zero, but I had already committed to PHY when I told Amaryllis that she would see a change. When I opened my eyes, she was staring at me.

“What - what kind of ... “ she stammered. “I … I’ve seen that trick before.” I raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think I can explain it to you, how impossible that should have been. If it had been less than instant I would have had to believe that you were a skilled magi of blood or bone, but I was watching closely and you changed without so much as an eyeblink between one form and another. A minor change, but ...” she shook her head.

“Where did you see the trick before?” I asked.

“Invreizen,” she said. When she saw my blank look she added, “God of Sea and Ice.”

Quest Accepted: God Botherer!

I didn’t really know how to respond to that. The simple, obvious conclusion to draw from that was that I was a god, but that seemed almost certain to be wrong. Could gods be dream-skewered? But that would presuppose that my entire life on Earth was a lie, which wasn’t a bullet that I was willing to bite, and it didn’t explain the form that the game system had taken. Or perhaps I was drawing on godly power in some way without being a god, or the gods and I were drawing from similar sources of power. Or maybe the only similarity was in what they looked like.

“We need to get moving,” Amaryllis said suddenly. “We’re not safe here and we need ample daylight left when we start looking for a place to spend the night. I’m not sure that it would be safe to drive at night anyway, since the roads in the Risen Lands haven’t been maintained.”

“There are a lot of things outside that want us dead,” I said.

“I’ll go gather the mines,” she said. “We might have to fight our way out of Comfort.”

Quest Accepted: Comfort Zone!

I had so many more questions for her, but I also thought she was right about needing to leave. The image of Becca being bisected was one that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to forget, as much as I might try. As I looked at Poul’s body, I got a grim reminder that Amaryllis herself wasn't exactly who I had hoped she would be. She had shown me compassion when we’d first met, then sent me out to what she had thought was my death anyway. It might have been easier to deal with her if she hadn’t been the picture of physical perfection.

While Amaryllis was pulling things down from the ceiling tiles in the hallway, I began looking for a coin to put in his mouth. This time, I’d figure out more appropriate last rites.

Amaryllis had mined the hallway with small purple crystals like the one that exploded in the shire-reeve’s office. They all had wires attached to them, which led into the garage and to an assembly I hadn’t noticed on the other side of car doors she’d been using for cover. At a guess, all she had to do was press her foot down and anything in the hallway would have been utterly destroyed.

She saw me with Poul, but she didn’t say anything about it. I tried my best to compose some sort of prayer, but nothing really seemed true, necessary, and kind.

“These are void bombs,” said Amaryllis, carefully holding one in her open palm. The others were covered in a piece of soft leather. “They are extremely dangerous.”

“Oh, that must be why someone threw one at me,” I said.

Skill increased: Comedy lvl 1!

“Then you know how dangerous it is?” she asked. I don’t know if she didn’t get the joke, or just didn’t think it was funny. Based on past experiences, the latter was a better bet.

“Yes,” I said, thinking about the skin and flesh that had been missing from my shoulder.

“They’re disconnected now, but I have the switches for them ready to go, it won’t take longer than five minutes,” she said. “The void will penetrate in all directions, so you’re going to have to make sure that there’s something between us and the detonation. It’ll go through about six inches of flesh and bone, half an inch of steel, or five hundred feet of air. Got it?”

I nodded. It sounded like I was more or less right about it being based on density. When she put on the switches and handed one to me, I got a small surprise.

Skill unlocked: Thrown weapons!

It didn’t bode well that I was going to be handling these things with a zero in that skill, but so far I hadn’t actually done too badly. My very first time swinging a one-handed weapon had been a critical hit that had split the zombie’s face in two, not that it had much effect on the outcome. I handed it back and she slipped it into a piece of soft leather.

When Amaryllis started up the soulcycle, I wasn’t quite prepared for it. My uncle had one of those huge, thick motorcycles, the kind that get referred to as ‘hogs’, which the soulcycle more or less resembled. I was thinking that this would be similar, with a thick chugging sound that would make it hard to talk. Instead, it gave off a sound like a crack of thunder and short, finger-long arcs of lightning arced out from the wheels as the whole thing rose up from the ground. It sat there with a shimmering translucent blue aura around the wheels, a few inches off the floor.

“Ignition was louder than I had hoped it would be,” said Amaryllis. She took the void tunneler from me, slung a pack that had been sitting beside the workbench over her shoulder, and straddled the soulcycle, which lowered a fraction of an inch. “Grab the rifle, shoot anything that gets close.”

I picked up the rifle --

Skill unlocked: Rifles!

-- but that message wasn’t entirely welcome, because it meant that my methods of attack were both ones that I was untrained with.

(There was something that had been bothering me about the game layer for some time now; it assumed that I was starting almost completely from zero. I had been in decent enough shape, good enough not to make a total ass of myself in Phy Ed, so why had the Athletics skill unlocked when I’d started running? Similarly, I had gone hunting almost every fall since I was ten years old. The rifle that Amaryllis had built was different from those, but how did the game layer interpret me to have zero skill with rifles in general?)

I climbed on board the soulcycle just behind Amaryllis and practicing sighting down the barrel of the void rifle and very lightly testing the pressure of the trigger to see how much give it had. I hadn’t removed my sword from my hip, but Amaryllis hadn’t questioned it, and the game layer seemed to indicate that there was some use for it.

“Bombs are in the pouch,” she said. “Deal with them carefully, because one would be enough to kill us both. Ready?”

“The door’s closed,” I said, looking at the rolling garage door.

“We’re going out the other way,” said Amaryllis. She twisted the throttle and steered the soulcycle through the garage, past Poul’s body and down the hallway. I was using two hands to hold onto the rifle, which meant that I was clinging to the soulcycle with just my thighs, similar to riding a horse without hands. Even going slow it was a little bit terrifying, in part because of the arcs of electricity (or something like it) that came from the shimmering aura we were using in place of wheels. It occurred to me that even though the soulcycle was fairly quiet, the glowing wheels, arcs of lightning, and fuel tank with glowing souls in it would all make us incredibly conspicuous.

The door was partly open already; Amaryllis must have done that when she was retrieving the bombs. She slowed down only slightly, raised her pistol with one free hand, and used it to nudge the rest of the door open. A single zombie was standing twenty feet away, staring at us with its glowing red eyes. Amaryllis took aim and with a thwip of her gun it crumpled. Then, she put on speed.

It was fairly underwhelming. As she’d guessed, the soulcycle topped out at fifteen miles per hour, which was fast enough to beat a person sprinting after us and certainly meant we could out-pace the Voltrons. It was still slower than I could pedal a bike though, and in comparison to a car it was practically sedate.

We’d made it all of half a block when the window of a car shattered next to us. Amaryllis was turning the soulcycle before the sound of the gunshot even reached us. I gripped the soulcycle between my legs, trying hard not to get bucked.

“Fuck,” said Amaryllis. She steered us down one of the streets that branched off from the main thoroughfare and put a building between us and our shooter just as the sound of another shot came rolling across the fields. “Ballistics,” she called back to me. “Their effective range is three times ours, maybe more.” She kept the soulcycle going, turning abruptly in an unpleasant way to take a different street. “If we drive toward them, we’re fucked. Ideas?”

“Punch through Comfort,” I said.

“If they have ballistics there?” she asked.

That was a very good question, to which I had no good answer. “We have to try,” I replied.

I felt a little bit sick when she nodded to that, because I knew it wasn’t a very good plan but the fact that she was concurring meant she agreed it was our best bet. So far as I saw it, the only other option we had was to hole up and hope that we could scavenge enough not to die while also successfully hiding out from both zombies and sweeps. Hit-and-run guerilla tactics might work in our favor, but all we needed was to get unlucky once. The only reason I was still alive was that leveling up had put me back in perfect health twice after serious injuries.

When we turned down the next street, we saw three members of the Fuschia Coterie standing on the roof of a two story building with one of them firing down on one of the zombie conglomerates, which was putting its forelimbs against the building and trying to swat at them. The rhythmic thwip sound was now audible over the sound of the soulcycle. The Coterie saw us immediately and two men with pink hair and long rifles raised them to fire at us. I lifted my own void rifle up and aimed at them just as they were aiming at me.

(We weren’t all that far away from each other, but I was moving, not in control of my movement, trying to keep my balance by squeezing my legs around the seat, and using a makeshift weapon that I had never fired before, which operated on technology that was beyond my understanding. I knew even before I took the shot that I was basically shooting for the sake of covering fire, hoping that they would see me take aim and move out of the way, thereby reducing the window they had to fire on us.)


Critical hit!

Skill increased: Rifles lvl 1!

Fuchsia Coterie sniper defeated!

I blinked in surprise as one of the riflemen tipped forward and fell over the edge of the roof, landing awkwardly on the conjoined zombies, which grabbed at him with the arms that jutted out from their collective body. When I looked up, both of the others were gone from view, most likely hiding from what they must have thought was hideously good aim.

(“I’ve always thought it was dumb,” said Reimer. “You roll a 20 and you get an automatic hit? So a level 1 commoner with cerebral palsy goes up against the greatest warrior of all time, a man in magical full-plate with a frickin’ tower shield with little mini tower shields floating around it, and there’s a 5% chance that he’ll hit? How is that not dumb?”

“It’s not about simulation,” Arthur replied. “You’re not supposed to think that the whole world is made up of people with levels who are acting in accordance with these abstract rules, that’s what’s -- I don’t want to say dumb, because I can see where that might appeal to people, but that’s not what these games are usually about. They’re about telling this small, improvised story that no one but a handful of people are ever going to hear. Having a rule like an automatic hit on a natural 20 is just in service of story-telling.” He turned to me. “Joon, tell us that story.”

“Which story?” I asked. “The one about the level 1 commoner and the best warrior in the world?” Arthur nodded. He was putting me on the spot and we both knew it, but that was part of how things were between us. Arthur considered it part of the implicit contract between player and DM. “Alright,” I said. “The commoner’s name is Moxit, he’s got cerebral palsy, and he’s depended on the kindness of strangers pretty much his whole life. He hates it, but there’s not really any other option for him. Eventually Kerland, the big bad warrior comes to town. He knows that he’s basically invincible to these people, which is why he likes these out-of-the-way places where there’s not even a hedge druid to send a messenger bird for aid. Now, the villagers know that Kerland is unstoppable, so they’re ready to submit right away, giving Kerland roasted chickens, loaves of bread, spare coin … and if he pushes, one of the village’s daughters might volunteer to keep his bed warm. And when Moxit sees this, he’s enraged. All these people he’s known all his life are acting helpless. Moxit spends his days struggling, trying to do what he can, trying not to be this burden. And now, now all these villagers are just giving up. So when Kerland is in the village center, Moxit steps out of a building with his bow at the ready. Kerland sees him and goes into a defensive stance, because while he’s incredibly powerful, he’s not so stupid as to give someone a free hit for no reason. Moxit looses his arrow,” and here I rolled a die behind my screen, a 15, which I quickly flipped to a 20 before holding it up to show the group. “His arrow releases at the perfect time and though at first it looks like it won’t, it eventually curves to just the right angle, going just over the tower shield in front of Kerland, passing right by the small floating shields of Romoc, and striking at one of the few weak points in the armor, a place between the plates where it’s soft leather. The arrow doesn’t kill Kerland, not even close, but it does graze him, and in that moment Kerland feels a real fear, because now they know that underneath a small kingdom’s worth of magic items and a body that would make the God of Might green with envy, Kerland is still just a man.”

“Hax,” said Reimer. “And the commoner could have just as easily rolled a 1. And the epic level fighter goes and straight up murders him with a single swing of his sword, and cleaves into someone standing next to the commoner just to make a point.”

“In which case it would be a different story,” said Arthur, “One about the futility of fighting, or about ego, or something like that. There are so many paths, the dice roll just shifts you from one path to another, from one story to another.”

And then the pizza came, and the argument was more or less forgotten.)

My eyes tracked back down from the roof of the building to Zombie Voltron, which had integrated the corpse of the sniper I had shot down. It turned to look at us with its bright red eyes and after a moment where something like a thought must have passed through something like a brain, it dropped its forelimbs from the building and began bounding toward us.

“Bombs,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was steady, as steady as it had been right before she put a hole through Poul’s head. I slung the rifle over my shoulder and grabbed reached into the pouch, grabbing two of the small leather balls that each contained a bomb. “Turning,” said Amaryllis, and I had to use my free hand to hold onto her hip in order to keep myself from slipping. “Throw when I say.”

The Zombie Voltron came around the corner after us. It was slower than us, but we had zombies and cars to navigate around, while Zombie Voltron just barreled past, barely slowed down. My heart was in my throat and fresh fear washed over me every time the soulcycle slowed down to maneuver.

“Now, behind that car!” shouted Amaryllis.

I hit the switch and threw the bomb, hitting the side of a car just as we passed it and gaining a skill level in the process. I grabbed onto Amaryllis again as I turned back to watch, one bomb still held firmly in my grip. The zombie-thing reached the car and for a moment I thought the timer would be too long, but I heard the subdued detonation and saw layers of flesh instantly exposed on the corpses near the back. Some of them tumbled down to the ground, but it didn’t stop the creature itself.

“Get it?” asked Amaryllis. I turned back to face the front just as we came within a hand's breadth of a zombie’s lunge.

“No,” I said. “Another?”

Amaryllis released one handlebar and lifted up her pistol, quickly firing it at a man I didn’t see until he was already stumbling to the ground and clutching his leg. “We need cover,” she called. “Wait for it.”

The town of Comfort was not particularly long, and we were rapidly reaching the end of it. I was worried about what would happen when we got out onto the open road; the rifles I was familiar with could shoot several football fields and it didn’t seem like that was too different here. Moving targets were harder to hit, especially if they were making an effort to move erratically … but I had landed a nearly impossible shot not a minute prior and I was scared to death that it cut both ways.

As it turned out, I should have been more worried about what was happening behind me. A second Voltron had joined the first, and both of them were chasing us. The obstacles we faced had started to thin out, but there was something in the red light of their eyes that was making me queasy. I felt a sigh of relief when they suddenly stopped, but then the two beast-shaped corpse piles began touching each other, frantically merging by sliding their component bodies over one another. In my mind’s eye I imagined a creature as large as a two story house rushing towards us, but what happened instead was that the mass of bodies parted to reveal something smaller than either of them had been.

If they had looked like they’d been molded from someone mashing bodies together, this new thing instead looked like the product of careful deliberation, as though someone had picked out the ten most intact bodies and put them together like they were working from factory instructions. At the front there were three human heads all facing toward us, their bodies trailing behind them to make up parts of the thing’s legs and torso. All glowed red as it looked around and tested its step. Then it began running.

“It’s faster than us,” I called out to Amaryllis. I set the bomb down, wedging it between us, and aimed the rifle behind me, awkwardly twisting in my seat while trying not to fall off. It was hard to tell whether my first shot hit, but the Death Hound didn’t stop or even slow. Kill the hearts. That was a simple plan with difficult execution, especially since the void rifle couldn’t penetrate through more than six inches of flesh.

“What’s faster?” asked Amaryllis. Her gun was out again and she was taking shots at something or someone I couldn’t immediately see.

“Find cover,” I said. “Gotta throw another bomb.”

She fired her pistol again. We were out of the town now, with only a few sparse buildings left on the long road ahead. “Car ahead,” she said. I was whipping my head back and forth, trying to judge time and distance. The Death Hound was too close to us, if I made the same throw I’d made before it would pass by the grenade uninjured.

I hit the switch on the bomb and threw it forward, ahead of us. I saw it roll and hit the car wheel and would have counted down if I thought these makeshift weapons had precise timing. I watched the void bomb on our entire brief approach, willing it not to kill us. At the last second I turned back to see the Death Hound and began to unsling my rifle again. We passed the car and I heard the muted detonation at the same moment, the events so close together that I almost thought that we were going to be caught in the blast. Instead, the Death Hound fell apart with arms, legs, and heads tumbling out onto the road.

Greater Umbral Zombie defeated!

Quest Complete: Comfort Zone!

Level up!

You might have thought that the golden light was familiar to me now, but it still managed to catch me by surprise, and the wave of ecstasy was no less sweet for having experienced it before. I lifted out of my seat, only slightly, and came back down without losing my balance. Amaryllis must have felt what was happening to me, because she turned the soulcycle then overcorrected the other way, leaving us briefly wobbling as she regained control.

“You,” said Amaryllis after some time. “We’re going to figure out what you are.”

Chapter Text

Amaryllis spotted a house beside a barn when we were two hours out from Comfort and we turned down a dusty, bumpy road overgrown with weeds to get there. We did a sweep for zombies, killing the two we found, then hid the soulcycle away and began trying to find something to eat. The kitchen was filled with long-since rotted food that I was almost hungry enough to attempt eating. On top of that there were cabinets with broken doors and upturned cans, clear signs of looting.

Eventually I went into the yard and looked around in the undergrowth. It hadn’t taken me terribly long to find where a garden once stood, and that was where I found our supper of raspberries, tomatoes, and onions.

Skill unlocked: Horticulture!

Before anything else, Amaryllis insisted that I tell her about the magic I possessed and the delusions I was under. We sat together in the porch as the sun set, until eventually the only light was moonlight filtered through a still-overcast sky. I described things in brief, until eventually I found myself having to tell her about tabletop roleplaying games.

“My friend used to describe it as basically being a play,” I said. I didn’t really say Arthur’s name much anymore, mostly because it brought a lump to my throat. “Except it’s a play without a script and instead of just making things up as you go along you have numbers and dice as a guide.”

Amaryllis nodded. “There is a form of public performance similar to that in Five Spires,” she said.

Five Spires exists, I thought to myself, filing that away for later. I had seen one of the White Spires on a calendar back in Comfort, so that wasn’t a particular surprise. “Do they use dice?” I asked. One of Greg’s favorite jokes was his character breaking out a pencil and paper and whittling dice to play a game-within-a-game. I’d humored him sometimes, when I thought the joke was funny. I had no idea if that kind of thing would end up here.

Amaryllis shook her head. “The action stops at various points within the play so that one of the characters can come forward and ask the audience for advice on some crucial decision. When the audience has made their choice clear, usually by yelling, the action resumes. All possible decisions are written ahead of time, with the traditional form having thirty-two possible outcomes. It’s low art. These games are similar?”

“No,” I said. “That sounds more like Twitch plays Shakespeare.”

She gave me a blank look. “Explain.”

“Uh,” I replied. “Nevermind. We’d be here all night.” I paused. “Do you have computers in Aerb?” (I hadn’t seen any in the shire-reeve’s or any of the shops that we’d been in, but I wasn’t sure that meant anything. The Risen Lands were in an exclusion zone, and making assumptions about the rest of the world based on what I saw here would be like an alien landing in Chernobyl and trying to infer what humanity was like from what it saw.)

“Yes, we have computers,” said Amaryllis.

“Okay, well the other thing I need to tell you is that while there are games that are played with paper, pencils, and dice, later on a bunch of those games transferred to computers, first by just adapting in the rules as well as they could, and after some time doing that they became their own thing. I mention that because I think that’s the sort of thing that the words and numbers in my head are mimicking. There’s, uh, a lot to talk about there.”

She gave me another blank look. “I don’t understand how a computer helps,” she said. “You said that there was math involved with these character sheets, but I was under the impression that it was all done by hand.”

“Right,” I said, not sure where the disconnect was happening. “So instead, the computer handles all that. Wait, are computers expensive here? On Earth they cost … a week’s wages, if you’re doing menial work.” That was roughly what my netbook had set me back.

“For how long?” asked Amaryllis.

“How long?” I asked.

“If you spend a week’s wages, how long do you have the computer’s labor for?” she asked.

“As long as they last, but most people trade in after two or three years,” I replied. I could feel the disconnect growing, but couldn’t imagine where it was. If they only had large-scale mainframes here her confusion would make more sense. “Low cost means that there are a lot of them.”

Amaryllis sighed. “When I say computer, I mean a woman trained for at least three years at the Athenaeum of Mathematics and Metaphysics, usually hired for the purposes of complex mathematical calculations relating to cryptography, physics, or the more esoteric magics. What is it that you mean?”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s actually what the word used to mean on Earth. Not with the athenaeum or magics, but ‘a person who computes’.” I had used that as a plot for a short adventure in a steampunk campaign. “We have electronic computers.” Amaryllis raised an eyebrow. “The numbers are more complex than in tabletop, because if you swing a sword with a certain amount of force, at a certain angle, then you can calculate whether it hits a different sword that’s moving at a different angle and speed, and the computer will just do all that without you having to think about it and tell you whether or not you parried.”

“I don’t think this is helping us,” said Amaryllis. “There have been a thousand dream-skewered, all of them interviewed and tested many times over at the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny. The details of these mechanical computers are interesting in an academic sense but don’t remotely explain the physical effects of your personal magic, nor the governing logic of it. There are so many questions that I’m starting to find it frustrating.”

“You think it’s frustrating?” I asked. “At least you have some knowledge of Earth and some context for my condition, even if I think you’re probably wrong. There’s this entire world of Aerb that I know nothing about, and half of it seems to be tied to things that are already in my head. And, I like talking about roleplaying games, partly because it lets me not think about the people I killed today, but you haven’t been very forthcoming with information.” As soon as the words were out I felt like I had gone too far. I’d snapped at people from time to time back on Earth; it was practically a daily occurrence in the weeks after Arthur had died. I was worried that she would turn away and say something like ‘we should get some rest’, but she only looked at me for a moment.

“We both want information,” she said. “Question for question, no more than a few minutes per answer, and follow-up questions can be taken as your next turn. The Athenaeums recommend structure. You can go first.”

I took some time to think.

Things to Ask Cypress Amaryllis

  1. How do I learn spells?
  2. What powers do gods have?
  3. What happened to the Risen Lands?
  4. Why were you on that plane?
  5. What are you the princess of?
  6. How large is Aerb in comparison to Earth?
  7. How quickly is technology progressing, if at all?
  8. What do the dream-skewered say about Earth?
  9. Does Fel Seed exist?
  10. Do the mimsies exist?
  11. Is there a city called Nightsmoke?
  12. Why don’t people say the z-word?
  13. What are void crystals and why were they banned?
  14. Where do souls come from?

I probably could have kept going. Every thirty seconds a new one popped in my head. I could sort of see the point of going tit-for-tat on questions though. It wasn’t just about equality in sharing information, it was about ensuring that both people would at least try to ask each other the important things first. I knew that we couldn’t spend all our time talking, which meant it was time to prioritize. I ended up starting with something that hadn’t even made the initial list.

“What’s in Silmar City?” I asked.

“That’s too many questions,” said Amaryllis, but she gave me a small smile after she said it, so I kept my complaint on my tongue. It was the first time she’d smiled at me. “The short version is that Silmar City was the target of the attack that formed the Risen Lands, it’s awash with the walking dead, and there was once a secret facility there dedicated to the study of necrotic field effect, which I believe contains a key we can use to teleport ourselves to safety.”

I opened my mouth to ask another question before I remembered that we were taking turns. “Okay, your turn.”

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 2!

“What skills does your character sheet say you have?” she asked.

I closed my eyes and read them off, slowing down only at the last three. “Comedy, level 1; Deception, level 4; … and Romance, level 0.”

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. I was sure that I was blushing. (And yes, I was in mortal danger, locked off from the world I knew, I had killed people, but she was so, so pretty and maybe I was just a stupid sop for looking at her like I did, or maybe I was trying to find comfort in whatever I could). “Your turn,” she replied.

“Okay,” I said quickly, trying not to trip over my tongue. “Where do souls come from?”

“Really?” she asked. I nodded. The question wasn’t important to my personal well being, but it had been nagging at me. “Can I ask why you want to know? You can count it against me, if you’d like.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “By my reckoning, the tank on the soulcycle could hold about seventy souls, maybe as many as a hundred. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve seen empty glass tanks that look like they probably contained souls. Even simple math seems to show that there are far, far too many souls sitting around.”

Amaryllis let out a puff of air that didn’t quite rise to being a sigh. “The soul first appears six days after conception, though we don’t believe it’s capable of going to hell until roughly one month after formation. You are correct that our desire for souls as a power source far outstrips those available from people naturally dying, so to that end we have laboratory techniques which create souls from volunteer samples. Almost all the stock you see comes from a combination of Podsnap’s Technique and Bokanovsky’s Process.”

That sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Souls and the afterlife were one of the default assumptions in most fantasy games, so it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had thought up something like that … but the memory was unclear, and I was distracted by a sudden realization of the implications.

“You’re creating souls to damn them to the hells,” I said.

Amaryllis shifted uncomfortably. “In theory,” she began, then stopped. “The lie we tell ourselves is that the souls will be created and then used up with no conscious experience to speak of. Usually that’s true, but accidents and assaults happen. A large enough bomb detonated in a city wouldn’t just claim the lives of the people, it would consign the purpose-made souls to hell. Thousands of them, maybe millions.”

“Shit,” I said. What happens when someone gets to hell? Do they have a body? Would thousands of newborn babies just drop out of the sky? It churned my stomach enough that I decided I didn’t want to ask just now.

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “In the games you play, what skills, aside those you’ve already ‘unlocked’ would you most expect to see?” she asked.

“Um,” I swallowed, trying to shift gears. I closed my eyes and looked at my character sheet. “One-handed weapons implies two-handed weapons, parrying and dodging imply blocking with a shield, pistols and rifles mean maybe automatic rifles or shotguns, horticulture is new but that makes me think along the lines of crafting or gathering skills like smithing or mining, and of the social skills … persuasion is notably absent, and I think I would have gotten that by now, but that does leave intimidation. And depending on how magic works, I’d think I’d have at least one magic skill.”

“Try to intimidate me,” said Amaryllis. She leaned back and waited with an expectant look on her face.

“Um,” I said. I raised my fist. “You, you had better … had better not sleep during your guard shift tonight. Or else.”

Skill unlocked: Intimidation!

Critical failure!

I had hoped that Amaryllis would laugh, or at least give me another smile, even if it was a small one, but instead she just raised an eyebrow. “Did that work?” she asked. “You took your focus off me for a moment.”

“Yes, it worked,” I said. “Thanks. I critically failed.”

“Yes, I saw,” said Amaryllis. She didn’t smile, she smirked, but it was close enough that I started blushing again.

Skill increased: Romance lvl 1!

“Is it your turn or mine?” I asked.

“Yours,” she said calmly. I had this certainty that she could read me like a book.

I tried to think back to my list, but I was tempered by her last answer. I was going to have to sleep in this creepy house. “What are you the princess of?” I asked.

“Right now?” asked Amaryllis. “Nothing.” She saw my frown and tucked hair behind her ear. “I was part of the Lost King’s --” she stopped and shook her head. “Can I tell you a story, as a prelude?”

“Sure,” I replied. I had just noticed myself getting tired and was willing to end our mutual questions in favor of sleep. A story that gave me a reprieve from the intensity of thought the question game required sounded nice.

“There was once was a great and powerful king,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was different, in telling it, and I had the feeling that this was a proper Story, not just a recounting of things that happened. “He was everything a person could want a king to be, kind and just, noble and pure, charming and avuncular, like he was a loving father to the entire kingdom. He had two sons, one a warrior, always on the battlefield, and the other a scholar and administrator. Each of the princes was skilled in his own way, each loved equally by their father.

“One day, the king went on a great and dangerous quest. He never returned.”

Quest accepted: The Lost King, Found?

I immediately began paying the full amount of attention as Amaryllis continued.

“The administrator had been put in charge of the kingdom while their father was away, but it was his brother, the warrior, who was the eldest and therefore the rightful heir. As weeks turned into months, the warrior began to push for the administrator to declare their father dead. The administrator refused, because their father was so wise and powerful that he would never have gone on a quest of such importance and then simply failed. The brothers argued at length as the months turned into years. It was a time of peace, one forged by the king, which meant that the warrior was mostly concerned with petty threats and the appearance of strength. It was the administrator who had all the actual powers of rule, in the king’s protracted absence.

“Eventually matters came to a head. The two brothers fought one another … I’m actually going to skip this part, because the way it usually goes it takes ages to get through, but it would suffice to say that the administrator bested the warrior three times and the matter was laid to rest. To avoid a civil war and ensure that the matter was truly settled, they jointly declared that their father, that wise and glorious king, would not give up his crown until either he returned or his body was recovered.”

Amaryllis let out a breath. “That was five hundred years ago. Every heir of either brother since then has been styled as Prince or Princess, and there are hundreds of us in almost every important governmental role, so don’t think that I actually stand to inherit a proper title of Queen one day. I’ve seen more than one foreigner make that mistake.” She held out a hand. “Amaryllis Penndraig, tenth of her name, Special Liaison on Existential Emergencies for the Kingdom of Anglecynn, long may it stand.”

I shook her hand weakly. My blood had run cold. “The Lost King,” I said slowly. “What was his name?”

She looked at me like she thought I was about to faint. “Uther Penndraig,” she said slowly.

“Oh,” I whispered. I recognized the name, only this time it wasn’t one of mine.

“Tom, character name?” I asked.

“Elhart Cloakshield,” he replied in his most pompous voice, the one he reserved for elves and wanna-be elves. “Signature move: twirling his cloak and using it like a shield.”

“So he decided that he couldn’t let a name like Cloakshield go to waste?” I asked.

“There is literally nothing in the rules that allows that to work,” said Reimer.

“Maybe Cloakshield is a family name?” asked Arthur. “The Smith family name comes from generations of blacksmiths, it’s not totally insane to think that they’d get a name that identified their most defining combat ability.”

“An ability which, again, the rules do not provide for,” said Reimer.

“Eh, we can do it as a weak custom magic item,” I replied. “I’ll figure it out later. Arthur, character name?”

“Uther Penndraig,” he said with a smile. “Mechanically he’s a pretty standard sword-and-board fighter, but I’ll be taking some paladin levels later on, just to warn you.”

I jotted that down in my notebook. The start of a campaign always saw my notebooks more organized and the first session started with a page neatly divided up so I would have places to write down details of all the player characters. It would only be later that it would descend into scribbles of names and place I never remembered a few days later.

“Arthur Pendragon?” asked Reimer. “I thought we weren’t doing copycat names.”

“I said you couldn’t be a warforged named Megatron,” I replied with a roll of my eyes.

“He’s the leader of the Decepticons!” said Reimer.

“Technically I picked Uther , who is Arthur’s canonical father,” said Arthur. “And I picked the Middle English version of Penndraig so it would be less immersion breaking. But yeah, I always wanted to have a character that was something of a King Arthur ripoff. Not that I think I am King Arthur or anything, but I grew up with the name and I’ve always thought there was a connection to famous people you share a name with, like if your name were Alexander you might have an interest in Alexander the Great, or if your name were Benjamin you might think about Benjamin Franklin.”

“Didn’t he have syphilis?” asked Tom. “Also, why are there no famous people named Tom?”

“Tom Hanks?” asked Reimer.

“Historical Toms, I mean,” said Tom.

“Thomas Aquinas,” I said, holding up a finger. “Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison,” I continued.

We went around the room like that for a while, until eventually Craig went to Google and began listing off every single Tom of note since the New Testament. Arthur leaned over to me while that list was being read off.

“I can change the name,” he said.

“No, it’s fine, I get it,” I replied. “I mean, obviously you can’t start as the King of England, but I’ll see what I can do about a watery tart throwing a sword.”

And that was more or less how Arthur had started down the road to becoming the Best King Ever.

And now Uther Penndraig was here, in this world, as a part of this game or whatever it was. I shouldn’t have been so surprised by that; every world I had ever made had players stomping around in it, why shouldn’t those characters be there too? But I’d always felt like players were intrusions in the worlds, not fully acquainted with what I had made, and I was always bending to them, even to Arthur, if only a little bit. A fresh wave of fear came over me as I thought about some of Reimer’s characters being here.

And that quest, “The Lost King, Found?”. If Uther Penndraig was a real person in this place … he wouldn’t be Arthur, I couldn’t start imagining that, and he had been missing for five hundred years, but the game wouldn’t give me a quest that I couldn’t complete, would it? I started getting dizzy with hope just thinking about it. Even if Uther wasn’t Arthur, it was a creation of his, a character that had started as a ripoff and become its own personality.

“Do you want first shift or second shift?” asked Amaryllis. “We’ll sleep here tonight, since I don’t see any red eyes on the horizon. We might have to get up in the middle of the night to clear them out before they can clump up.” It took me a moment to realize that she’d let the questions and answers die out without even mentioning it.

“Second shift,” I said. “If that’s okay with you.”

The air had gotten chilly and we hadn’t found any usable bedding in the house. I wondered whether I would even be able to get to sleep given all that had happened that day. I tried to make myself comfortable on the hard floor with, Amaryllis sitting next to me and keeping watch, but it was cold and awkward. I spent some time looking up at the ceiling of this abandoned place, then turned over and looked at a wall instead.

This went on for about half an hour until Amaryllis reached down, placed a thumb to my forehead, and said a word that seemed to slip off my mind like a runny egg. I was out like a light before I could even think the word magic.

Chapter Text

I woke up to Amaryllis whispering. She was kneeling beside me and touching my face. I had a moment of confusion at seeing her until the world came back into focus and I realized where I was.

Achievement Unlocked: Under the Moon of the First Night

“It’s your turn to keep watch,” she was whispering. “Are you awake? Are you with me?”

“Yes,” I replied. I got to my feet and looked around, blinking. The sky was no longer obscured by clouds, which made things a lot brighter than when I had gone to sleep. Multi-colored stars had been revealed, with all the colors from across the spectrum of visible light, pinks, greens, blues, and oranges that were astrophysically impossible. There were no constellations I recognized, but there was something like the Milky Way, a thick region of stars so dense their individual colors were hard to make out; it looked like a gash upon the sky. And the moon … the moon had no blemishes on it, no familiar craters, but it was laced through with geometric lines that all seemed to terminate in a point of pinkish light where the Sea of Tranquility would have been.

“Celestar,” I breathed. Once the home of the elves, before they’d been forced to flee. This world has elves.

“Residual knowledge?” asked Amaryllis.

I wanted to say that it wasn’t, to protest that Celestar had been my idea, this permanent monument to what the elves had lost, stark and clear for everyone to see, every single night … but instead, I said, “Probably,” then, “Get some sleep.”

“Wake me at first dawn,” she said, “My watch was clear, I hope you can say the same.” She laid down where I had been and folded her arms across her chest, then lay still. I looked her over, then turned away because I felt like a creep.

At best guess, I had four hours to spend on watch. The porch we’d taken up residence in had a full view of the fields. We weren’t as defensible as I would have liked, but there had been no red lights of zombie eyes visible for miles around and the Coterie, if they were in pursuit, would know our direction as we left Comfort but almost nothing else about where we were going or might possibly stop.

Keeping watch was dreadfully boring. Most games, both tabletop and computer, would just skip through the watch and tell you if something interesting happened. Games weren’t meant to simulate tedium, which was more or less what keeping watch was. After what felt like thirty minutes but was probably more like ten, I started getting antsy.

It took three seconds to bring my character sheet up. I had two more points to spend from having leveled up. I was very conscious of having my eyes closed, a situation which was not amenable to keeping a lookout. I resolved to drop back out of the menu at a regular interval and then looked over the stats. My modus operandi had become to simply pour points into PHY, which increased POW, SPD, and END. I could feel the changes from it already in the way that I moved. I was more muscular than I had been in fifth period English class, enough that people back home probably would have asked me if I had been working out, but I didn’t think that I’d place at the top of my class in terms power, speed, or endurance, at least not yet.

The problem was, I didn’t know what the game’s power curve looked like with regards to the numbers it showed me. If they were sublinear (that is, produced less of an effect per point invested) then I was almost certainly better off spreading points around as soon as I could spare them. If they were linear (that is, produced an equal effect per point) then I was still better off spreading them around because of the diminishing marginal utility of each point (e.g. the difference between being able to jump 10 ft. and 12 ft. was a lot greater than the difference between being able to jump 200 ft. and 202 ft.). If the points were exponential … well, then I had probably already blown it, because if I’d spent it all on SPD I could have had it up to 10 by now.

The problem was, the stats weren’t exposed.

“Settings,” I said at a whisper. “Help. Options.”

Nothing happened. But then, I had never used voice commands for any of the game stuff. The tooltips appeared when I looked at things long enough, I’d swiped from one page to the other using eye movements, and I’d spent ability points by looking at the little plus signs. Nothing had indicated to me that vocalizing what I wanted was a path to success.

I opened my eyes and looked out at the fields, scanning for movement and light as was my dreadfully dull duty. I kept this up for a minute or so, then retreated back into my character sheet.

Everything game interaction had been done using my eyes in some way. How would I signal that I needed some kind of main menu then? What was the eye control equivalent of pressing Escape on the keyboard or Ctrl+Alt+Del? It would have to be something that I wouldn’t just do by accident, but that I could still do fairly easily. I still wasn’t counting on basic principles of design being followed, but ideally it should be something that held meaning, because obviously I couldn’t refer to a shortcut cheat sheet.

I tried lots of things, until my eyes were starting to hurt from whipping them around. Why couldn’t the game have done something like putting a discreet box in the upper lefthand corner? Eventually I decided that the answer was probably about encoding . The game recognized blinks, which I’d been using to clear messages, it recognized left and right swipes, and though they didn’t actually seem to do anything, the pages at least gave some movement when I tried going up and down. If I were going to encode something … well, if I were going to encode something, and it was just for me , not a generalized system for other people …

Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right ...

And I didn’t have to think about how I was going to complete the rest, because the settings screen popped up in front of me with three vertical columns of options.

Ironman Mode Verisimilitude Mode Quest Logging
Hardcode Ironman Mode Mini-map Verbose Quest Logging
Diamond Hardcode Ironman Mode World map Achievement Logging
Helldiver Fast Travel Hit points
Dead-man's Switch Quest Markers Mana points

I read through it cautiously, careful not to hover over any checkbox for too long, lest I accidentally change something. Then I swore silently, under my breath, careful not to wake Amaryllis. The tooltips had given me bad news. On the one hand, I had already been acting under the assumption that death would be bad (duh), but to see “you will die for real” spelled out so clearly and unambiguously, and to see a checkbox I couldn’t uncheck taunting me was still like a slap in the face. Similarly, “Verisimilitude Mode” was locked down, and it cut off a number of features that I would have found exceptionally useful. I hadn’t had “Fast Travel”, but now I knew I never would, because I was stuck in Verisim Mode.

“Helldiver” confirmed the existence of the hells, but it led down a philosophical rabbit hole. Was it better to die or to live a life of eternal suffering? I didn’t know that I could properly answer that. Amaryllis had said that the highest level of hell wasn’t much worse than Comfort, which seemed bearable, even in the long term. I decided against checking the box right that instant. Similarly, the “Dead Man’s Switch” would kill me if I was going to suffer a fate worse than death. That seemed on the surface like a similar deal with regards to death and suffering, but it left me asking the question of “Worse by whose definition?” so the checkbox was also left unchecked.

I turned “Verbose Quest Logging” on, then “Hit Points” and “Mana Points” too, on the theory that they would give me more information, and more information was good.

When I opened my eyes, there was a little red bar in the lower left corner of my vision, in a place that should have been at the very edge of my periphery but was somehow still entirely in focus. When I paid any attention at all to it, it showed two numbers with a slash between them, “ 27/27 ”, and the word “Health” appeared running vertically alongside the bar. That wasn’t terribly helpful and the tooltip said there was no mechanical impact, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Convention would have dictated that there be a blue bar on the right side for mana, but I didn’t know any magic as yet.

I looked for zombies, and there were still none.

Despite opening the settings page, there was nothing there that helped me. There was no way to expose the actual mechanics of the game, not even by enabling hit points, because the hit points were just a representation of health that seemed like it would be far inferior to what I could tell just by paying attention to my injuries. And by my reckoning, I was still at least three hours away from the end of my shift, maybe more.

However, the fact that mechanics weren’t directly exposed didn’t mean that there was no way to figure them out. The game had given no explanation that touching a weapon would unlock a skill, but I had cottoned onto that after seeing it happen two times. I checked to make sure that Amaryllis was still sleeping, then grabbed the void tunneler and stepped out in the night.

Thwip. Thwip. Thwip. Thwip. Thwip. Thwip. Thwip.

Skill increased: Pistols lvl 6!

I strolled over to the target that I had set up, a dented aluminum can with a label so faded that I could just barely make out a red splotch. It had holes in it now, perfectly round like they’d been drilled in with machine precision. My aim wasn’t great; I had missed twice and I could see one of those times had put a hole in the wooden fence I’d set the can on top of. I turned it over twice, then went back to take position a little bit further away, scanning the horizon the entire time. I wished that I had a silencer, but had no idea how to fashion even a bad one for something like this gun. It wasn’t very loud, but even with a light breeze rustling the tall grass, it was the loudest thing around.

I was faintly surprised that I was able to increase in skill by shooting at a can. Logically, people got better at combat-related things mostly by intensively training outside of combat. Professional MMA fighters had something like four ten-minute fights a year, which were interspersed with months of intensive training. Fighting in the real world had value, sure, but it was the months of training that mattered most. But that was boring , so games always found ways to minimize that truth, because a game that gives players an incentive to do really boring things is a poorly designed game. Otherwise, you’d have people sequestering themselves away and shooting at cans until their Pistols skill was up to maximum level and they could shoot the wings off a fly at a hundred yards.

I kept shooting, thwip, thwip, thwip , and was eventually able to learn a thing or two. First of all, it did matter whether I was making an effort, because holding the pistol off to one side and covering my face so I couldn’t see what I was shooting at did nothing. Second, the skill ups got slower as I went, which I had more or less expected. Third, for whatever reason I wasn’t getting critical hits or misses. And fourth…

Skill increased: Pistols lvl 12! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat SPD.)

That was after what felt like about two hours of shooting, enough that my fingers had gotten numb. It wasn’t dawn yet, but it was noticeably lighter now, enough to make the stars seem to fade away.

The message wasn’t clear on whether it meant SPD was a primary stat for that ability, or a primary stat because it was one of the basic ones. It was still enormously important in figuring things out, because it meant that not only did I know for certain that abilities were associated with skills, it also meant that I knew how important abilities were. My go-to plan of putting everything into PHY was basically shot now, because neglecting mental and social abilities would mean that I would forevermore suck at the associated skills. In other words, I couldn’t make up for lacking in cunning by being really, really good at skills that took cunning.

I shook my hand, set the gun down, and tried to think about what to do next. That was when I got hit in the side of the head with a rock. I swore, dropped down, and was grabbing for the gun just as I heard Amaryllis shout, “You’re dead.”

I rubbed at the side of my head, which was bleeding slightly. My hit points were down to 24/27 , which didn’t seem right to me. I stood up, picked up the gun, and walked over to Amaryllis. If she had been standing beside the house, I might have had an excuse for not seeing her before her rock hit me, but she was on the opposite side of me from the house, which meant that she had to have snuck around me without making a sound.

“Sorry,” I said as I wiped my bloody fingers on my shirt. I belatedly realized that I didn’t have a change of clothes; I’d be wearing that stain for a while yet.

“You were on watch,” said Amaryllis.

“I know,” I replied. “I was looking around, I just, I wanted to get better for when we get to Silmar.”

Amaryllis paused and her face softened slightly. “And did you?”

I nodded. “Fewer misses, better clustering on the hits, both while moving further away from the targets.”

“Unnatural improvements?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “I think so.”

“You left me while I was asleep,” she said with a frown. “While I was at my most vulnerable. If I could sneak up on you, so could someone else. I could have had my throat slit because you violated our agreement. Don’t do it again.” She turned away from me. “Come on, we should get going.”

Generally speaking, when I made maps I included as few details as possible. The bare minimum for tabletop worldbuilding was a starting location and a destination, with nothing but those two points and a line connecting them to each other. Of course, a world with only those two initial necessaries would seem barren and lifeless, so I would add things in to give the impression that it was a living, breathing place. A line marks a river that needs crossing, which implies a bridge, a forest runs alongside what are presumably fields, and there are other roads aside from the one between the only two ‘real’ locations, which go off and (presumably) connect to other places. Keeping a simple map with a lot of suggestive elements helped when one adventure rolled into the next one, because one of those lines could be attached to a new location that I’d thought up. By not marking down too much ahead of time, I was free to improvise when players asked me things, things like “Is there a wizard’s tower nearby?” or “Where is the nearest place we could find some trolls?” A detailed map would have left me scrambling to change things around when I needed the world to be different from what I’d originally put down.

I mention this mostly because the area we traveled through was almost exactly the sort of nondescript place that separated the two points of importance. It was flat (former) farmland as far as the eye could see, broken up with occasional streams and clumps of trees. There were farmhouses and the occasional gas station, miles of electric poles stretching electricity across the land. It could have been Kansas, or Nebraska, or virtually anywhere in the Midwest. If this place had been a character, it would have been the blandest of NPCs, the shopkeeper who sells you his wares without giving so much as a hint of having any personality or motives.

I shot at things as we went, using the rifle to do so. Amaryllis had suggested it. We were only going fifteen miles an hour, after all, and while the zombies were fairly infrequent so long as we stayed clear of places with a lot of buildings, there were road signs, trees, and rocks for me to take aim at. This time, I got the message much sooner.

Skill increased: Rifles lvl 6! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat CUN.)

That made me nervous for the value of my choices thus far, and with some reluctance I put my two points in raising MEN (and thus CUN, KNO, and WIS) by one. It wasn’t just a matter of rifles, I really didn’t want to get locked out of being able to perform magic.

We stopped after four hours of travel in the middle of a long stretch of road with no one in sight. My legs and back were killing me, and I was as hungry as I thought I had ever been back on Earth. I’d picked up an affliction “Hungry” but it didn’t appear to have any penalties associated with it. I imagined that like “Cowardice” it would get worse if I didn’t do something about it, and tried to ignore both the hunger and the looming status effects.

“Forage should get better as we move toward Silmar,” said Amaryllis. She was going through a stretching routine that looked totally unfamiliar to me, moving with smooth motions that paused in difficult-looking configurations. She would have looked amazing while eating a ham sandwich, but during these stretches I felt my heartbeat pick up. Maybe there was a part of my brain that thought she was dancing for me.

“You think we’ll find something to eat?” I asked, trying to ignore her.

“Silmar was the site of the attack that created the Risen Lands,” said Amaryllis. “They’ve been dropping people here for years, all over the place, but if you want to survive you move away from Silmar. It’s basically been untouched. Most of the food will have gone bad anyway, but we have better odds of finding things that are unspoilt. Besides that, the field effect was stronger near the epicenter, which means that rats and birds would have been caught in it too.”

“And … that’s a good thing?” I asked. Before she could answer, I realized what she’d been saying. “Meaning that animals wouldn’t have gotten into everything, because they’d have been zom- … turned into glowing-eyed undead versions of themselves.” I tried to think about that some more. “If I’m hearing you right, a weaker version affects larger things?”

Amaryllis shrugged. “It’s academic,” she said. “I would rather stick to telling you the things that could save our lives in a crucial moment rather than going over esoterica about the necrotic field effect present in the Risen Lands.”

Maybe if I hadn’t been so thoroughly chastised for shirking my watch duty, I would have tried to push back, but I was on edge thinking about getting a message that loyalty had dropped. Amaryllis was someone the game deemed important and I figured that if I lost her, I was as good as dead.

“Do you think the Fuschia Coterie will follow?” I asked.

“If they can,” she replied, craning her head back to perfectly expose her neck. “Part of the reason we’re going to Silmar is that I expected them to have arranged themselves to intercept us going the other way. I’d say there are even odds that they can get a vehicle up and running, if they didn’t have something equivalent in their supply cache.”

“Supply cache?” I asked.

“That’s a guess on my part,” said Amaryllis. “They didn’t leave the plane armed, and their weapons weren’t outside of the norm for what might be found, but it strikes me as suspicious that so many of them would have found weaponry. There are laws against flying over the Risen Lands, but they’re poorly enforced. It wouldn’t have been trivial, however … someone spent a fair amount of personal and political capital in order to have me die in a way which could be vigorously denied afterward. In the Lost King’s Court, it’s acceptable to murder your opponents, so long as you don’t let anyone know that you’re doing it. So yes, I believe that the Fuschia Coterie is better supplied than one would expect of men dropped into this wasteland with nothing but their clothes.”

“We’re better equipped than I would expect,” I said, looking over at the pistol and rifle that sat beside the motorcycle powered by human souls. It still had seven souls in the tank, I noted.

“Our enemies have made the crucial mistake of underestimating a Penndraig,” said Amaryllis. She stood up, rolled her shoulders, and began walking back over to the soulcycle. “Though one has to wonder how many Penndraigs died almost immediately after making a statement like that.”

Chapter Text

We made one last stop when Silmar City was in view on the horizon. All I could really see of it was that it was less reflective than I thought of cities as being; whatever materials the taller, skyline defining buildings were made of, it was something gray instead of glass. All that could be held off for later though, because I had been preparing to speak with Amaryllis for the last long stretch of road.

The plan didn’t really deserve that name.

Anglecynn had established a research base within Silmar City to study the effects of the necrotic field effect. Part of their remittance was a teleportation key, which was apparently an incredibly valuable and literally irreplaceable bit of magic which allowed organic beings the ability to teleport, a process which was apparently lethal if you didn’t possess one of these magic items. (Amaryllis hadn’t called them magic items, but I called it like I saw it.) Amaryllis was on part of the council that had established this base, and when it had stopped responding, there had been something of a panic, mostly because an operation to recover the teleportation key was going to be necessary and there was no money in the black budget to fund said operation, and pulling in more funds would have required other council authorizations that would have brought significant unwanted attention on the faction within Anglecynn that --

“Blah, blah, blah, politics,” as Reimer would have said.

I didn’t want to treat everything she was saying as essentially flavor text, but Amaryllis didn’t seem to be in the mood for giving me a civics lesson, and I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about trying to untangle all of the assumptions implicit in the background she was giving me. And there were other parts that mattered to me much more, such as:

“Assuming that you’d found the money in the budget to retrieve the key, what would that have looked like?” I asked.

Amaryllis frowned and knit her eyebrows. “There would be a series of advisors to develop the plan,” she said. “However, in lieu of that, and with the caveat that I might be missing something major … it would likely have been a team of five or ten, because that’s the increment the teleportation key applies to, three casters of different flavors among them in order to provide redundancy in getting back, plus one brute, possibly a caster himself, linked through the soul in order to take the hits himself, plus at least a single blade-bound warrior to scythe through lesser threats. They would have cleared forward to the facility, attempting to identify the threat and prepared to teleport back out if things exceeded their abilities, then depending on what they found there, they would have gone in and done their best to find the key based on the facility floorplans that they would have acquired ahead of time.”

“Ah,” I said slowly. “Are you sure we want to do this?” That was a question that I asked a lot as a DM, mostly as a signal to the party that they were going to do something incredibly dumb.

“Yes,” she replied. “I’ve evaluated the options and this is the one least likely to end up with me in a shallow grave.”

“Alright,” I replied. “Then before we go, I want you to teach me magic.”

“That’s impossible,” said Amaryllis with a shake of her head. “Even the simple magic, like what I’m able to do, takes years of study. I know three spells, none of which you would be able to do without at least three months of intensive study.”

“And if my power applies to magic too?” I asked.

Amaryllis paused. “We can spend a half hour,” she said. “Time is only of the essence because of the possibility of the Coterie behind us, and I think we can spare a little bit for testing. Tell me what you know about blood magic.”

“Uh,” I paused. “Nothing. I mean, I have some guesses, but nothing immediately springs to mind.”

“Guess for me please,” she said.

“Well … my guess is that it would be something like what I’ve seen before, back on Earth,” I said. “So maybe blood magic is the ability to control blood telekinetically, or maybe it’s using your blood to store spells from other sources, or maybe it’s tapped into the elemental plane of blood, or maybe you have to drink blood to take on the blood’s power, or maybe you have to spill your own blood as a sacrifice in order to fuel different effects.”

Amaryllis was giving me a funny look.

“Was one of those correct?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “The depth of the dream-skewer astounds me sometimes.” I frowned at that and she hurried on. “No, blood magic taps into the raw, vital essence of the body, tapping it and shaping it for other purpose. The most skilled blood magi can extend their power beyond the body itself, extending their essence into the shape of a tool or weapon.”

“And these weapons are … blood whips or something?” I asked. That seemed a lot like telekinesis to me.

“Whips would be nearly impossible,” she said. “The energy of the body only obeys the laws of physics reluctantly. No, spears are the most common. That sort of magic is beyond my level though, and I’m only telling you about it for the sake of illustration. For now, close your eyes and feel your blood pumping within you. Listen to the beat of your heart and feel your pulse, not with your fingertips but just as it flows through your neck, your arms, your thighs. Open your eyes.”

When I opened my eyes, she was standing closer to me, and if I hadn’t been able to feel my pulse before, I probably would have felt the rush of blood then.

“This next part normally causes some frustration,” she said. “Once you feel your blood, truly feel it, not just as some part of you that operates automatically without your involvement, you have to think about it in parts. Think about the warmth of your blood, think about how your fingers would feel if you tied them up with string and cut your circulation, then think about the warmth of your blood spreading back into them.” I did as she said. “That’s an exercise we practiced, but we don’t have the time for it now, not to do properly, and don’t want to risk your fingers.” I nodded, still trying to feel what she was talking about. This was sounding more and more like some kind of ki system.

“Now,” said Amaryllis. “Call on the warmth of your blood and push it to your fingertips.” She concentrated on her index finger and forefinger, which ignited with flame. She let me watch for a few seconds, then it disappeared, with no apparent ill effects. “Now you try.”

I did as she had instructed me, feeling my blood, feeling its movement, feeling its warmth, then pushing that warmth to my fingertip - which lit up with flame.

Unlocked skill: Blood Magic!

Achievement Unlocked: Thicker than Water

Spell discovered: Aarde’s Touch!

Amaryllis stared at my lit finger. I stared at my lit finger. A small, blood-red bar popped up in my lower right field of vision. When I released the mental sense of pressure I was placing on my fingertip, the flame went out. Neat.

“Who is Aarde?” I asked.

“A god,” Amaryllis replied. “That spell took me months to learn. Months . I had the best teachers in the world and literally centuries of institutional knowledge on how best to coax someone into understanding. You … had me, giving you a haphazard lesson from incomplete memories, over the course of a few minutes, when both of us are half-starved. It should be impossible, unless ...” She stopped with downcast eyes.

“Unless?” I prompted.

“Unless you knew blood magic in your previous life and the skewer took you only incompletely,” she replied.

“No, I think it’s the game thing,” I said. I stuck out my finger and lit it up again. It was much easier the second time and took no more effort on my part than snapping. The mana bar wasn’t moving at all, and didn’t seem to display any numbers for me. “What’s the limiting factor on blood magic?” I asked.

“Personal skill,” said Amaryllis.

I frowned at that. I was pretty sure that the game wouldn’t be showing me a mana bar that represented personal skill. I spread the flame across my fingertips, then covered my entire hand in it until it was blazing like a torch. “So I can keep doing this indefinitely?” I asked. “Does this do anything other than provide light?”

Skill increased: Blood magic lvl 1!

Amaryllis’ mouth was agape at my display, which I have to admit felt quite good. “The light it produces is a reflection of the heat you’re invoking,” she said. “It doesn’t have much utility, though you can go around without carrying a lighter. I swear the reason smoking was even remotely popular at the athenaeum was that it allowed people to show off their proficiency.”

I nodded at that, then let the warmth leave my hand and the fire wink out.

“So what you’re saying is that we could have had a fire last night?” I asked.

“A fire clearly visible from miles in every direction, yes,” said Amaryllis.

“Ah,” I replied. “Point taken. Wait a minute, I need to see what the spell looks like in my head.”

I closed my eyes for three seconds and called up the character sheet, then navigates to the page where “Spells Known” were listed. The page had changed somewhat since last time I had seen it; there was now a heading for Blood Magic and below that, Aarde’s Touch.

Aarde’s Touch: Channels the warmth of your blood to create a small fire at your fingertips, which does not burn you. Objects set on fire or heated may still harm you. Saps heat from your body and may leave you feeling chilly if used too long. Consumes 0 drops of blood.

“Huh,” I said, opening my eyes. “This spell … doesn’t make a lot of sense. Flames are a result of oxidation, aren’t they? I mean, that hasn’t changed in this world?”

“You would have to visit the Athenaeum of Quills and Blood if you want to know more,” said Amaryllis, and while that was a pitch-perfect NPC line, no quest popped up for me. “I had a knack for it, but I’m a novice … though if you were just wondering whether flames are caused by oxidation, then yes, they normally are.”

“By my count we’re not yet through the half hour,” I said, lighting my hand and then letting it extinguish as my concentration lapsed. “And you said that you knew three spells.”

Amaryllis nodded. “Fine then, something more advanced in the realm of blood magic,” she said. “Feel your blood coursing through your veins, then feel your pulse, feel the movement of it within your veins.” She made a fist with her slender fingers, which somehow didn’t seem threatening at all even though everything I knew about her indicated that she was fully capable of kicking my ass. “Now, draw back, and with the next pump of your heart, as you feel the blood flow down your arm --” Her fist blurred through the air and made a sound like the swing of a baseball bat through the air. “Draw on the force of your heart. If you manage it, tell me what information you learn.”

I made a fist and concentrated on my blood. I was fairly sure that I had never tried to focus on the pulsing of my blood in my veins before, and if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to actually tell when the blood was moving, especially since it was necessarily moving in both directions. But here, on Aerb, I could feel it, almost keenly when I was paying attention. I reared back, tried to set my tempo to the beat of my heart, then --

Skill increased: Blood Magic lvl 2!

Spell discovered: Crimson Fist!

It seemed like an unbelievable amount of power to be put into a fist, and I went off-balance, stumbling slightly before regaining my composure.

“It’s called Crimson Fist,” I said.

Amaryllis nodded. She didn’t look happy. “And you picked it up on your very first attempt, having been introduced to the concept of blood magic only half an hour prior,” she said. “That’s troubling. I’m more convinced than ever that it’s imperative we get you out of here, somewhere you can be safely … diagnosed.”

That long pause? That was troubling. I put that on the back burner and closed my eyes to look at the spell.

Crimson Fist: Channels the force of your blood to gain kinetic energy in the form of a punch. Your fist is in no way protected by this spell. Drawing on this spell too often may leave you feeling sluggish. Consumes 3 drops of blood.

I opened my eyes and looked at the mana bar in the lower right of my vision. As I did, it gained a label, “Blood” and numbers appeared on it, “ 75K/75K ”. I tried to do some quick math on that, but numbers had never really been my strong suit. The body had 10 pints of blood or so, I knew that from research I’d done before we played a one-shot of Vampire: The Masquerade. Were there 7,500 drops in a pint? That sounded plausible. At any rate, the bar hadn’t moved, and there weren’t enough significant digits to see the numbers change.

“Is it possible that you’re not right about limits?” I asked. “The description shows a cost in terms of blood.”

Amaryllis frowned. “So from your perspective, you’re simply being told things by this … game layer, you called it?”

“Yes,” I replied. “It told me your name before --” Poul, who you killed. “Before it was revealed to me.”

“There is some cost in blood, yes,” said Amaryllis. “But it’s usually considered so marginal that it’s not worth thinking about. There are aspects of discomfort as well, but they’re survivable.” She hesitated. “To wield a blood sword does require the blood to be drawn from the body, but traditionally a blood magus would have the skill to return their vital essence to themselves with none lost. If the rules of progression are different for you, I have no idea what might happen. It might be dangerous.”

She turned to look at Silmar City on the horizon. “Our allotted time is up,” she said. “The only spell I know is the one for sleep, and it’s not only unattached to a school, but there’s no way for me to safely demonstrate it, or you to safely practice it, at least as we are now. More to the point, it won’t help us when we get there.”

I was itching to unlock another magic skill so that I could start leveling it, but I knew part of that was just a desire to feel ready for whatever was ahead of us. We’d had little luck in foraging, only enough so that I hadn’t hit another level of hunger. But this was it, here and now; we were going into Silmar.

I’d expected Silmar City to resemble Wichita or Omaha, differing mostly in a few small details, which had been the general theme I had seen thus far. Instead, there were no less than six thirty-story tall castles in place of skyscrapers and a twenty-foot tall stone wall forming a loose circle around the city. There were nothing like suburbs outside the city walls and very few buildings in general, save for a tiered parking garage some distance from the gate and what looked like an administrative building near that.

“Shit,” said Amaryllis as she slowed the soulcycle to a crawl. “The gate isn’t open.”

“Is that … unexpected?” I asked. The gate in front of us was made of metal and glowed with sigils similar to the ones that I had seen on the grain elevators in Comfort.

“Not entirely,” said Amaryllis. “Most cities close their gates at night. But we’re going to have to find a different way in. And … hells, if all the gates are closed, then the undead haven’t had an opportunity to fully spill out into the fields around us. That explains our easy approach, I suppose, but it means that there are millions of them in there.”

“And if they group together, they form up,” I said slowly. “We … don’t actually have a reliable method of killing the big ones. Or that sleek one that almost caught up to us. And they seem to get smarter when they’re bigger, at least capable of rudimentary tactics. And if they come in bigger sizes than what I’ve seen, and those bigger ones have human-level intellect …” I trialed off. Well, we might be fucked.

“We’ll figure it out,” she said. She turned around in her seat to look at me. Our faces seemed startlingly close. I could see flecks of silver in her icy blue eyes. “This is your last chance out,” she said. “I can give you the soulcycle and you can leave. We’re further from the Host’s outposts now, by a few days at least, but I won’t obligate you to risk your life to save mine.”

“I have your back,” I said.

Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 3!

That gave me a warm glow, and I felt myself blushing again. She thankfully turned away from me before she could see it and looked at the door, which was as wide as a four-lane highway.

“The sigils there prevent most forms of force,” she said. “That’s mostly irrelevant to us, because we don’t have force anyway. The void guns could do it, eventually, but if that door is a foot thick … we’d be looking at the better part of a day to punch out a hole large enough for us to just barely slip through, and I’m not so confident in these weapons that I wouldn’t expect a malfunction before we were finished.”

“So we go around,” I said.

Quest Progress: Out of the Frying Pan - The main gates into Silmar City are blocked and you lack the capability to breach them. Find a secret entrance in order to get inside.

“Does Silmar City have any secret entrances?” I asked after I finished reading the text.

“If it does, they’re not known to me,” said Amaryllis. She momentarily tightened her grip on the soulcycles handles. “Your power is telling you something?”

“It mentioned secret entrances to me,” I replied. “I was hoping that it would jog your memory.”

Amaryllis shook her head. “This place was known to me mostly because of the facility here,” she said. “I never visited it back before its fall, and obviously not since.”

“Do you know what the walls are for?” I asked.

She gave me a quizzical look. “They’re primarily for defense,” she said. “What other purpose would the wall serve?”

“Defense against what?” I asked. “If it were defense against the undead then they would leave a door that the undead couldn’t get through, right?” Mustn’t say the z-word. “Obviously they weren’t preparing to defend against the undead, but they were preparing to defend against something , otherwise why would they spend so much time, money, and wasted development on these walls?”

(I wasn’t entirely sure it was true to say that they had to have walls for a reason. In a game, even one that I was responsible for, there were setting details that just didn’t make sense. I hadn’t yet definitively found those in Aerb, just things that I lacked an explanation for, if you get the difference. I wasn’t one to condemn a setting because there was no immediately apparent answer, only if there was no possible answer that didn’t require jumping through a thousand hoops.)

“The defense is general,” said Amaryllis. “A wall of this nature isn’t difficult to build and maintain for a corps of steel mages, not in the post-Bessemer era, and they can move it virtually at will in order to allow for expansion. Besides, it’s useful to have a city with clearly defined ingress and egress points, not just for taxation of goods, but to control the movement of population.”

“That sounds suspiciously like a non-defensive use of a wall,” I said. “If the wall is there to prevent people from avoiding taxes, then I would expect smugglers to have their own methods in and out of the city.”

“And how would we find them?” asked Amaryllis.

“That … is a good question,” I said. “Not here, certainly, not so close to where the equivalent to a border guard is, but if we circled around we might be able to find something. Not a tunnel, necessarily, but -”

“It would have to be something that hypothetical smugglers were hiding from the city,” said Amaryllis. “That means that it would be hidden from us as well. And getting over the walls would be simple, for a smuggler, doable with only a long ladder.”

I felt certain that the game wasn’t lying to me though, since it hadn’t done that thus far. If we assumed that smugglers' routes were going to be too difficult for us to reasonably find, then what could secret entrances mean? Amaryllis must have been doing her own thinking, because she was mostly silent. That suited me fine; I needed do less thinking aloud.

Cities were living, breathing things. They generally took in food and raw materials and spat out waste and finished goods. Unfortunately, the existence of teleportation magic complicated all that. Amaryllis had said that teleportation was lethal without a key, but there were a whole host of things people wanted to move which were already dead. The road into Silmar City had seemed somewhat small for its size, but that made sense if you assumed that bulk transport was almost completely removed from the equation. I hadn’t yet seen train tracks, and semi trucks were almost non-existent.

“What doesn’t get teleported?” I asked.

“Hrm?” asked Amaryllis.

“You use teleportation for moving goods around countries, right?” I asked. “What things don’t get teleported?”

“Water,” she said immediately. “It’s horrendously heavy in comparison to its value. Liquids in general are problematic, but water … that almost never gets shipped. It’s easier to just draw from a river instead.”

“Is there a river near here?” I asked.

“The Sarkan,” said Amaryllis. “It flows past Silmar City, on the other side from us. The walls actually touch the riverbanks there, I believe, with a bridge over it. What are you thinking?”

“That water has to be brought into the city somehow,” I said. “Presumably wastewater has to leave in a similar way. Maybe they’ll have grates up, depending on what kind of defense parameters they had, but my guess is that it will be nothing like these gates and walls, especially not on the outflow.” We’re going to go into one of the most stereotypically videogame places of all time: the sewers.

“We don’t have many other options,” murmured Amaryllis. “We should at least check the other gates to make sure that we can’t slip in that way. Going through the piping though … I suppose won’t be that dangerous, since the undead wouldn’t move into a restricted space unless they had reason to.”

A half hour later we were looking at a set of outflow pipes sticking out just above the water of the Sarkan River.

Quest Progress: Out of the Frying Pan - The sewers of Silmar City are relatively unguarded. Make your way through them and out into the infested city.

Chapter Text

I had some serious questions about the quest system. What would it have done if we had decided to brute force our way into the city? What about if we had spent a few hours going back and grabbing a ladder, then awkwardly carrying it to Silmar City? What if we’d found some rope and fashioned a grappled hook? The quest system had inside knowledge of the environment we existed in, but where was that knowledge being pulled from? It was, to say the least, worrying, and I took it as proof that I was actually in a game, even if it was a game that was so far beyond any technology I knew as to be incomprehensible, one that I had been thrust into while in the middle of my life, and one that had given me an assurance that my death was still on the line.

It took us a few minutes to get through the grates on the outflow pipes using the void tunneler, but it was easy enough. The grate fell to the ground with a clank and we stared down the pipe, which was large enough for us to walk down without crouching.

“What about the soulcycle?” I asked, looking back to it. My butt was sore from all the riding we’d done, but I regretted leaving it.

“Good point,” said Amaryllis. She went over to it and pulled a long, thin rubber pipe off it, which she hooked into itself so it formed a loop. She slipped that over her head as a necklace. “There,” she said. “Now no one can take it. Not that we’re going back for it.”

“What about the souls?” I asked, looking at the tank, which still had the same seven souls sitting in it. I had to wonder about that; it didn’t seem like they were depleting, which meant my initial impression of them as being fuel like gasoline must not have been quite accurate.

“They’ll fade in about five years,” said Amaryllis. “It’s doubtful that anything will have changed in the Risen Lands in that time. She began moving back toward the outflow pipe.

“I’d like to take them with us,” I found myself saying.

Amaryllis regarded me for a moment, then shrugged. “Suit yourself,” she said. She reached into her bag and pulled out the empty glass jar, which she’d brought with us. “You know that we can’t bring them back to life, right? Not even if we wanted to, which we wouldn’t.”

“I know,” I replied. “It’s for my peace of mind.”

It took longer than I would have liked to get the souls out, as apparently the tank was more designed for entry than exit. Amaryllis stood by and offered me no help, even though it was eating into our time. I have to admit that annoyed me a little bit, though it did give me some measure of what Loyalty level 3 actually meant. When I was finished, we finally headed into the sewers.

I lead the way, with the void tunneler in one hand and fire in the other, which provided our only source of light. My sword was at my hip, though I was desperately hoping that I wouldn’t get into a situation where I needed to use it. Amaryllis followed behind me with the rifle. I’ll admit that made me nervous; from what I had seen she had good trigger discipline and impeccable aim, but if we ran into anything I was going to be between her hole puncher and her target. I didn’t think that she was going to shoot me in the back, but she was visibly annoyed at my skill with Aarde’s Touch, and clearly had no compunctions about murder. I hoped that didn’t play into her calculations on whether or not to take a shot.

There was a trickle of water flowing through the pipes, just enough that I could see which way it was flowing. That made navigating the pipes nearly foolproof, since all I needed to do was go upstream. I was hoping to get to a water treatment plant or whatever the local equivalent was (a topic that Amaryllis had professed ignorance on). From there, we could break through doors or climb out windows and get onto the city streets of Silmar City, and from there start making our way to our objective.

The first sign of trouble was the corpse of a dead rat, which was partially decomposing and badly mangled. I stared at it for a long moment.

“What is it?” asked Amaryllis, who was stopped behind me.

“Rat corpse,” I said. I knelt down and looked at it. “From what you said, rats should have been caught in the stronger field effect here?”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis slowly. “Though rats would be risen as undead once they died either way. I was mostly referring to what would have happened during the attack itself. All of the rats would have turned undead all at once, all across the city. Same for the birds and humans.”

“Right,” I said. “So how in the hell did this rat die?”

“That’s not a question that I think we want to find the answer to,” she said.

But something about the rat was nagging at the back of my mind, aside from the simple question of what had killed it and what that implied about what was down here. I was also wondering what mental ability I would need to boost in order to have that thought at the tip of my tongue come to fruition, if any.

It was another few minutes before I saw a flash of red at the end of the tunnel, moving frighteningly fast. The plain old zombies were almost not enough to be considered threats, now that I was armed. The big ones, the Zombies Voltron, were slow enough that I could outrun them. It was the mid-sized one that we’d faced down just outside of Comfort that really scared me, especially in this environment, which would turn claustrophobic in a hurry if we had to run away. We had only a single void bomb left, and we were casting light that I assumed would draw any of the undead like moths to a flame.

I stopped in my tracks when I’d seen the two red eyes, and Amaryllis stopped behind me. I waited, tensed, for it to come forward, but it must have been moving through one of the side tunnels, almost perpendicular to us. There was a chance that it hadn’t seen us … but there was no noise either, not the slap of dead flesh against a wall nor the sound of a foot stepping in water.

“We have contact,” I whispered. I heard Amaryllis shift behind me as I raised my hand higher and put more of the heat of my blood into Aarde’s Touch so that it engulfed my entire hand from my wrist to the tips of my fingers. It still wasn’t terribly bright. I could also feel the chill that the spell description had warned about, but at the moment that was a lesser concern.

I waited another few seconds, then stalked forward with my gun pointed ahead of me. My hand was shaking slightly, which caused the tip of my gun to waver, which in turn increased my feeling of doom as I realized that I was going to have a harder time landing my shot. I almost lost what little cool I had remaining when the game gave me another inopportune message, this one about my ability with blood magic.

Eventually I came to the split in the pipes where I had seen the undead thing go past. I took a deep breath of mildewed air and quickly turned the corner. I got a shot off, thwip, right before it started moving, before I even had a chance to take in its form.

It was made of the corpses of rats, hundreds if not thousands of them, arranged with four limbs and reared back on two of them. It was a mess of wet fur and wriggling tails, with bits of legs and heads sticking out from between the bodies, all forming a solid mass. One of the things I’d be hesitant to call hands reached forward with a dozen rat claws arranged together and extended. I backed up, but it caught my left hand and left several long rows of deep scratches.

New Affliction: Rat Rot! (END -1, CUN +1)

I had no time to process that, because I was trying to back up and kick at the rat thing so it couldn’t get close to me. The second time I tried kicking it in the chest, my foot seemed to sink right into it, the rat corpses parting way just enough, then crawling back around to hold my foot tight. I stumbled backward, losing my shoe to the rats in the process and falling on my ass in the shallow water at the bottom of the pipe.

I heard the solid thunk of Amaryllis firing her rifle and scrambled to my feet just in time to duck under another swipe from the dozens of tiny claws. Without thinking too hard I dropped my void gun, drew my sword, and swung with it. The sword sliced right through, cutting rats in the process. I saw bits and pieces falling to the ground, but the rat colony reformed itself to compensate and took another swing at me.

I raised my sword to block, but it rammed its arm straight through, heedless of the rats I was cutting up. The claws dug in and ripped away flesh from on the inside of my arm, right at my elbow, and I screamed out in pain as I pulled back and made a sloppy swing with my sword again.

New Affliction: Blood Loss! (END -1)

Skill increased: One-handed Weapons lvl 4!

My sword arm was wet with blood as I took another step back, and the mass of rats didn’t seem at all injured. I heard another thunk from Amaryllis, this one frighteningly close, and saw a number of rat parts drop off from a hole I couldn’t even see in the poor light coming from my flaming hand. I struck again, coming down at an awkward angle because my elbow had hit the side of the pipe, and cleaved straight through the swarm of rats from its shoulder through to its leg.

Affliction: Blood Loss lvl 2! (PHY -1, END -1)

I was feeling quite cold now, and somewhat dizzy, and the bar that seemed to be tracking my blood supply had taken a noticeable dip, and when the rat thing swept an arm toward me I wasn’t able to react fast enough to dodge or parry. It sliced through my stomach, cutting up the t-shirt and leaving long red lines.

Amaryllis pushed me to the side, which made me fall against the curved side of the pipe in a bloody heap. She stepped forward and punched at the center of the rat thing, moving so fast I heard the rush of air before her fist went straight through with a wet crunch. I let out a moan of pain that was meant to be panicked advice, telling her that we couldn’t deal with it that way, but then she drew her hand out of the rats and a split second later there was the muted sound of a void bomb going off. The rats all fell apart into a pile on the ground, most of them missing pieces.

Umbral Rat Zombie defeated!

I was worried they were going to swarm us, until I saw how slow they were, then I tried to move and realized how slow I was, which was when I started to panic a little. I was still bleeding, enough that I could see it pumping out my veins, as well as the visibly shrinking blood supply mana bar.

Amaryllis stomped the rats to death, one by one, moving with purpose, until none were left moving. Then she came to me and looked me over. Her own hand, the one she’d punched the rat thing with, was scraped up and bleeding lightly, but she moved as though unaffected.

Affliction: Blood Loss lvl 3! (PHY -2, END -1, MEN -1, SOC -1)

“Did you punch that thing with a grenade?” I asked her. I was starting to feel quite dizzy.

“Shut up and don’t move,” she said. She reached into her bag and pulled out a belt, which she quickly wrapped around my wounded arm and pulled painfully tight. Then she took out a screwdriver, which she rested against her pinky. She took a deep breath and set her finger on fire. She held it against the screwdriver, wincing in pain and visibly sweating, until the smell of burnt flesh was rising in the air and the screwdriver was red hot. I knew what was coming and closed my eyes, trying not to think.

The red-hot screwdriver came down on the pit of my elbow, where my vein must have been sliced open, and cauterized it with a pain that was surprisingly dull at first, then so sharp and white-hot that my whole body involuntarily clenched up. I almost couldn’t hear the sound of my blood and flesh hissing.

“You said leveling up heals you?” she said.

I nodded weakly, then dared to look at my hitpoints. 1/8. Lovely .

“Well we had better make sure that happens in the next half hour, or I think you’re probably going to be beyond my ability to do anything.” From her bag she pulled out a strip of cloth, which she quickly wrapped around her finger. She didn’t so much as wince. If it weren’t for how she clenched her teeth, I might not even have known she was in pain. “We’ve got no void bombs left, you’re injured, and we still don’t know if we’re any closer to getting to the surface, let alone what we’ll find there. And encountering another one of those,” she paused to stomp on a rat that had gotten close to me, “Probably means that we die.” She looked down at her wounded hand. “Plus I think there’s a great chance this is infected.”

“We’ll manage,” I said as I struggled to my feet, something I tried my best to do gracefully and failed miserably at. I did manage to stand up eventually though. My estimation, based on the blood meter, I was down about two pints (the meter unhelpfully told me 61K/75K). I wasn’t entirely sure that it would refill when I level up. I’d broken my arm and that had been fixed, along with its associated affliction, but the cowardice affliction had stayed in place for a few levels until I’d tried to save Becca.

Amaryllis took lead and I limped behind her. My pistol had been soaked in water, but still seemed to fire fine. On the other hand, the person firing the pistol was in bad shape. I didn’t want to look at my character sheet, mostly because there wasn’t going to be anything actionable on it, but if the ability stats worked like I thought they did, then I was down to two points of END and the combination of Blood Loss and Rat Rot was giving me the equivalent of stat equivalent of losing four levels.

Affliction: Hungry lvl 2! (PHY -1, MEN -1, POI -1)


“I need to look at my character sheet,” I said. It came out with a rush of air. I was practically panting.

“Go quickly,” said Amaryllis. “We need to keep moving.”

A quick glance confirmed my mental math; I now had four stats sitting at zero, all my mental stats save MEN, plus POI. I breathed a sigh of relief at the fact that it hadn’t actually killed me. A look at my skills gave me another bit of good news; so far as I could see, if skills were capped by their primary stat, it wasn’t obvious that having that primary stat reduced would also reduce my skills.

“Okay, we can keep moving,” I croaked out. The burn on my arm was excruciating. “I just needed to see --”

“Save your strength,” said Amaryllis.

I don’t know exactly how much long it was that we moved through the tunnels. My sense of time and sense of self were both warped. My heart was hammering away through all of it, both because I was afraid of dying and because it was struggling to make do with far less blood than normal. We encountered a few other zombie rats, but none of the monstrosities, which was a good thing, because we both would have died. We also came across another of the mangled rat corpses, which I finally understood. The rat-horde beast used corpses as feet, bringing down hundreds of pounds on the lowest ones each time it took a step.

Eventually though, we came to a ladder that led to a grate, and that grate led us up into something vaguely resembling a place meant for people, with metal walkways and unlit overhead lights. More importantly, it had a door, which promised other doors, one of which would lead us to the outside. I sat down and rested my head against a railing, then gestured toward it.

“Look, we found the way to more zombies,” I said.

“Don’t say that word,” hissed Amaryllis.

“Sorry,” I replied. My throat was barely working.

“Do I need to let you get the kills?” she asked.

It took my mind a second to work through what she was asking me. “Oh, don’t think so,” I replied. “I get a message when you kill things for me.”

“I’m going to leave you here then,” said Amaryllis. She shifted the sling on her rifle. “Moving alone I can cover ground faster, which means that I can scout out ahead and engage in hit and run tactics if need be. I’ll come back for you with food and medical supplies as soon as I find them. If what I do helps you to live and we’re separated from one another …”

“Meet up,” I said, nodding my head because I couldn’t keep my neck straight.

“Meet up,” Amaryllis agreed. I could see the way she clenched her jaw. “Twenty-first floor of Sorian’s castle, that’s where the facility is. I’ll … I’ll try to wait for as long as I can, if I can’t make it back.”

She left me, out the door without another word. I closed my eyes and wearily pulled up the settings menu, then checked the “Helldiver” option. While I was there, I tried to uncheck some of the options, like the one informing me that this was my one and only life, but of course those options stayed locked, as I had known they would.

And after that, I just waited for a while, staring into the darkness because I was too cold, tired, and low on blood to use Aarde’s Touch to light the room. I thought to myself, so this is what dying feels like , and then amended it to, this is what dying from blood loss feels like , and then amended it a second time to, this is what heavy blood loss feels like, regardless of whether you die or not , because I didn’t actually know that I was going to die, did I? In what I still thought of as the real world, people survived much worse injuries than this on a daily basis. I checked my health and mana; 2/4 health, 59K/75K blood. I had gained back a point, presumably by not dying for long enough that my wounds had started to close a little bit. The same thing had happened after Amaryllis had hit me in the head with a rock.

If I had been waiting for anything, it was for Amaryllis to kill something and a message to pop up on my screen, but I had seen nothing like that. After maybe a half hour on the uncomfortable floor of this industrial room in the complete darkness, I decided that being left for dead by Amaryllis with just enough pretext to make me not blame her (and her to not blame herself) didn’t mean that I actually had to die there. So I climbed to my feet, feeling wounds on my stomach, hand, and arm slightly reopen. I tried to use blood magic to light my way, but my blood pressure was too low for me to feel my pulse. Instead, I stumbled forward, holding the railing and saying a silent prayer of thanks to whatever Silmar City’s version of OSHA was.

It took a long time, enough for another thousand drops of blood to drip out of me, but I made it to the door and opened it, which provided some very dim light from down the hallway. I moved toward the light, leaning up against a wall as I did so. My toe kicked a corpse after a hundred feet; there was just enough light to see a perfect hole right in his chest. And her kills aren’t counting for me, just lovely.

After a turn in the hallway, I was in the light. There were half a dozen corpses here, and by the look of them they had been reverted from undead back to dead again by someone with a void rifle, three guesses who. The light was coming in from a high window, too high for me to see out of even if I had been in good enough condition to stand on my tippy toes.

I moved through more doors and down more hallways, taking the path that Amaryllis had left whenever it was obvious. I encountered no zombies of my own, just the destruction she’d left. There was something frightening about how methodical she was, how precise she was with her shots, enough that it pushed me just a little bit out of my haze. The zombies were slow, sure, not much of a challenge, but it still took effort of will to face them down and wait for the perfect moment.

Finally I reached wide double doors with frosted glass windows on either side of them. It took basically all my strength to lean into the handle and push the door open. Before me stood Silmar City, high walls behind me, a brief stretch of lawn in front of me, and beyond that, towering over office buildings, were six improbably immense castles. That wasn’t what drew my attention though; standing tall enough that its head was visible over three story buildings was another creature made of corpses, with red eyes so bright they reminded me of a lighthouse.

Quest Complete: Out of the Frying Pan - You have made it to Silmar City!

Level Up!

Quest Accepted: Into the Fryer - The teleportation key lies in a secret research facility nestled into the top level of Sorian’s Castle, one of the six corporate castles in Silmar City. Get the key, find Amaryllis, and leave before her friends show up.

I sank down to my knees as the golden wave of bliss took me, but it lifted me partway up, supporting me entirely as it shook my body with ecstasy. It seemed to last longer this time, long enough that I felt myself in its grip. When it stopped, I felt this hollow emptiness, as though I’d been pithed. And yet that sensation didn’t last that long, because I was also whole , devoid of affliction, all my blood back in my body, and I wasn’t even hungry anymore.

I stretched out and smiled, then went off to find Amaryllis.

Chapter Text

I don’t think I can overstate how great it was to have all my blood back. It made me almost empathize with vampires a little bit, because if it felt this good to have all my blood back in my body, how great would it be to add in even more blood? Of course, that feeling was nothing that I was going to share with anyone on Aerb, because vampires probably did exist here given how often they’d shown up in my games. I guess I could only hope that they were the ones I’d used in Contratto, with a single point of failure for every vampire clan.

Blood magic felt almost natural now. I barely had to think about the heat of my blood to get a flame on my fingertips. I was dead certain that there were other applications to blood magic, given what I had seen of it so far, but I wasn’t sure whether I was going to be able to learn them without outside help, or given Amaryllis’ warnings, whether I would want to learn them without outside help.

Before I went too far from the water treatment facility, I stopped to assess my character screen and dump more points into MEN, mostly because I now knew that there were physical combat skills like Rifles that depended on it, and partly because being a human torch in the sewers had capped me on Blood Magic (which was, apparently, governed primarily by WIS). There was no noticeable effect from putting those points in, unlike the instant feedback of getting stronger and faster, which was disappointing.

With that done, I had some decisions ahead of me. Obviously step one was to find Amaryllis. It might have been different if she didn’t have a vital connecting hose to the soulcycle around her neck and all seven souls needed to start it in a glass bottle in her purse, but she had both those things. That meant escape from the city was going to be much more complicated than just tracing my way back through the sewers and hoping I didn’t run into rats we’d missed the first time.

(It did occur to me to do that, maybe after foraging for some food, or maybe depending on leveling up at a fast enough rate to combat the hunger affliction, but it seemed perverse, in a way that I’m not sure I can articulate. As a DM, I had always felt a cold chill run through me when the party decided they were going to take up raising dire goats instead of going down into the Castrato Caverns like the dwarven matron wanted them to, partly because I was prepared for the castrated dwarven criminals storyline but knew next to nothing about raising goats. So maybe my feeling was that there was a contract between players and game, and I had a quest to get the key and find Amaryllis. To deny that quest and fuck off to do something else was to spit in the face of the game, and I respected games too much to do that.

And I won’t deny that there were some sunk costs involved in pursuing this quest, in the sense that I had already incurred the costs involved in getting into Silmar City, and maybe there was a tiny bit of sunk cost fallacy going on.

And … well, I hesitate to say this, because it makes me seem no better than a preteen girl mooning over One Direction, but Amaryllis was really pretty and there was something about coldly practical princesses that I apparently found really appealing.

I guess my point, if I have one, is that maybe there was a more sensible thing that a perfectly rational actor could have done, but I had my own reasons.)

The problem with finding Amaryllis was that stupid Verisim mode was on, which meant there were no quest markers showing up on my HUD or painted lines on my minimap, or however that would have worked if I had been able to enable it. All I had to go on was “the twenty-first floor of Sorian’s castle”. I wasn’t even sure whether going there was my best option, because I wasn’t sure that Amaryllis would try to make her way directly there. She was capable of making void bombs out of … well, something that she had apparently been able to get from somewhere in Comfort. I had no idea what she had ripped the void crystals out of, except that Poul had said something about an imperial ban. That wasn’t very helpful.

So instead of bumbling toward the local equivalent of downtown, I decided to do some good old fashioned looting, and I made myself a shopping list in my head as I went, including things like a map, new clothes that weren’t ripped and bloody, new shoes that weren’t soaked through with sewer water, and a backpack so that I could have some actual possessions.

One of the weird things about what had happened to the Risen Lands was that it had left pretty much everything intact. Buildings were still subject to the elements and the zombies, as well as whatever people got dropped in from planes, but the zombies didn’t really seem to be in the business of mindlessly destroying things unless there were people in the way, and buildings were built to withstand normal weather conditions. I wasn’t sure exactly how many years had passed since this place had become known as the Risen Lands, but at times it was easy to imagine that it had been yesterday, or that it wasn’t abandoned at all and the people had stepped out.

Back on Earth, my dad had been big into helping people out, and a few times I went with him when he would bring his truck and tools across Kansas to help people who had suffered through tornado strikes. Back in 2011 I remember going to Reading and helping pick through piles of merchandise at a yarn store to see what was salvageable after the roof had been torn off and let the rain in. As tornados went, that had been a bad one, an EF3 hitting the town almost perfectly … and yet we’d gone through Reading only a few years later, and even though half the town had been destroyed it was almost all back in place, all except the trees.

So as I wandered through Silmar City, I was looking for places that I thought I’d be able to loot, but I was also thinking about this city and what had happened to it, and what that said about the world. Something like a half a million people had died all throughout the Risen Lands, and the place was made into an exclusion zone, never to be touched again, leaving what had to be trillions of dollars of infrastructure laying around to rot. It wasn’t just the sheer amount of stuff laying around, but the farmlands themselves, farmlands which seemed to still be fertile. All of it had been bundled up into an exclusion zone where no one ever went. For what reason?

I lost my train of thought when the tall buildings I assumed were factories or office buildings gave way to places with shopfronts. The streets of Comfort had been in a nice, ordered grid like I was used to, but Silmar City took what I thought of as the Paris approach, where blocks were arranged in awkward wedges and streets were a spider’s web. For someone used to streets that extended on until they hit flat farmland that stretched to the horizon, it was pretty claustrophobic. When I saw a shop with clothing, I took that as a welcome respite from the abandoned streets.

The door was locked, but it was nothing that a quick thwip of the void tunneler couldn’t fix. I was really growing to love that thing. I moved slowly, trying my best to make sure the place was clear before I did something dangerous like trying on a pair of pants, and just for good measure I spent about ten minutes trying to hide in and around the store, just to see whether I would get a notification about my Deception increasing.

I was apparently still in a more industrial part of the city, because the clothes in the shop were geared toward hard labor: heavy fabrics, sturdy buckles, and an array of tools near the front counter. I found basically everything I wanted in terms of clothing over the course of the next twenty minutes, from a pair of steel-toed boots to a pair of heavy canvas jeans I hoped would offer a little protection against the claws of the undead. There were packs of clean socks and underwear, the kind always bought in bulk, and while they had a faintly unpleasant odor to them, they seemed to be structurally sound. It was whatever the local equivalent of summer was, which made heavy clothing a little bit inadvisable, but I figured that was probably a price worth paying for armor, especially since I found a canteen for water, and a shoulder pack to stick things in. The only things on my shopping list I didn’t find were food, potable water, a map, and a multitool.

Of course, everything was just a bit off from what I was used to. The currency symbol seemed to be ð, placed after the (Arabic) numbers. The underwear had been packaged in a thin canvas bag rather than the thin, clear vacuum-pack plastic I was used to. There were no zippers anywhere; they used buttons instead. The aglets on my new shoes were metal, not plastic, and I didn’t think that was a simple matter of workmanship because none of the other shoes had plastic either. I knew that they had plastic in Aerb, but most of what I had seen was hard plastic or rubber. Did they not have plastic bags? The trash can beneath the shop counter had a paper liner rather than a plastic one, and yes, I did check specifically to sate my curiosity.

These attempts to study and understand the world were partly driven by my desire to bury myself in thought, to distract from all the problems I was facing, but I wanted so badly to know what kind of world this was. I had four quests to pursue here, but the most important goal I had was understanding the nature of this new reality I had found myself in. The metaphysical questions weren’t really actionable at the moment, I had decided that almost right away, but if I had a self-defined quest, then it would have been to get to the bottom of what this place, which was so steeped in my own thoughts and so reminiscent of Earth, really was.

I continued my trek through the city, stopping only briefly to listen for movement when there was an intersection ahead of me or when I wanted to read a sign painted on a storefront. Silmar Velocity Services , Planus Tattooing , and Eckhart Prognostications all caught my eye, but I moved past them when I saw nothing immediately interesting inside. I knew I could probably have spent years of my life exploring this city, with all its weirdness and quirks, even if I ignored all of the places that were obviously just eateries.

When I was a few blocks away from one of the towering castles, I finally found the thing I was most looking forward to: a bookstore. The name Able & Adler Booksellers was emblazoned across the front window, which was dirty but unbroken, and within I could see books on display, plus row upon row of full shelves behind them. I unlocked the door by shooting a hole in it, then went inside to see what I could find. My breath caught when I found a full section labeled “Magic”.

I started reading through the titles before remembering that this place might have zombies, so I grudgingly made a sweep of the shop before returning to my browsing. A Tour of the Elemental Planes, Insights into the White Spires, Bessemer: A History in Steel, on and on, each more tantalizing than the last. Their arrangement was haphazard, though there were defined clusters. Eventually I pulled out A Commoner’s Guide to Revision Magic and began reading (hoping all the while that I would get a notification about a skill unlock).

Revision mages are masters of time, able to reverse its flow with the strength of their will alone. The Athenaeum of Claw and Clocks is among the smallest institutions of learning, its members and graduates renowned for their solitary natures and their reticence to display their most fabled abilities.

It is with great honor that I accepted the invitation of Mistress Audrey Lavolen to discuss revision magic, its role in the workings of Aerb, and some common misconceptions about what it can and cannot do, the latter issue being one of great importance to her. I also owe a great debt of gratitude to Jorge Aurelio, who facilitated the writing of this book in too many ways for me to count.

I skipped ahead a bit, until I got to a chapter labeled “Interactions”.

The general rule of thumb is that revision cannot wipe things out of existence, only break them down into their component parts, and then only through sufficient application of revision such that whatever process created the object in question is undone (see Ch 4). When it comes to its interaction with other systems of magic, it’s important to remember that generally speaking, magic cannot be reversed, only the effects of that magic.

To wit, a steel mage can create a towering wall which is immune to the ministrations of a revision mage, because the magic which creates the wall cannot be undone and the revision mage cannot revert the wall back to a time before it existed. The same applies to the cluster of similar effects we call teleportation, because the revision mage cannot unteleport someone or something that has arrived, putting a hard limit on how far they can roll a teleported object back. Some of the caveats to this will be discussed in this chapter.

Contrarily, velocity magic is almost entirely centered around producing effects, which present only somewhat heightened challenges for a revision mage, challenges which have more to do with reaction times than actual expenditures of power. Tattoo magic --

But as I was in the middle of reading that sentence, the glass front of the shop shattered completely and I turned just in time to see a beast made of corpses lift up toward me. I stumbled and ran in a sudden panic.

I must have been lured into a false sense of security by the scarcity of zombies thus far in Silmar City, because I had neglected to prepare an escape plan from this bookstore. I ended up running down the aisle, with the corpse-monster chasing after me and pushing down bookshelves to get through. When I reached the back of the store I took a sharp turn and doubled back, moving between the shelves that had been knocked over like dominoes and were now resting up against the wall, stepping on books as I went.

I hurdled over the knocked-over display and into the street, then after a moment of hesitation turned down back the way I had come, which seemed like the safe option. Running at a dead sprint was a lot harder in the heavier clothes, and I was heating up quickly, but I was hoping to lose the monster behind me like I’d done back in Comfort. Unfortunately, speed was only half the battle, and I quickly found myself going down a street that I didn’t quite remember, which was exactly the sort of place that I didn’t want to be. I ducked down behind a set of stairs and waited with my gun drawn, hoping that I had made enough twists and turns through the irregularly angled streets.

After a minute or so of waiting, I came out and started moving again, trying to find my position relative to the city center and the so-called corporate castles by the position of the sun. I desperately wanted to get back to the bookstore to continue reading, mostly in order to get some measure of just how many magic systems this one world could contain. I cursed myself for not doing the smart thing and pulling down random books to put in my shoulder pack before I’d started reading.

I wandered on, more wary than I had been before. I was on the lookout for Amaryllis, but if she had left any signs of her passing, I wasn’t seeing them. That left me essentially aimless, right up until I found a corner store with a stock of faded maps that gave the general layout of Silmar City.

The first thing I noticed was that the streets weren’t labeled. Instead, each block had a name on it, and the streets were merely the unimportant void between the blocks. That was the Japanese addressing system, and I was pretty sure that it would have thrown me for a loop if I hadn’t discovered and used that same system for a handful of major metropolises in my D&D games.

The second thing I noticed was Sorian’s Castle, helpfully labeled as its own big block of real estate. I breathed a sigh of relief and picked up a pencil off the counter to mark it, only to realize that it was some weird form of pencil with wrapped paper instead of wood, and a black core that had dried out. It crumbled as soon as I tried to write with it. Note to self, if I’m stuck here for awhile, I should try to invent graphite.

I moved slowly, creeping my way along as I moved toward the castle. I didn’t think that the stories-tall corpse monstrosity would be able to sneak up on me any more than Godzilla could have, but it wasn’t the only thing that was stalking these quiet streets. The lack of plain old zombies was a little bit concerning, since it meant that I couldn’t snipe them for skill ups. It also meant that they had all been rolled into the bigger versions.

I was about three blocks away when a woman in fatigues came running around the corner, straight toward me. She was carrying a bow that was almost as tall as she was. When she saw me, she gave me a smile and a salute.

“Better follow!” she called to me as she sprinted past. I found out why a few seconds later, as two of the semi-trailer-sized zombie-things came following after her. I ran, naturally. It was only as I was running that I realized the woman’s ears had tapered to a point.

She was faster than me, but when I followed down the street she’d took she was standing there with an arrow nocked and aimed right at me.

“To the side!” she called.

I didn’t need to be told twice. I ran to the sidewalk, then continued up it until I was past where she was. It wasn’t until that point that I turned to look behind me. Naturally I was certain that a bow was an incredibly ineffective weapon against a creature like that. You had to hit the individual hearts of enough zombies that it would fall apart, and even a well-aimed arrow would be lucky to get two hearts. I didn’t say any of that, because I didn’t want to be the asshole who tells someone that they’re doing it wrong right before they knock it out of the park.

When she released the string, the arrow zipped through the air, until it was ten feet away from her. There, still in flight, it split into two identical arrows, and after another ten feet, each of those split into two arrows, on and on, until it was practically a cloud of arrows all flying through the air, loosely clustered together. They struck the zombies with the sound of wet flesh being pierced a hundred times and the umbral zombies, both of them, tumbled and fell apart. A number of the component zombies got up from the ground, some of them with arrows stuck through them, but they were slow and shambling, not really a threat unless they had you cornered.

The elf grabbed her bow in both hands and stretched with it over her head while yawning. “You’re welcome,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said. I was looking her over. The fatigues she was wearing had no insignias or other symbols on them. She was blonde, roughly as tall as I was, and with a smattering of freckles across her face, marking otherwise pale and flawless skin. My eyes kept being drawn to her ears, which came up into long points. “Though actually, you led those things toward me.”

“Hrm, so I did,” she replied. She sauntered over toward me and looked at the red-eyed zombies stumbling our way. “What exactly brings you to this part of town, hooman?”

“Uh,” I said, which was really not my best-ever stall for time. I needed a more clever way to delay before I started giving things away. “I was going to ask you the same thing.” Nailed it.

“Well, I see you’ve noticed the ears,” she said. “And the teeth as well, eh?” She smiled at me, and whatever she thought I had seen, her smile didn’t really help me figure it out, because her teeth looked normal, if a little bit unnaturally white. “Half-elf,” she said.

“Okay,” I said slowly.

“So your question should have been, ‘What brings you to this part of town, half-elf?’ instead,” she continued, looking at me expectantly.

I was paralyzed by a couple of things. First, I was standing in front of a real live honest-to-god elf (or at least a half-elf) just like I had seen in probably hundreds of source books and fantasy paintings. I figured I was probably going to feel the same way my first time seeing a dwarf too.

Second, and as an issue of actual importance, I was immediately suspicious of her. The odds of me running into anyone in this city were … well, hard to calculate, given that I didn’t know how many people were running around in Silmar City at any given moment. But the quest I had said ‘leave before her friends show up’, and that small bit of wording hadn’t slipped past me.

“Myself, I’m looting,” she said. “Violation of imperial law, that, but if the empire is going to just let all this stuff go to rot, then I don’t consider it the worst crime a person can commit to steal some of it away.” She paused. “And this is where you tell me what you’re doing here.”

“I’m,” I began. “Just sort of bumbling around.”

Skill increased: Deception lvl 5!

I was a bit miffed at that. I hadn’t really lied.

“Bumbling around,” said the half-elf with a nod. “I, too, often find myself wandering about in cities deep in the heart of exclusion zones, carrying makeshift pistols. There’s something that’s so freeing about being lost, don’t you think? An exhilaration that comes with being untethered from even the bare knowledge of where you are in the world, hrm?”

“Sure,” I said. “That’s … a nice bow you have there.”

Skill unlocked: Flattery!

That didn’t seem right. Had I never said anything to flatter Amaryllis? Thinking back I couldn’t think of a specific instance, but she was so damned impressive it seemed impossible I had never said so, or at least let slip how beautiful I thought she was in a moment of ineptitude.

“Oh, thank you,” said the half-elf. “Family heirloom, very valuable, but occasionally one likes to fire a volley of arrows. Your own … pistol? It’s very … rustic.”

I looked down at the pistol in my hand. “Look, I’m, uh, looking for a friend I got separated from,” I said. “Have you seen --” I thought about Amaryllis and how I would describe her, then thought twice about it. “-- anyone?”

“I don’t think the two of us have quite gotten to the point where we’re freely sharing information,” she replied, “And I’m sorry, but I have to place some blame for that on your reticence. Is there any particular reason that the two of us can’t be friends?”

“No,” I replied. My eyes involuntarily went to her bow, the first real magic item I’d seen thus far (if I didn’t count the void weapons). I wondered how often she could fire that volley of arrows and how dead I would be if I got hit by it. My guess was very dead. “Look, to be honest with you … I came here by way of the plane.”

She raised an eyebrow at that and gave me a low whistle, then glanced at the zombies that were making their way toward us. “And your friend too?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, because I didn’t really think that was the sort of thing that I could plausibly hide.

“Well then,” said the half-elf, still watching the zombies. She held out her hand to me. “Name’s Fenn Greenglass.”

“Juniper Smith,” I replied, shaking her hand. I was fairly sure that there were no records anywhere in the world that would back me up on having that name.

She turned to me and smiled. “Well Mr. Human, if you’re amenable, traveling alone in Silmar City is pretty much the most insanely dangerous thing a person can do, so I’d like to introduce you to my party, and you can travel with us, at least until you find your friend. No obligation, but it’s safer for all of us.”

Shit. I still didn’t trust her. “I was planning on going to Sorian’s Castle,” I said. I didn’t trust her, but being cagey wasn’t getting me anywhere.

“Fine by me,” Fenn said with a shrug. “I’ll see if I can talk the others into it, but we’ve ventured in there once or twice before. And if not, then maybe one of them has seen your friend.”

Chapter Text

“So what would you have done if one of the umbral undead came after you?” asked Fenn as we walked back toward where her party was apparently waiting.

“I can outrun them pretty easily,” I said. “Same as you.”

“The big ones, sure,” she replied. “But they can spawn little ones, made up of fewer bodies but more perfectly crafted, and those not even I can outrun, which means that you’d have no chance. I’m assuming that you haven’t encountered one, because if you had you’d know your plan was basically suicidal.”

I shrugged. “It’s not like I have a lot of options.”

“True, true,” said Fenn. “Of course, option one, which most people who get the drop choose, is not to go to Silmar City. The deal with the Host isn’t a bad one, if you can make it to them.”

“Sure,” I said.

“So you came here by mistake then?” asked Fenn.

I didn’t have a reply to that, so I kept my mouth shut.

“Look, I don’t mean to scare you off, but the people I’m keeping company with on this fine day are going to want some answer, any answer, and telling them you were bumbling around isn’t going to cut it,” she said in a soft voice. “You don’t have to come right out with whatever the truth is, though obviously that would be preferable, but you might say something like, oh, I don’t know, you came to Silmar City because you thought it would have things worth taking, things that you could use to make a sure escape.”

“The planes have been dropping people for years,” I said. “A relative of mine told me that the graduation rates had been falling for years, because everything had already been picked through. So … we came here, because this is the place that no one goes.”

“Oh, well, that wasn’t convincing in the slightest,” said Fenn. “And not just because I knew that you were lying.”

“Is there a reason you’re helping me?” I asked. If you are. “Not that I mind.”

“A demon told me to,” replied Fenn in a cheerful voice.

“A … demon?” I asked. I was trying my best not to say anything that would give me away as completely clueless about Aerb, but Fenn was making it difficult. I would have naturally assumed that demons were a part of this world, but for someone to be open about a demon giving them instructions seemed like a fairly major thing that I’d missed thus far.

“Isn’t that the human saying?” asked Fenn. “When you do something you ought not do, you say that a demon told you?”

“Oh,” I said. “The imp of the perverse?”

“Ah, that’s the one,” said Fenn. “I knew I was close. We’re just about where I left the others, let me do the talking.”

We rounded a corner (given the odd angles of the streets, Silmar City was almost entirely composed of corners) and came across three men and a woman standing around. They came to attention as soon as they saw us, with hands going to weapons and postures shifting into defensive stances. They let up only a little when Fenn called out to them.

The fastest way that I can describe those four was that they were a pretty classic adventuring party. There was a big guy, nearly seven feet tall by my guess, covered from head to toe in thick full plate armor, holding a massive shield he’d scooped up from the ground when he’d seen us and a pistol three times bigger than mine, which was finely machined; he was the tank. Beside him was a rat-like creature with quills coming from his head, which I guess made him more of a porcupine, dressed in robes and with his hand resting on the grip of what I judged to be a katana; he was their damage dealer. The other two I judged to be mages of some kind, both human (and yes, it occurred to me that I was in a place in my life where I was referring to people by their species); the woman wore tight-fitting red robes with bones strapped to her in bandoliers, while the bald man was nearly naked and covered in tattoos. Had Amaryllis mentioned bone magi? And the last words I’d read before I’d run from the bookshop had been ‘tattoo magic’.

And in addition to being pretty close to what I thought of as a typical adventuring party, it didn’t escape my attention that their composition matched what Amaryllis had described as the ideal strike force: five people, casters of various flavors, a brute, a blade … Fenn was the odd one out, but if I’d had any faith in her statement that she was a simple looter, that was out the window now. Unless this is just what simple looters are like in this world, in which case I am fucked.

“I found a friend!” called Fenn. “I was just telling him how we’re all looters.” That was the most obvious form of ‘I’m giving you the story I gave him so don’t contradict it’ that I had ever heard, so obvious that I assumed I was just meant to treat the looting story as a polite mind-your-own-business type of fiction.

“You have made many missteps today,” said the porcupine samurai. “Do not leave us again. And we are not in the business of picking up strays.”

“Sorry Juniper, he’s very rude,” Fenn said to me. “Quills, Juniper has lost his friend and I was hoping that we could help him. The more the merrier, right?”

“No,” said Quills (a name that I wasn’t going to risk calling him, not until I’d heard it from his own rodent-like lips), “We are here with a purpose, one which is the business of no one else.”

“Oh, well, if you put it like that,” replied Fenn with a roll of her eyes. “Juniper here fell out of a plane, and his friend did too. Does that change your opinion on the matter?” As an aside to me, she said, “Quills takes an interest in people falling from planes.”

Quills looked at me. “Describe your friend.”

“Uh, he has short blonde hair and a weak build,” I said. “Last I saw, he had a rifle on his back, but he might have lost it when we got separated from each other.”

Skill increased: Deception lvl 6! (Further skill gains from telling lies are capped by joint primary stat POI.)

“You are just the most atrocious liar I have ever met in my entire life,” said Fenn. She rested a hand on my shoulder, which I resisted the urge to shrug off. “And I was raised by wood elves. Look, you can tell us the truth, you’re not going to get in any more trouble than you’re already in.”

“I’m in trouble then?” I asked.

“You’re in the heart of an exclusion zone,” rumbled the man in armor. His helmet concealed his face and muffled his voice.

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like you’re an errant schoolboy,” said Fenn. “I’ve certainly never thought of myself as a schoolmarm. In point of fact though, you’re looking for your friend and we might be able to help, but we can’t help if we have no description from you, can we?”

“Red hair, pale blue eyes, a maiden, but with purpose to her,” said the bone mage. Her fingers trailed over the bones strapped to her. “Intelligent, resourceful, daring.”

“Well, that’s more of a description than anyone gave me ,” said Fenn with a huff. She turned to me. “Does that sound like your friend? There are, I gather, a few questions that Quills would like to ask her.”

“Fenn, silence,” said Quills. “Juniper, how did you come by an acquaintance with this young girl? That question should be harmless enough for you to answer and might lead us down productive avenues of conversation.”

The eyes of the tattoo mage glowed brightly, literally glowed with yellow light, then burnt out with a fizzing sound as a small tattoo on his chest faded. “We need to move,” he said calmly.

“Where are we going?” Quills asked Fenn. She twirled her finger in the air and pointed down one of the streets, then without saying anything started jogging in that direction. The others began following her, except for Quills, who stayed with me. “You’re coming with while we relocate,” he said.

I didn’t ask what would happen if I didn’t, mostly because I didn’t want to cement my place as their prisoner, and instead just jogged on after everyone else. Quill stayed behind me as we ran. I figured I was just about one sword stroke from a messy death, depending on how much he thought he needed me.

We regrouped in a burnt out shop, which smelled heavily of ash. I was mildly surprised that the whole city hadn’t been burnt to the ground in the absence of human intervention, but the walls seemed thicker in this place than I was used to on Earth, made with heavy stone rather than wood and drywall.

“It’s safe here?” asked Quills. “You’re certain?”

“For now,” shrugged Fenn. “You know I’m only a half-elf, right?”

“Give us a perimeter,” Quills said to the tattoo mage.

“I have six left,” he replied.

“Understood,” nodded Quills. When the tattoo mage left, Quills turned back to me. “How do you know this girl?” he asked. His eyes were watching me, and I was looking him over, trying to read him like he was so obviously reading me, but he was a freaking anthropomorphic porcupine and that was far too distracting. “Did you meet on the plane? No, you would have been bound and gagged. You met after you were on the ground?”

“Yes,” I said, to save me the shame of being read like a book. I wasn’t good enough at lying, not yet, and I apparently wasn’t going to get better anytime soon, not if the message about skill caps was to be believed. “She gave me a fake name, Cypress, but she had a plan for us to get out. The Fuschia Coterie was there, killing people, and I didn’t have better options.”

“The Color Riot is involved?” asked the bone mage. She sighed at Quills. “This mission is getting increasingly fucked.” Her hands went to her bones again, touching them one by one. “We have a mission outline, and a good one, with the tools we need to accomplish it. We’re saddled with,” she waved in Fenn’s direction, “but that’s a calculation that probably would have worked out, had we not been diverted in mid-stream to this other fucking mess. This isn’t any way to run missions. If you have two objectives that need to be accomplished, you don’t just spread a below-strength team thin and hope they can do both, you prioritize and pick the one that might actually be accomplished.”

“Are you done?” asked Quills. The bone mage nodded. “First, you’re saying too much in front of our guest, who need not be burdened by petty smugglers’ squabbles. Second, our focus was shifted from one task to the other, which we are, I agree, relatively ill-equipped for, specifically because it is one which should be easier, and more importantly, is very much time critical. Third, the tasks interrelate with one another. She knows where it is.”

“And how does she know that?” asked Fenn. “Who the hells is this girl you’re after?”

“I would tell you, if you needed to know,” said Quills.

I kept my mouth shut. I had told him that Amaryllis gave me a fake name, and he had apparently bought that bit of truthful deceit. I felt like I should level up just from that. How famous was she, anyway, if Poul was able to recognize her on sight? Why was she famous, if there were literally hundreds of other princes and princess? It would be like someone recognizing, I don’t know, a state senator or something. This wasn’t one of those academic “I wonder why the world is the way it is” questions that I sometimes got stuck on, I legitimately needed to know this in order to know how I should behave around these people.

“Where was she going?” Quills asked me, which was on the long list of questions that I didn’t want to answer.

“Sorian’s Castle,” I said. I paused for a moment, trying to think of what I could say that wouldn’t expose me as dream-skewered, be incredibly stupid, or otherwise jeopardize my life. “What are you going to do with her, when you find her?” Questions seemed safe, and so far Quills hadn’t treated me like I was undeserving of answers.

“He’d tell you, if you needed to know,” said Fenn with more than a trace of bitterness in her voice.

“Fenn oversteps her bounds,” said Quills, “It is one of the worst habits she’s displayed thus far, among many. Cypress, as you call her, will be debriefed and then released.”

Ah, so they are going to kill her. Because if they weren’t going to kill her, why wouldn’t he just say that they were taking her back to civilization? Wait, the magic number for teleportation is five, which means that if they were taking her back, one of them would have to stay behind. Presumably there are some limits on these teleportation keys so that having one doesn’t let you just dump as many people as you want, because Amaryllis treated it like a sensible limit to unit size.

“But you’re taking the teleportation key?” I asked. I registered surprise from Quills and the others. “She told me about it, that’s why I agreed to come to the city. That key was meant to be our way out. It’s your primary mission, but you don’t know exactly where it is, which is at least part of why you want her.” I hoped that I wasn’t saying too much. There was at least some value in seeming dumb and ignorant, but I wasn’t sure what their training or mission objectives said about people who had outlived their usefulness. “I can help you,” I continued on. “I traveled with her for two days, I know how she operates, what tricks she’s likely to use. We really did become friends. I can talk to her, help convince her to give you what you want, if she’s not naturally inclined toward that.”

“And your price?” asked Quills. “The keys can move five, and we can’t come back for you.”

“Protection while we travel,” I said. “A weapon, maybe, if you can spare one when you go.” I looked to the two mages. “Magic to improve my chances of getting out of the Risen Lands.”

Quills looked me over. “We’ll require your weapon,” he said. “And Leonold will bind you. Otherwise, I accept your offer.”

The tattoo mage stepped forward and reached out a hand toward me. Up close, I could see the tattoos moving across his bare chest, very slowly but still moving, wriggling like living things. There were a few landscape scenes, but otherwise the tattoos were mostly creatures, items, and complex patterns. There was a tattoo that wrapped around the palm and back of his outstretched hand, showing spikes, and this one was rotating, moving faster than any of the others.

“It’s important that you not resist,” he said.

I took his hand, and he gripped me tight. The spiked tattoo touched me, feeling like cold metal on my flesh, and then I saw it appear on the back of my own hand, spinning across my skin.

Unlocked skill: Skin Magic!

Achievement Unlocked: Skin Deep

It didn’t stay there though; instead it migrated up my arm, like a chilly bracelet, disappearing beneath my jacket. I could feel it moving though, past my elbow, tickling my shoulder, and then finally wrapping itself around my neck.

Quest Accepted: Heading Off the Skin Mage - Leonold has placed the Fool’s Choker around your neck. Disable it, kill him, or circumvent it before he kills you.

“I’ve never been in contact with skin magic,” I said slowly.

Leonold raised an eyebrow. “I appreciate the respect,” he said with a nod. “But you’re mistaken. I could still feel the burnt out rune on your right hand.”

Right, from the airplane. Did that not trigger an unlock because it was part of the opening scene? I touched my neck, where I could still feel a faint line of cold. “And what does this do?” I asked.

“If I activate it, which takes but a thought, it will cut about half an inch into your flesh,” he said calmly. “You are familiar with the location of your carotid artery?”

“Purely as a precaution,” Quills said quickly. “When we leave, it will fade from you.”

I nodded at that, trying not to feel too panicked by the thought-activated noose around my neck.

“I’ll take charge of the boy,” said Fenn. “Teach him the ins and outs, as it were. I do this as a service to you, most noble porcine.”

“Porcine means pig,” Quills replied mildly. “But I’m sure that your famously haphazard upbringing has once again caused you to innocently botch the common tongue. We’re going to Sorian’s Castle. What can you tell us that’s of use?” he asked her.

“The corporate castles are death traps,” said Fenn. “Funny enough, they weren’t designed with the living suddenly becoming the undead in mind. There were a few hundred people living in each of them. When the buildings lost power, they switched to a backup, and when that backup eventually failed, all the doors opened, as a fire safety measure. Well, that meant that the undead were free to roam, but their stochastic motion meant that they all ended up in the same spots, and since they all lived and worked together, unanimity-of-purpose is higher, which means more umbral undead than you might otherwise expect from a highly populated area.” She shrugged. “Other than that, it’s your typical case of close quarters combat against enemies who can only be killed through precision or overwhelming firepower, plus it’s within the stalking grounds of the Biggun, whose entire existence is devoted to killing interlopers. So I believe the human term would be ‘cakewalk’?”

The bone mage swore and clutched at one of the bones by her chest, as though getting ready to throw it against the wall. “This is idiocy, Quills,” she said.

“Your opinion has been duly noted, Tova,” said Quills, which was apparently his actual name. “We knew that this was going to be difficult.”

“Difficult,” spat the bone mage. “Not suicidal. And we were supposed to have better intel.”

“We were,” nodded Quills. “It is my understanding that the political situation in the capital is more unstable than we’d known, and certain plans that this mission was contingent upon have failed entirely. This leaves us in an admittedly awkward situation.”

“Alright,” grumbled the tall man in armor. “I will ask the question I believe is on all our minds. The intent was that we would procure the teleportation key and use it to leave. In the event of abject mission failure, we were meant to radio for evacuation.” There followed a brief silence from beneath his helmet. “Were you to declare this mission a failure, do you currently believe that evacuation would be forthcoming?”

Quills’ nose twitched slightly. “The parameters for mission failure --”

“Just answer the damned question,” said Leonold, the tattoo mage.

“I’ve heard nothing explicit to that effect, but I believe we’re on our own,” said Quills. “It might be different if our second objective were achieved.”

Everyone seemed upset with that, save for Fenn, who was holding back a smile. She caught my look, shrugged, and grinned at me.

“To Sorian’s Castle!” she said. “May we succeed on our merits or die in ignominy.”

“There would be no ignominy,” said Quills quietly. “This mission would be buried under so many layers of classification that our names would never see the light of day.”

Chapter Text

The tattoo mage’s eyes burnt out again not long after that, so we got moving, following Fenn’s guidance and this time making our way to Sorian’s Castle, which we weren’t too far from. I’d already seen it on the map, and it wasn’t too much larger than I was prepared for, which is to say that it was incredibly large and worthy of being called a city within a city. The walls were high and had arrow slits starting at the second level, with everything below that being solid stone wall. This struck me as being particularly idiotic, given that sightlines in the middle of the city were basically crap and a siege of this place wouldn’t be worthy of the name, not unless there were considerations that I wasn’t aware of (which was entirely possible).

I was still feeling out of my depth, naturally, but more than that, I was feeling like I was no longer in a game. A party of characters with their own strengths and weaknesses, trapped behind enemy lines with only their skills to survive and the only path forward through an area of danger … well, that was well-worn territory. The problem was, I wasn’t actually a part of it. If this had been a game, then I would have been an NPC that the players had captured in order to wring some use out of him, and I had DMed that situation more than enough times to know how that went. I’d been stripped of agency by virtue of being in a position where agency would get me killed, not just because of what I was assuming was an overwhelming disparity in terms of gear, knowledge, and training, but because I had a tattoo around my neck that the game had practically told me would kill me sooner rather than later.

I wasn’t even sure that they were the bad guys, where “bad guys” was defined as “aligned against Amaryllis”. I didn’t know whether Amaryllis was a good person or not, so calling the people trying to kill her bad was probably too much of a stretch, given the information available. More likely than not, if this world had parallels with the ones I’d created for D&D campaigns, there were layers of gray on one side and pitch black darkness on the other.

So things were stacked against me. On my side, I had: (1) Amaryllis was probably still out there somewhere and would probably give me aid if she could … probably. (2) Fenn was clearly a part of this mission under duress or coercion of a nature TBD, which could probably be leveraged. (3) Everyone except for Quills showed some dissatisfaction with this mission and the way it was being handled at the top, wherever that was, and they weren’t likely to turn on each other, but infighting was a useful distraction. (4) They had taken my void tunneler but not my sword, which probably meant it was useless or at least ineffective in terms of hurting them. That was probably true if the skin mage could cut my throat with a thought. It still seemed like a classic case of underestimation to me though. (5) I had the game elements, like the ability to level up and heal all my wounds, plus my ability to learn things far faster than should have been possible, plus hints and clues that the game incidentally fed me.

It was that last aspect I started work on as we moved around Sorian’s Castle. Taking on the tattoo had unlocked Skin Magic, which meant that I had the very beginnings of the abilities that Leonold had shown. I knew no spells, but I did have a piece of magic touching, or maybe buried into, my flesh.

(Now you might be saying to yourself, “Juniper, prodding at the kill-you necklace is a bad idea” and I would normally have agreed, but the quest I had been given specifically said that I could circumvent it. And yes, listening to the text messages inside my head was also not good standard operating procedure.)

The cold feeling was only there when I thought about it. If I paid close attention, I could feel the exact boundaries of it, the peaks and valleys of the spikes. That sense went far beyond my body’s natural ability to feel heat and cold. I pushed against the feeling, slowly, trying to imagine that I was moving the opposite direction across the same channel of communication.

Skill increased: Skin Magic lvl 1!

I’ll have to say, that surprised me. The tattoo hadn’t moved at all, but my sense of it instantly sharpened. I pushed against the tattoo again, slightly harder. It had traveled along my arm to reach my neck, and if its function was tied to its location, which I desperately hoped it was, then moving it down to a finger would make a half-inch cut result in nothing more than a severing. Leonold hadn’t checked whether I was a skin mage before he’d bound me, which I hoped was another instance of underestimation that would give me wiggle room.

I’d gained two more levels in Skin Magic before we reached the front entrance of Sorian’s Castle, and was no closer to having moved the tattoo. I’d also gained a level of Deception as well, which was quite unexpected considering the earlier message I’d got. Was it because I was trying to surreptitiously work at the skin magic without anyone noticing?

The front of Sorian’s Castle was a massive portcullis that rose up almost twenty feet. It was down, but a corner of it had been bent outward, enough that you could have comfortably driven a van through it. Beyond that there was a courtyard, and only then did I see the glass frontage that I expected from a skyscraper, even if it was hidden in a cove and most of the glass was broken. Light was coming in from the third floor of the castle, which seemed to consist mostly of pillars rather than walls, at least from where I was standing.

“No undead,” muttered Quill.

Fenn stepped forward, coming up next to me. She casually slipped her arm into mine and leaned against me, holding her longbow with her other hand. “That’s not terribly unusual,” she said. “They’re not exactly patrolling creatures, and if someone had come by any that were standing near the entrance would have been drawn out. If someone had gone running past, even past lesser umbrals, they would have been drawn inside.”

As she spoke, she was squeezing my arm. A short squeeze, two long squeezes, a pause, two short squeezes … it went on like that, and I recognized it as likely being Morse code, but I had no idea what message she was trying to spell out. I looked at her as she spoke, and on a final squeeze she gave me a pleasant grin, which I met with a puzzled stare.

Fenn sighed. “There’s nothing for it but for us to go in. I’m getting the sense that we shouldn’t stay out here much longer.”

“Then we move, slowly and carefully,” said Quills. “I will take lead, Tova will be in the back with Leonold. Fenn, stay beside Juniper and be ready to unleash artillery on my command. Juniper, we will make no special effort to protect you.” He rested a clawed hand on the tall armored man. “Carter, I wish you luck.”

But before we could start moving, a wave of corpses came around the corner, eerily silent as it set down one of many limbs, carefully placed so that it avoided cars and lampposts. It was almost two blocks away from us, but my heart was hammering in my chest. This thing was only vaguely shaped like a creature. The arrangement of the dead within it had suggestions of arms and legs, and the eyes were so blindingly bright that I had to force myself to keep looking in its direction.

“Move now,” called Quills, running even as he spoke the word. The Biggun reared back one of its arms, using so many of the dead that there was no clear point of articulation, leaving the limb it showed looking more like a tendril. It snapped that tendril forward at startling speed, back and forth, each time sending a body flying through the air at us at startling speed.

Quills drew his sword and cut through one without breaking stride, giving me my first look at his long, thin katana, diverting both halves of it to their side of him. Another corpse hit the big man, Carter, right in his immense shield, but he took it without so much as a grunt of effort. Others slammed into the ground, splattering flesh and viscera and shattering bones. It was only because I was paralyzed with indecision that I saw one of the hurtling corpses smash into Leonold, hitting the completely unarmored man hard enough that his head should have snapped back or been sheared off - but it didn’t even move him, not a bit. It was Carter who jerked back with the hit instead. Linked through the soul to take the hits himself, those had been Amaryllis’ words.

I finally came to my senses and ran. I was at the back of the pack by quite some distance, which gave me the marginal benefit of not being where the majority of corpse-fire was landing. Quills cut several bodies down in midair, sometimes stopping his forward motion in anticipation of them so he could protect the others. Carter moved faster than I’d thought a man in thick full plate could, even accounting for everything I’d read that debunked full plate being restrictive. The two mages took a few marginal hits when pieces of bodies flew like shrapnel, and I saw those hits reflected on Carter in sudden, awkward movements of his body. Fenn … Fenn didn’t seem to be dodging really, in the sense that she was watching the incoming corpse-fire and reacting to it, but she always seemed to be where the body parts weren’t.

I drew my sword as I ran, trying to watch for a body flying through the air toward me as quickly as a speeding car. When one came, I dropped into a quick roll across the street, hoping that I wasn’t putting myself in exactly the position to take a hit.

Skill increased: Dodge lvl 2!

And then I was on the move again, still bringing up the rear as the others reached the broken portcullis. That at least would give us some cover from the corpse-fire, though if the interior of Sorian’s Castle was infested with zombies we were going straight into a pincer. An errant corpse smashed into a car right next to me and its top half went spinning toward me. I lifted my sword and caught it in the ribs, which was enough to arrest its motion.

Skill increased: Parry lvl 2!

The zombie was still living, I realized, or at least undead, because its eyes were glowing and it was moving. I let it slide off my sword as I hurried forward, now further behind than before.

“Artillery!” shouted Quills as I made it through the portcullis. We had company up ahead, three of the Zombie Voltrons and one of the smaller, sleeker versions, all of them bounding toward us from out of the ruined glass frontage, into the courtyard.

Fenn drew her bow, closed one eye and squinted, then released. Her arrow once again split in the air, first into two, then four, then eight, until it was a full volley ripping through the undead. Two of the Voltrons collapsed, but the third she didn’t hit, and the slender, ten-corpse zombie had rolled itself behind one of the ones penetrated by arrows. Errant arrows, of which there were many, crashed into the building behind the zombies.

Quills kept up his speed and ran straight toward the Zombie Voltron with his sword trailing behind him. When he reached it, he spun with sword outstretched, cutting a thin line right through it that caused pieces of it to drop to the ground. When it swung its arm-like appendage at him, he sliced straight through that too, and then followed it up with another cut to the creature’s nominal leg which caused it to slide down into a red-eyed pile.

Tova and Leonold took on the smaller one, her with bones in hand, striking at it with impossible speed and punches that I could hear crack bones, him with his skin aglow in colors. It was hitting them hard with its many arms and legs, until they had struck through enough of its hearts that it collapsed into pieces.

“Run!” screamed Fenn as she followed her own advice, disappearing into the castle’s lobby. Unlike the others, I had never stopped, and I weaved through the fighting, looking behind me only briefly to confirm what I suspected, which was that the Biggun had made its way down the street to the portcullis. It was releasing parts of itself, small blobs in relation to its size, but recognizable as one of the fast conglomerations, well capable of running us down.

We ran. There were more zombies inside, but Quills had a sword which was apparently capable of cutting through anything, and none of them were the dangerous, stuck-together sort. We raced up a central staircase in near-darkness, with the big brute, Carter, nearly falling behind, then up another staircase, then a third, until we were on the fourth level.

“Leo, time out,” shouted Quills.

The tattoo mage stopped right where he was and held out his hand, then ran in a small circle not more than ten feet wide with his hand trailing behind him. It started with a blue glow in his hand that built as he went, until his entire arm was covered in vibrant blue light. It was just before he finished that I realized everyone else was inside the circle and I was outside it; I took a step forward and Fenn reached out to pull me in, right as the circle closed and everything went black.

I felt the pulse of my blood, which was racing, and lit my finger on fire, which illuminated the six of us standing around, the floor we were standing on, and nothing at all beyond the circle that Leonold had traced.

“You’re burning our oxygen, asshole,” said Tova. Her hair was in disarray and a number of bones were missing from her bandoliers.

“Blood magic doesn’t oxidize, not unless he sets something on fire,” said Quills. “It’s the best light source I think we have. Small mercies.” To my surprise, he gave me a short bow. “Leonold, what does spell integrity look like?”

“It was a sloppy cast,” the tattoo mage replied. “We’re also sitting at six, not five, which cuts down our time. Figure an hour and a half until we’re not in fighting shape when we get out.”

“And where the fuck is that?” asked Fenn. “Seems like nowhere to me.” Her hand moved to the blackness around us, but Quills slapped her away.

“We’re outside of time,” said Quills. “Don’t touch the border unless you want to lose a finger. Carter, status?”

Carter finally removed his helmet for the first time since I’d seen him. He was hairless and his skin was blue; one of the kashoonk, if I remembered the races I’d created correctly. His face was bloody and bruised, and one of his eyes was swollen shut and leaking a white fluid. “Broken wrist, broken ribs, broken face, broke all the fingers of my left hand, bruised from head to toe, feeling like a raw piece of meat. I’m going to need half Tova’s healing just to keep me going.”

“Make it so,” replied Quills. Carter immediately set to work removing his armor, which was awkward for all of us because there wasn’t quite enough space for six people. Tova grabbed bones out of her bandoliers, looking them over and setting some aside. While they did that, Quills turned to me. “We are here largely on your word,” he said. “Is there anything you have held back? Any hint as to where she was going within the castle?”

I tried to steady my breath. I was breathing up their air and my usefulness was rapidly diminishing. Knowing a little bit about Amaryllis wasn’t going to help if we didn’t run into her, and I couldn’t imagine how she would possibly have gotten past what had greeted us in the courtyard. I had few pieces of information to parcel out and when they were gone, I was probably dead. If I held them close to my chest, I was also probably dead.

“I don’t know what you know,” I replied. “She said that there was a secret facility on the twenty-first floor.” Though the game said that it was on the top floor, and I’m not sure that’s the same thing. “The facility was meant to study the necrotic field effect, but they … lost contact, or something, taking their key with them.”

Quills shifted his nose from side to side. “She actually trusted you then.”

I nodded. “Maybe not wisely.” I wanted to let the fire on my fingertips wink out and hide. I had done the same thing she’d done when she left me for dead: I had made a calculation, and she had come out on the wrong side. It still made me feel like shit though.

“So who the hell is our mystery girl? Who gets marooned in the Risen Lands and knows everything there is to know about secret research facilities that violate the exclusion zone?” asked Fenn. She maneuvered in the tight space until she was next to me. Her hand rested on my shoulder as she looked to Quills.

“Amaryllis Penndraig, Princess of Anglecynn, Special Liaison on Existential Emergencies,” I replied. I was fairly sure that Fenn was the only one who didn’t know that, and now, at least, I could get some information from Quills.

“Oh,” said Fenn. “Well, fuck.” Her eyes momentarily went to Leonold, then to me, then down to the tattoo around my neck. She turned back to Quills. “So, you just want to have a friendly chat with this girl, most senior of the Penndraig line, before sending her on her merry way to die in the middle of Silmar City? Because it seems to me like either we’re meant to kill her, or you’re meant to take her out of here, and if it’s the latter, then that’s probably bad news for the least valued member of the team.” She tousled my hair with the hand that had been holding her bow upright, then caught the bow just before it tipped over and fell. “No offense to our stray, who would take that title if only he were a member.”

Quills’ hand was still wrapped around the grip of his blade, which he had not yet sheathed. “It is of no concern,” he said. “We will not find her. This mission has been reduced to our mere survival.”

I wasn’t willing to press the question, and to my surprise Fenn didn’t seem to be willing to either. She instead turned and kissed me on the cheek, then with a languid motion fell to the floor and assumed a sitting position.

Skill increased: Romance lvl 2!

“You’ll stay with us, for now,” Quills said to me. “I am blade-bound; our oath is our word. But the caution you received, that we would make no special effort to keep you alive, that is also true.” With that he turned away from me, sat down, and began cleaning his blade.

Tova was still working on Carter, holding a bone in one hand until it smoked while touching his bare flesh with her other hand. The healing wasn’t complete; his wounds got better, but his flesh didn’t become unblemished. When she had burnt through one bone, she tossed it aside and selected another, moving over his body (now bare save for a pair of briefs) delicately and occasionally asking soft questions he answered with monosyllables.

Leonold was tattooing himself by the light of my flame, using a small pot of ink and a needle. He grit his teeth as he did it, but made no sound. This was apparently part of the process for a skin mage, or a tattoo mage. I didn’t know whether that was a difference in terminology or a real difference in praxis, but I didn’t want to interrupt the man who had magic wrapped around my neck.

So having nothing better to do, I sat down next to Fenn.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I kissed you,” she asked.

“Not particularly,” I replied. “I thought that was just … your way of trying to get under my skin. Or Quills’.” I kept my voice low, but the space outside of time we were in was quite small, and Carter was taking up a lot of it.

“You’re cute,” said Fenn. She kept her own voice low to match mine. “Not what you just said, that was borderline offensive, but in general appearance and mannerisms. There’s something very human about you, has anyone ever told you that?”

“No,” I replied. “But … I’m not very worldly.”

“Well,” said Fenn. She scooted closer to me, until she was pressed up against me, and placed her head on my shoulder. I was hyperaware of the feeling of her pointed ear touching me. “Perhaps that’s what I mean when I say that you’re very human.”

“Don’t play with your food,” said Leonold from across the room.

“I’m only half-elf,” replied Fenn, not raising her head from my shoulder. “I have consumed very few people in my days.” She shifted slightly, then sat up and looked at me. “There’s something very cozy about being close to death, isn’t there? Something about wolves howling outside the door that sends an electricity through people? Or is that just my elf side speaking?”

She moved her head in close and used her nose to push my face to the side, then kissed me on the cheek. I let it happen. I was feeling exhausted, not so much physically but mentally, probably the result of having so much to process in so little time and the stress of looming death. It felt nice, but I was too wrung out to experience any real sensuality. She leaned forward more and brushed her lips against my ear.

“They’re going to kill us both,” she whispered, just loud enough so that I could hear it. She pulled back, brushing her cheek against mine, and then looked at me straight on. There was nothing playful or seductive about those dark green eyes. The look on her face was meant only for me; she had positioned herself to be unseen by the others. I wasn’t terribly good at reading people, not enough for me to decipher her microexpressions, but the sheer intensity of it alone was frightening.

“Of course, there’s much written on the subject of pre-battle coitus,” Fenn said aloud as she turned back to face the others. “Some are of the opinion that it saps men of their fighting spirit, while others feel that it calms the mind. Myself, I think there’s something to the notion that a little teasing can spurn a man onward to greatness.” She let out a sigh and disengaged from me entirely, so that we were only sitting next to each other. “So, you say that you’re not worldly. Is this your first time seeing a meatshield?” she gestured at Carter.

“I’ve … heard stories,” I said. “Never in person, no.” Was he literally called a meatshield? Was this world really that bizarre?

“He’s linked by the soul to the rest of the team and takes all the hits they would take,” said Fenn. “Very funny stuff, really, because you could punch Tova in the head and Carter would be the one to feel it. Of course, he’s the one with all the armor, so likely you’d break your hand in the process, which I suppose is not all that funny, except to outside observers. And before you try anything, he wasn’t linked to me personally, because I am for some reason not trusted by these otherwise warm-hearted smugglers.”

“Enough talking,” said Tova. “And Juniper, more light for this part.” After a second she added. “Please.”

I flared the fire until it consumed my hand, and got a message that I had once again capped my skill for blood magic. I watched as Tova took the thickest bone still left in her bandolier and traced her fingers over Carter’s blue-skinned chest. This bone stunk worse than the others, filling our enclosed space with a lingering acrid smell. Halfway through, Carter grunted and arched his back, letting out a whimper as he collapsed back to the ground. When it was finished, Tova was breathing heavily.

“Healing is as done as it’s going to get,” said Tova. “I have about a fifth of my total reserves left,” she gestured to her bones. “Enough for a single fight, or critical healing in a time of need.”

Carter began putting his armor back on. I wondered how often he had been hurt for the sake of others, how often he had gone through similar healing processes in order to come back into the fight. It seemed rather masochistic to me.

But Fenn hadn’t told me about the link he shared with the others in the interests of satisfying my curiosity, she had said it because they were going to kill us both. She’d told me about Carter because if I wanted to live, I would need to deal with Leonold, and to do that, I would need to deal with Carter first. I wasn’t actually sure why either of us were alive, if Quills and company really were bad guys, but I trusted Fenn more than I trusted them. I wasn’t quite planning on killing Carter and Leonold in cold blood, but that was partly because I had no real ideas on how to do that.

“We need to plan,” said Quills, standing up swiftly. “We are currently on the fourth floor, with unnumbered undead ahead of us and unnumbered undead following behind us. There are seventeen stories between us and our objective. Tova, you are a non-combatant unless Carter dies, in which case you are to use every scrap of your remaining power as rearguard. Leonold … status?”

“The usual bits and bobs, but if we’re talking things of note, then two of Prince’s Invulnerability, five of the Pseudo Perimeter, which probably wouldn’t even work in here, one more Fool’s Choker, and a single Faltering Candelabra,” said Leonold, occasionally pointing to pieces on his skin.

I felt at my collar as he spoke, pushing again at the tattoo. I had finally managed to budge it at level eight of Skin Magic, but “budge” was on the order of centimeters rather than moving it away from my neck, and the levels were coming much slower now.

“Prince’s Invulnerability lasts for about six seconds?” I asked. “Covers six people?”

Leonold stared at me. “Yes,” he said. “How’d you know that?”

Well, you see, there’s this game called Dungeons and Dragons in a place that may or may not exist called Earth, and there are spells created by Gary Gygax and the Wizards of the Coast, but there are people called dungeon masters who can make up their own spells to give to wizards, and that one was one that I made up before I got here.

“I read it somewhere,” I said slowly.

“Where?” asked Leonold.

“It’s not important,” said Quills. “The headaches have started, that means time is short. Juniper, don’t speak again.”

I closed my mouth, even though an idea was forming. Prince’s Invulnerability had been a mistake, one of those spells that I’d thought was really cool when I’d handed it over but which tipped the game on its side. The problem wasn’t the mechanical aspect of preventing all damage, it was the shenanigans that allowed; in the very first session they had it, the party made a dramatic escape by putting on the invulnerability and then jumping from the parapets of a lich’s castle.

(Yes, this did involve a lot of arguing about whether real-world physics superseded D&D rules when D&D rules were stupid and unrealistic, plus consulting with online calculators that took into account drag coefficients, plus a smattering of jokes about the airspeed of an unladen swallow.)

“Fenn,” asked Quills. “How many artillery shots?”

“One,” she replied with a frown. “You call it and I’ll make it, but you had better pick well. Also, if we’re counting assets, then you should probably put my charms there as well. I have not yet tried to charm the undead, but we’ll call it a last-ditch effort, shall we?”

“I am more hoping that your luck assists us,” said Quills, paying no more attention to her than to give her a shake of the head. “Juniper, you have some access to blood magic, but can I assume that it’s limited?”

I literally learned everything I know earlier today. “It’s nothing more than a party favor,” I replied. “But …” I hesitated, unsure how to proceed. There was so much that I didn’t know about this world, and I couldn’t ask questions without looking like a fool, or worse, revealing that I had a mental disorder that you could find in whatever the local equivalent of the DSM-5 was. “We should take the elevators,” I said.

“It might have escaped your notice, hooman friend, but there’s no power,” said Fenn. “Easy to see how someone could overlook that.” But in spite of her snark, I was breathing a sigh of relief, because she’d just confirmed for me that the doors I briefly glimpsed at the lobby level were, in fact, the doors to elevators, and not only that, that these elevators required electrical power rather than running on some crazy system of gnostic runes.

“You want us to climb,” said Quills, shaking his head, “Worse than stairs, because our options will be too limited in the event they follow, and attack from above would send us falling to our deaths.”

“No,” I replied, starting to get that warm feeling of excitement at a plan that might actually work. “I want to launch us.”

Chapter Text

Thank you for signing up for ELEVATOR facts!

The thing to know about modern elevators is that they have a lot of safety features.

  1. There’s not a single cable that holds up the car, there are about eight, each of which is capable of holding up a fully loaded car all by itself.
  2. The elevator car and counterweight it’s attached to are usually on tracks in order to provide friction in the event of a catastrophic failure.
  3. The elevator car has safeties on it that activate if there’s what the manual would euphemistically call an “overspeed event”, or in other words, when the car is moving way faster than it should.
  4. The pulley at the top of the elevator shaft is the thing that actually makes the elevator car and counterweight go up and down, and it has a governor on it that locks the pulley into place if there’s too much centrifugal force from an overspeed event.
  5. At the bottom of the elevator shaft there’s usually some cushioning, not enough to always prevent injuries or deaths, but enough to add some margin of error.

That was about what I knew. Here’s where I would normally make some crack about how KNO 2 was bullshit, but my KNO was up to 4 at this point and I was honestly not sure that I would have been able to remember all that if I’d been asked a few days before. That was a sobering thought; it would be the first real indication that the game layer was actually monkeying around with my mind.

Anyway, here’s what I knew about the safety features of elevators in Aerb:

  1. ???

(That’s overstating it a bit, since I was a big believer in convergence of designs, and therefore this world probably followed those rules as well, whether it had been created from an imprint of my mind or whether my dream of Earth was inspired by buried memories of Aerb. Even if there was no Elisha Otis to invent the elevator in Aerb, the principles of design would be largely the same, modulo anything that magic could do. Elevators had braking systems to prevent people from plummeting to their deaths, not because of anything specific to Earth. So far Aerb appeared to have what I would call physics plus, but what I had seen so far indicated that they didn’t have free energy, which meant that they needed to conserve energy, which meant that elevators would have counterweights to reduce the energy needed move cars around.)

Unfortunately, no one else knew all that much either, which meant that I was putting forward a plan that was at least partly based on ignorance. It was possible that there was a governor at the top of the elevator shaft that would trip through centrifugal force when the counterweight started moving down, and it was also possible that lack of electricity would simply lock both the elevator car and counterweight in place.

“Risk and reward,” murmured Quills after we’d discussed the idea some. “If it works, we skip past seventeen floors of hard fighting. If it fails … we’ll have spent resources that we can’t afford to spend. The undead will come at us and we’ll have to kill them, rather than just running away. Still, on balance … Leonold, the Prince’s Invulnerability will protect us?”

“Yes,” nodded Leonold. “It’s six seconds, no more, no less. If our ascent takes longer, I’ll have to activate it twice. And if our ascent fails, then we’ll be out a use.”

“Then I’m in favor,” said Quills. “We’ll move to the elevators, make a stand there, then hopefully get to the top and disembark from there. Fenn, we’re going to use your final artillery shot. Objections?”

Carter shifted uncomfortably, but neither he nor anyone else said anything. Personally, I was starting to more keenly feel the effects of the enclosed space; my headache had gotten sharper and I was sweating. I was fairly sure that I would have felt warm, had I not been keeping a fire going with my blood for the past hour.

And yet even when there was agreement about what we were doing, we stayed within the bubble of dilated time. (Do I need to point out that I was eager to learn how to do that? I mean I hope that you at the very least think of me as not being brain damaged, so yes, I wanted to learn how to put the game on pause.) One of the “bits and bobs” included in Leonold’s arsenal was 200 feet of rope, which he pulled from a tattoo on his wrist, and which he thereafter treated as though it were entirely real. This he did some crude knotwork with, because it was better to have that prepared while we were safe than while we had the zombies after us.

And then, after all the waiting, most of which I spent practicing moving my throat tattoo, we were suddenly ready to go. As everyone got into position within our small space, I could feel my heart beating quickly in my chest and my breathing grow faster. That might also have been from the carbon dioxide poisoning.

When the time dilation fell away there was a flash of light that left me blinking and a blast of air moving away from us. There was barely time to take in the scene we’d left behind before we were moving again, racing toward the elevators.

When we got there, Quills delivered three quick cuts to the elevator door, then Carter delivered a solid kick to the triangle of free-standing metal, which crashed inward and fell down four stories, because the elevator wasn’t waiting. I stuck my head in and flared up light from my hand, then breathed a sigh of relief. “Fourth one down!” I shouted, even though they were right next to me. That was failure point one behind us; there was an elevator on the right level for us to use.

We reached it just as three of the slick corpse menageries came crashing down the hallway. Quills called for artillery, and Fenn obliged, with her arrow again splitting in two every ten feet. We were in relatively close quarters though, which meant that the assault wasn’t quite as powerful by the time it reached its target, and only one of the things became a pincushion, falling apart and letting the other two through. Quills cut through the elevator door, then turned to meet them.

My own role was to help Leonold with the preparations, in part because I’d given them the impression that I wouldn’t be completely clueless about what we’d find up there, and in part because I could produce light to work with. I followed him into the elevator and then hoisted myself up through the grate that he’d opened.

Look, I’d never been on the top of an elevator car back on Earth, and had never seen the top of one except in movies, so when I say that what we found looked exactly Earth-like, you have to take it with a grain of salt. I’m sure that there were differences, but I’m not sure what they were. The car ran on tracks, there were more tracks for the counterweights, and eight cables went straight up beyond what we could see. Everything still seemed to be in fine shape, minus a small bit of dust that might have been there when this castle was active. That was pretty reasonable, given that this place had essentially been mothballed for an unknown number of years. At any rate, that was failure point two waving as it passed us by; the elevator looked how it needed to look for this plan to work.

“If you fuck this up, I’ll kill you,” Leonold whispered to me.

I nodded and tried to ignore my shaky hands as I helped him to prepare. The cables were bolted into the frame of the car; we needed a way for us to be carried up with the ends as soon as someone, presumably Quills, cut them loose. To that end, we began weaving the rope through the cables, leaving the prepared lasso loops dangling out so that we could each slip into them. I was working one-handed, since my other hand held the flame, basically just being an extra hand for Leonold.

“Is this going to hold?” I asked him, even though that question had been gone over a few times while we were planning. The tattoo mage didn’t answer me. The rope he had wasn’t very strong, not even as strong as climbing rope, but it didn’t need to be that strong, especially if we were setting things up so that there was the strain was distributed across many ropes.

“Good?” Quills shouted to us as we were finishing up.

“Close,” Leonold called down. “No problems.”

“Candelabra,” Quills shouted.

Leonold didn’t hesitate; he dropped down into the elevator and then cast a spell that I could only halfway see while I waited for him to come back. Only I wasn’t just waiting, I was working as hard as I could to move the Fool’s Choker around my neck. On Earth, the worst thing about having a full neck tattoo was that it was visible to everyone. On Aerb, that was the second worst thing, but it was still pretty bad, because it meant that even if I moved it, it would be immediately visible that I’d done so - unless, of course, I was in a dark elevator shaft and controlled the only source of light. It was slow work to shift its position, but I had finally felt that cold band of magical ink slip to the side, right as Leonold came back up. It was no longer a choker, more a ring sitting on my shoulder, and while I was sure it would still hurt, that was better than having a slit throat.

Leonold returned to his work, moving quickly. He hadn’t been looking at me at all before, and to my relief that continued as he did the last of the knotwork. I nevertheless positioned the light so that I would be as obscured as possible, and let it dim slightly. When he was finished, he slipped one of the loops over his head and arms until it was nestled in his armpits, then walked a half step away to draw the lasso tight. He leaned slightly, testing it.

“Good to go,” he shouted. To me, sotto voce, he said, “I shouldn’t have said I would kill you, that was just nerves talking. This mission … you don’t know the half of it. And now it’s down to this insanity.”

“S’okay,” I replied. I had a lump in my throat.

The others made their way up, first Fenn, then Tova, then Quills, and finally a battered and unsteady Carter lifting himself up while kicking at something below him.

“Hurry,” he said, just as the car was rocked by an impact. Leonold helped slip a loop around him and then supported his weight. From the grate, a single arm snaked up, its fingernails bent backward and falling out.

Quills made the first cut by the weak light of Aarde’s Touch, slicing through the roof of the elevator. So far as I could tell, either blade-bound had absurdly sharp and durable blades, or they found conventional physics to be terribly unexciting. When a second cut followed the first, metal began to creak, and when his third cut came, the elevator lurched down. The section of metal we were standing on was peeled back by the tension of the cables pulling at their mounts now. Quills drew a sharp breath and aimed his blade.

“Invulnerability on three,” said Quills. “One, two,” spears of golden light shot forward from a large tattoo that was now centered on Leonold’s chest, one of them going to each of us and connecting us to him, then fading out. “Three,” said Quills, bringing his sword down.

I had thought that we would rise faster. In my head, we’d go soaring upward, like a coin launched from a slingshot, but while it wasn’t at all sedate, it was slow enough that I had time to count the floors. I had let the fire I was providing go out as soon as we started moving and was now holding onto two ropes, both Tova’s and my own, trying not to feel ill from the swaying feeling.

“Belay cast!” called Quills.

And then just like that, the six seconds were up, and we were still rising in darkness, only my nausea at the movement was compounded by the painful squeezing feeling around my chest. The ropes had drawn us all together, so that flesh was pressed to flesh, and I could feel Fenn’s hot breath as we continued up. I was still trying to count floors by the faint light that seeped in from elevator closed doors. We had, at any rate, sailed clear of failure three, because no pulley governor was engaging, and we were still on the rise.

“There’s this thing called the unspoken plan guarantee,” said Tiff. She had turned her chair to the side and was propping her feet up on Reimer’s chair, which he disliked but allowed. “Basically what it means is that if you hear people talk about a plan in a movie or novel or TV show, then that plan will fail, or if not fail, then run into some unforeseen complication.”

“I’m not sure I get it,” said Arthur. “We’re not bound by traditional narrative rules.”

“Yeah, I don’t get it either,” I said. “The unspoken plan guarantee exists because there’s no tension in hearing a plan and seeing it in action. In tabletop, the dice provide the tension.”

“The dice provide some tension,” replied Tiff. “But if the plan is good enough, then there’s the same problem, and we have someone at this table whose job it is, at least more than others, to make this whole shebang entertaining, and who also has the power to introduce complications ex nihilo.” She made a finger gun at me and mouthed a pew sound. I smiled and rolled my eyes.

“So you’re saying that we should keep things secret from the DM?” asked Reimer. “In my experience, that doesn’t work too well.”

“Oh, well not big secrets,” said Tiff. “We should keep little secrets, tiny things we hold in reserve that we agree not to mention out loud in the hopes that Joon forgets about them, or parts of the plan that can legitimately surprise him so he doesn’t feel the need to insert things into the game just to make it more interesting.”

“Seems a little adversarial,” replied Arthur. “In the tabletop-as-performance model … well, I guess there you could make the same argument, that the performance is better if there’s some aspect of hidden things being shown.”

“Or,” said Tom. “We could just not ever plan anything.” He tapped the side of his head. “If you have no plans, then you don’t have plans that need hiding.”

We were around the fifteenth floor when we reached failure point three point five. I was the only one who knew about it, hence the awkward numbering.

I listened to the beat of my heart and the rush of my pulse, then pushed heat into my closed fist, trying to watch closely to see how much light was given off. My grip on Tova’s rope was tight, and if I understood correctly the flame was nothing like an actual flame, so the visible light in the dark elevator shaft was basically nothing. I pushed more of the heat of my blood into my fist, then more, then still more.

After the first second, the heat was uncomfortably hot, and after the second second, it was painful. I would say that it was unbearable, but I was bearing it, because I had to. And then, just as I was getting ready to cry out in pain because of the burns I was inflicting on my hand, the rope holding up Tova snapped and sent her screaming as she plummeted. The game messages came quickly after that.

Skill increased: Deception lvl 8!

Inge Carter defeated!

Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 1!

Achievement Unlocked: Microhitler

Tova Feidlimid defeated!

Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 2!

New Virtue: Ruthless!

I felt sick to my stomach as I read through those and blinked the messages away as soon as I saw them. Tova hadn’t fallen straight down, she had clanged hard against the side of the elevator shaft, probably hitting a girder or ledge. I wasn’t next to Carter, but I’d felt him jerk around and then start swinging. After that, I’d heard the clanking thud of her hitting bottom. Even without the game telling me so, I would have known that she was dead. Even if the fall had somehow not killed her, the zombies would have, so I had to at least be thankful that her death was a quick one. Please, please be the sort of person who deserved that.

And we were still rising, faster than before, almost to the top.

“Invuln,” said Quills, his voice hard.

Again the spears of light came out from Leonold, but this time they touched only three of us, Quills, Fenn and myself. It was enough illumination to see Quills quickly slice through Carter’s rope, letting him drop down below. Two seconds later, we went crashing into the top of the elevator shaft, pulled forward and around by the pulley, which finally gummed up with the cable mountings and metal plate hitting it at high speed. I landed in a crumple, with my torso and one leg on something made of metal and my arms out in the middle of nothingness. I still had a rope around my chest, but I had no idea what it was connected to.

When I suddenly started feeling things again, the pain in my burnt hand was almost crippling, so I stayed where I was, not daring to move.

“Roll call,” said Quills. His voice was calm and steady.

“I’m fine,” said Leonold.

“Peachy,” replied Fenn with a cough.

“Juniper?” asked Quills, as I tried to slow my breathing. I had known that the fire would hurt, but I hadn’t realized that it would hurt so much. Worse, I was absolutely sure that it would be clearly visible, leaving me caught red handed.

“Tova,” I said at a whisper. “She was right beside me.”

“Give us light,” said Quills.

I placed my hand down on the metal beneath me, tried not to hiss as the raw flesh touched it, then used my good hand to create a small flame. I saw Quills holding onto a strut, with his sword drawn, Leonold blindly clutching part of the gridwork that the pulley was attached to, and Fenn sitting casually on a walkway to the side.

“What happened?” asked Quills. I would have sighed in relief that the question was directed at Leonold instead of me, but my hand was getting more painful by the moment.

“There were too many failure points,” said Leonold through clenched teeth. “Eventually, we had to hit one.” And now I’m home free, until we step out into the light and they see my burnt hand and displaced tattoo. “I’d still like to check the ropes though.” Fuck.

I let the light from my hand dim further and flicker. “Not sure how long I can sustain this,” I said. “I’m already getting the shakes.” Most of that was because of the radiating pain of my burn. I did wonder how deep it had gone, what I would see if I looked at it. I’d put in enough heat to burn the rope, or at least damage its structure; what had that done to my hand?

“Post mortems are unimportant right now,” Quills said smoothly. Leonold gave me a suspicious look in the dim light, but my hand was held high and the shadow from my head mostly covered my neck. Quills stood up, sword in hand, heedless of the fact that he was balanced precariously over at least a twenty-story fall. He climbed his way down to the elevator door below us, standing on a thin ledge, and with four strokes of his blade cut a square hole in the door. The detached metal slid back and fell into the elevator shaft, tumbling down until it banged against the sides and made a racket.

“On the plus side, the upper floors should be relatively clear,” said Fenn. “They weren’t residential and the undead have more trouble going up than down, meaning that over the years many of them would have filtered into the lower levels through stochastic motion. All that’s left is to find the key and skedaddle.”

Leonold climbed down and out the door, following Quills, and Fenn followed after with catlike grace. I unlooped the rope from around myself, feeling the stinging pain in my hand as I briefly brushed it against the rope, then slowly, agonizingly, made my way over to the catwalk, and from there down a slender ladder that the others hadn’t even used, trying my best not to succumb to vertigo. My injured hand was cradled to my chest as I made the transition in, hoping that I could somehow talk my way out of what the injury implied.

But just as I stepped onto the floor I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder as the tattoo sliced into me, and then --

Leonold Pavran defeated!

Quest Complete: Heading Off the Skin Mage - Leonold Pavran tried to kill you as he died, but you managed to move the tattoo just in time.

Level up!

I was taken by the golden glow of raw power and wrapped in its warm embrace, the pain in my shoulder and hand instantly gone with no trace they’d ever been there. My mind was fuzzed with a feeling like pure, rapturous love that was gone as soon as the level up put me back down on my feet.

I’m pretty sure that Fenn and Quills would have been staring at me, if Leonold wasn’t lying on the ground with a dagger sticking in the side of his head. Instead, Quills had his sword drawn and was moving back from where he’d been toward Fenn.

Fenn ran, and Quills chased her. There were too many things going on for me to process it all, but we were in a sunlit reception area on the top floor of Sorian’s Castle, with a desk against one wall and a blue and yellow crest with a badger on it behind that. Fenn went to the nearest of the two doors out, pushing it open, and I firmly believe that she would have died then and there if the door had been locked. She had a bow, a magical one, but with no magic remaining, and he had a sword which could cut through practically anything.

I ran after them, not knowing what I could possibly do against Quills, not even if I managed to catch him off-guard. I came into the room, a wide open area with a dome nearly two hundred feet across and furniture that had been pushed to the sides, just after him. I almost bumped into him as he came to a stop and raised his sword, not at me, but at a familiar someone crouched down behind a makeshift barricade a hundred feet away.


A perfectly circular hole appeared in the thin blade Quills was holding and he grunted. I stared with mouth agape at Amaryllis, who was calmly crouched down with her rifle aimed down the length of the room, shielded by a thick wooden desk that had been tipped on its side. Quills cursed and did a tumbling roll to the side, coming to land behind a plush couch. Fenn was similarly hidden behind what looked like a piece of laboratory equipment, with an arrow nocked in her bow. She didn’t quite have an angle on Quills.

“Identify yourselves,” called Amaryllis. Her voice was raised to cover the distance between us.

“Brownsnout Quills-in-Hand,” said Quills. “Blade-bound leader of the now-former Fireteam Blackheart, pledged in service to the Kingdom of Anglecynn, long may it stand.”

“Fenn Greenglass,” replied Fenn. “I am technically a consultant to Fireteam Blackheart, but we’re having a very petty squabble right now with regards to some recent vacancies within the fireteam, some of them quite recent indeed, if you catch my meaning. I appreciate you not shooting me when I came in.”

“Only because you surprised me. Brownsnout, which of the Lost King’s get sent you?” she asked.

There was a long pause from Quills. “The command came from Prince Larkspur Prentiss, my lady.”

“You thought about lying to me and decided against it,” said Amaryllis. “I’ll count that as a point in your favor then.”

“They were going to kill you, princess,” replied Fenn. I could see her eyeing the spot where Quills was hiding behind cover, trying to judge whether it was a shot worth taking. “Personally, I would count that as at least one point against him.”

It occurred to me that I was the only one not in a stand-off. I was standing by the door, not hidden behind anything. I had been mute thus far, watching and waiting. I closed my eyes for three seconds and tried my best to keep listening while I looked through the menus. I had points to spend, but what I really wanted was the “Companions” screen. I’d seen the messages, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise to see Fenn there. She had a brief biography there, and to my surprise, so did Amaryllis. I wondered when that had happened. It wasn’t a screen I checked often.


Fenn Greenglass, Loyalty lvl 2

Fenn is a half-elf born to a elven father and human mother. Her childhood was spent with alternating months in the Isle of Eversummer and the colony of Rogbottom. While her ears marked her as exotic and dangerous among the humans, her teeth marked her as a hideous disgrace among the elves. She has never felt at home in either world and pretends to understand less than she does in order to highlight her differences before anyone can call her on them. After she reached maturity she held several odd jobs until settling into a dangerous, solitary life entering into the Risen Lands exclusion zone to take whatever wasn’t nailed down. That life ended when she was arrested selling contraband to a fence. When Anglecynn needed a guide through Silmar City, she was pulled from prison and given a second chance.

“Fenn is listed as a companion,” I said to Amaryllis. “Quills is not.”

“You vouch for her?” asked Amaryllis.

“I do,” I said, hoping that the biography the game had fed me wasn’t lying. I had already cast my lot with Fenn anyway. Maybe if I’d been given fewer threats to my life from Quills’ team, or maybe if they hadn’t made it so clear that my life was worthless to them ...  hell, if the teleportation key math had worked out differently and they could have pretended that I would have a spot, maybe it would have all worked out differently.

“Brownsnout, why did you come?” asked Amaryllis.

Quills was silent for a moment. “Juniper and Fenn know enough that I can’t tell any lies which might soften the story,” he said. “I’d have prefered not to do it like this.”

He leapt up from behind the couch, rolled over toward me,


And grabbed me by the shirt, whipping me around to put me between himself, Fenn, and Amaryllis. His sword, now with a second hole through it, was at my neck. He was bleeding from his chest, but it was just a red wetness rather than a font of blood. He was breathing quickly, and it smelled like rotten wood.

Then we started moving. Quills stayed as far away from me as he could while still being within range to cut me down. His katana was longer than I remembered them being, with a three foot blade, and he stepped in such a way that he could cover the ground between us easily.

“I think both those women would be fine with me dying,” I told Quills. “I’m not sure what your plan is here.”

“I can handle Fenn,” said Quills. He spoke loud enough that everyone would be able to hear him. “Graduation for the blade-bound involves advancing upon a number of archers, deflecting their arrows until you’ve reached them. I chose to go against five and made it through unscathed. Fenn, you know it’s in your best interest to see this play out. You gain nothing by wasting arrows I can easily turn aside.”

Fenn shrugged and set her bow down on the ground. “You’re right,” she said. “Not my fight. Dibs on going against the loser.”

“As for the princess, she values you,” said Quills. His voice was lower now, his words just for me. “She has a defensive position there, one that took time to set up. She has the key already. My guess is that you’re what she was waiting for.”

“Maybe,” I said, though I didn’t really believe it, not after what I had seen of Amaryllis. “That won’t stop her from taking the shot.”

“It’s stopping her right now,” replied Quills. “All I need is to close the distance.”

Amaryllis had her rifle trained on me as we crept forward. Alright, maybe not on me, per se, but pointed at a target that was right behind me. And Quills was right, she was letting us get closer, one step at a time. Part of that might have been her wanting to wait for a better shot, given that she had a four second cycle time on her rifle. In theory, her best strategy for saving her own skin would be to wait until she could take two good shots before he reached her. For that to work, she would have get me out of the way, maybe by just telling me to move and expecting me to do it, regardless of how likely it was for me to get bisected. It was in the interest of Quills to keep me going for as long as possible to ensure that he only had to block two shots with his blade, likely taking two more grazing hits in the process before he was on her and capable of killing her. And it was in my interest to just keep shuffling forward and hoping that something unexpected happened. I had theoretical tricks that I could try, half-formed ideas about blood magic that might have done something, but I would only get one shot.

We were almost exactly halfway across the large, domed room when Fenn spoke.

“Ahem,” she said. Quills and I both turned back to look at the half-elf, who had silently picked up her bow and drawn it. Quills was still holding onto my shirt and pulled me closer. We had come to a dead stop.

“Do you think this will accomplish anything?” asked Quills. “It will slow our progress, nothing more.”

“I guess we’ll find out,” said Fenn. Quill’s stance changed, his sword swung around to meet her arrow, and I ducked down behind him (whether through luck or some inkling of what was going to happen, I don’t know).

I guess Quill’s plan had been to bat the arrow out of the air and continue on, or simply outlast whatever was left in her quiver. Using a sword to hit an arrow in mid-flight was apparently part of his suite of bullshit sword magic, so that wasn’t as stupid as it might have sounded.

But when the arrow was ten feet from her bow, it split in two, and then in two again, and again, and by the time the arrows reached him there were five hundred of them. I was down on the floor, not being a lookie loo, so I didn’t actually see it, but in my mind’s eye his pupils dilated in dawning recognition of what was coming at him, enough that he could recognize what was happening but not enough that he could actually do anything about it. More likely, the arrows were going something like 150 mph and his synapses literally wouldn’t have had time to register it, even if his blade-bound powers might have been able to deflect it.

He collapsed to the ground, stuffed full of arrows, and I screamed out in pain, because you don’t fire five hundred arrows at a guy and not also hit the person ducking behind him.

Brownsnout Quills-in-hand Defeated!

Quest Complete: Into the Fryer - The enemies are dead, the key is in hand, and the path forward is clear … but to where?

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 5!

Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 3!

“Sorry!” called Fenn as she jogged over to me.

I was shaking in pain and staring down at an arrow that had pierced me in the calf. I had been directly hit by three of them, and grazed by at least one or two others. I was bleeding from my temple, from my side, from my shoulder, and there was an arrow sticking into my stomach which took up surprisingly little of my attention. But for all that, the blood meter in the lower left of my vision wasn’t taking a dip just yet, and my health meter was showing me at seventy-five percent.

“You fucking shot me,” I grunted at Fenn.

“You seem to be a pretty durable fellow,” said Fenn. “Besides, I think it’s better than the alternative of being sliced in half by an angry porcupine, which would have been your ultimate fate. Quills was the one of the four that I least wanted to fuck with, and that had nothing to do with his prickly bits.”

“You fucking shot me,” I grunted again. “Not to sound ungrateful.”

Skill increased: Comedy lvl 2!

“Well, can’t say I wouldn’t do it again,” said Fenn. She leaned down to look over my wounds. “You know, your princess over there still has a gun trained on me, do you think you could find it in your heart to convince her that I look prettier without a hole in my head?”

“Amaryllis!” I called. “She saved my life, I need your help.”

“I have the key,” she called back. “Do you trust her?”

“No!” I replied. “She fucking shot me!” I grunted through the pain. “But she killed the people that were going to kill us,” my breathing was getting heavy from the effort of speaking loudly, “So I think we should all get out of here together.”

“You know,” said Fenn, “You are really harping on this being shot thing, in a way that I do not find very attractive. I did use a bodkin point, you’re welcome.”

To make a long story short, Amaryllis came over and patched me up as best she was able. The three direct hits I’d taken had all managed to miss major arteries and the bodkin point apparently did less damage on entry and exit than some others. The cut on my temple was actually the most alarming, not because of the injury I’d sustained there, but because if it had gone an inch to the left I would have had an arrow stuck in my brain.

“So,” said Fenn, once I was in somewhat better shape. “I am currently persona non grata in the Kingdom of Anglecynn and my read on your political situation is that it wouldn’t be wise for you to return, so where are we going, my lady?”

Amaryllis looked Fenn up and down. “You said she was a companion,” said Amaryllis, “Same as I am.”

“The game thinks she’s loyal,” I replied. “The metrics say she’s as loyal as you were when we were in the sewers. Less than you are now though.”

Amaryllis raised an eyebrow. That wasn’t a metric I’d shared with her. Fenn simply smiled along as though she knew what we were talking about. I did wonder what would happen if Amaryllis said no; the key was the last bus out of Silmar City, and I wouldn’t have blamed Fenn if she’d fought tooth and nail for it.

“Then we’ll stay together, for now,” said Amaryllis. She pulled something from the handbag at her side, a small golden disc with a glowing green center. She placed her thumb on it lightly and it pulsed to her touch. “Our destination is Barren Jewel.” She glanced at Fenn. “That’s non-negotiable.”

I recognized the name; it was a city in the middle of a desert, sustained by magic, full of cutthroats, and disconnected from the modern world. I wasn’t sure how that would translate in Aerb, which had fairly ready access to both radio and teleportation.

“Is there anything anyone needs before we go?” asked Amaryllis.

“Loot,” said Fenn. “Let me look around here and grab some valuables we can hawk in the Jewel.” She trotted off to snoop around this large room, which I gathered from some equipment off to one side had once been the research facility. Before that, I could only guess; the lobby said it was the office of someone important, but everything else said it was an open living space for a king or CEO.

“I have questions,” I said, “Nothing that can’t wait until we’re safe.”

Amaryllis rested a hand on my arm. “It’s going to be a long, long time until we’re safe.” She closed her eyes and let out a sigh. “I’m sorry I didn’t go back for you.”

“No, that’s --”

“I left you for dead with just enough of a veneer that I could feel at peace about it,” she said. “You must have known that. It wasn’t until I was making the climb that I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t going back for you. I’m glad you’re alive, Juniper. You’re a very decent person.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Wait, did you climb the castle walls?”

But Fenn returned before I got much more than a nod from Amaryllis, and then the disc in her hand started spinning, and we were off to the next part of what I generously decided I would call an adventure.

Achievement Unlocked: Tutorial Complete!


Chapter Text

“The city of Barren Jewel lies at the heart of the Datura Desert, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of miles of sand dunes and rocky cliffs. It’s a city of cutthroats where the guards either turn a blind eye or are in on the take, a place of powerful magics lurking in the shadows, with just enough of a veneer of civilization over it that the rich can still sit on the backs of the poor. You crest the hill and get your first look at it just before nightfall, when the sight of city lights after your long journey might seem almost welcoming.” I was reading off my laptop screen, which was always awkward, even when I had done some rehearsing beforehand.

“It’s just a model,” said Tom, which he said after pretty much every description of a big city, and somehow it caught me off-guard every time and still managed to be funny.

“So wait, did we pass any caravans while traveling?” asked Reimer.

“No,” I said. “There’s almost no trade going to or from Barren Jewel.”

“So … why does it exist?” asked Reimer. “No, how does it exist? How do they get food and water?”

“Easy, Create Food and Water,” said Craig.

“That’s not,” Reimer began, then he opened his book and began reading without finishing his thought.

“That seems like it would require a lot of magic,” said Arthur.

“It does,” I shrugged. “The Datura Desert wasn’t always a desert, it was once thriving farmland and quiet woods. All that changed when a creeping blight started spreading across the land, killing plants and livestock. It was the mage Alvion who gave his life to create a well of magic in the city that would later become Barren Jewel, a magic that allows that place to thrive even as the lands around it have died.”

“Aw, I liked Alvion,” said Tom.

“He’s … a historical figure?” I said as a question.

“You’re thinking of Alvino,” said Arthur. “Who was from the Scattered Asches campaign and not even a mage.”

“Okay,” said Reimer. “Create Food and Water is a 3rd level cleric spell, they get one of those at 5th level, plus another if their domain is creation, so a single mid-low level cleric can provide 24 hours' worth of food and water for maybe thirty people, and a 20th level cleric would cap out at providing food and water for maybe two thousand people, if that was literally all they were doing with their magic.” He looked up from the books he had open. “So it doesn’t work out unless there are a hugely disproportionate number of really powerful clerics in the city.”

“We actually moved past that already,” said Tiff. “Joon said there’s some kind of magic that lets the city not have to worry about food and water.”

“All casters in the party are now able to cast Create Food and Water as a 5th level cleric once per day,” I said. “You feel the magic in your bones as soon as you’re within city limits, a promise from the great mage Alvion that you will not starve from the horrid blight that covers what is now the Datura Desert.”

“Eh, fine,” said Reimer. “But why do people live there? Why not move someplace else?”

“Yeah,” said Tiff. “Why do people live in Flint, Michigan, why don’t they just move somewhere where there’s clean water and functional city services? Why do people starve to death in Africa when they could just fly to America and buy food from supermarkets there? Why do those dumb Chinese peasants toil away in factories making cheap cellphones for pennies an hour instead of just moving to San Francisco?”

And that led to Tiff and Arthur having one of their famous “discussions” where they argued about upward mobility and late-stage capitalism, or something like that. They were a staple of what I’d call the Tiff-Arthur epoch of our D&D group, because Tiff had strong opinions and Arthur really liked arguing about things.

I wasn’t really paying attention, because I was trying to revise my notes on Barren Jewel to match what I had just improvised.


5 POW 1 Unarmed Combat 3 One-handed Weapons 0 Two-handed Weapons 1 Improvised Weapons
5 SPD 1 Thrown Weapons 0 Dual Wield 12 Pistols 0 Bows
5 END 9 Rifles 0 Shotguns 2 Parry 9 Athletics

4 CUN 2 Dodge 0 Engineering 0 Alchemy 0 Smithing
4 KNO 0 Woodworking 0 Horticulture 0 Livestock 0 Music
4 WIS 0 Art 12 Blood Magic 0 Bone Magic 0 Gem Magic

2 CHA 0 Gold Magic 0 Water Magic 0 Steel Magic 0 Velocity Magic
2 INS 0 Revision Magic 8 Skin Magic 0 Essentialism 0 Library Magic
2 POI 0 Wards 0 Language 0 Flattery 2 Comedy
0 LUK 2 Romance 0 Intimidation 8 Deception 0 Spirit

Straddling Worlds: There are others like you, those with dreams of a place called Earth. The so-called dream-skewered are studied at the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny. You can travel there to find out more.
God Botherer: There are gods in this world, titans of power and masters of domains, each their own creature with their own special rules. Tread carefully around these creatures, especially if you wish to someday join their ranks.
The Lost King, Found?: Five hundred years ago, Uther Penndraig, figure of legend, King of Anglecynn, and ancestor of Amaryllis, disappeared from this world while on a quest of grave importance. This enduring mystery must have an answer for those brave or foolish enough to seek it, mustn't it?

Amaryllis Penndraig, Loyalty lvl 5

Amaryllis is the most direct descendant of Uther Penndraig, the Lost King, which gives her special claim-in-fact to a fair number of his estates and heirlooms bound along cognatic or enatic primogeniture, ultimogeniture, and gavelkind rules. She was once a keystone member of a bloc of power within the Lost King’s Court, but now she has been cast out through means both semi-legal and downright nefarious. Her homeland of Anglecynn is forbidden to her now, at least until she’s gathered enough power to wedge open some doors.

To my surprise, teleportation was extraordinarily painful, and I say that as someone who had, in the past few days, had his arm broken with a pipe, twisted an ankle running from a mass of corpses, lost two pints of blood to undead rats, had a severed vein hastily cauterized, burnt through the flesh of my hand, and was pierced by three arrows thanks to friendly fire. The teleportation key Amaryllis held pulsed with green and then we were no longer in Sorian’s Castle and instead sitting in the sand beside a rocky cliff. The pain all happened in the interim, which didn’t seem possible, because I wasn’t aware of any time passing at all. The effect was distinctly unsettling.

“So,” said Fenn, looking over her bow to make sure that it was still fine. The half-elf was still dressed in the army fatigues she’d been wearing when I met her, now with more blood on them. “Do we have friends in the Barren Jewel or are we just crashing the party?”

“No friends,” said Amaryllis. “But no enemies either.” Her cheek twitched. “It’s just Barren Jewel, there’s no article in front of the name.”

“You couldn’t have dropped us in the city?” asked Fenn. “The gates won’t be down, because they’re never down. Supposedly they rusted shut a century ago.”

“The teleportation key is so valuable it’s a threat to our lives,” I said, as Amaryllis slipped it into her bag. “I don’t know how well it can be controlled, but if someone had seen us appear in a flash of light or whatever, we would have immediately faced some unpleasant complications.” I was gratified to see Amaryllis nodding along.

“Yes, but now we have a different problem, which is that we either have a wall to get over, or we have to talk to some guards and convince them that letting us in unmolested is a better idea than taking our stuff and stabbing us in the stomach,” said Fenn. She sighed and pulled off her pack, one I thought she had probably taken from Leonold’s corpse. “I have things to sell,” she said. “But I need to get into the city to do it. Without money, we can’t get room and board, and Juniper, even if you are remarkably durable, I’m guessing you’ll need some time to heal up.”

“Will you?” asked Amaryllis.

“I healed just before we ran across you,” I replied. “Unless we get into a fight, it’s probably not happening.”

Fenn was watching us with a grin. “Did you know that I like to be in on secrets?” she asked. “That’s something that you should know about me.”

“It’s not really a secret,” I said. I had kept it from Fireteam Blackheart, but that was more a matter of covering for the fact that I didn’t know a damned thing worth knowing. “I mean, unless it should be?”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis, “It should. The things that I’ve seen from you would make you worth an enormous amount of money to either the athenaeums, private individuals, corporations, or countries. Part of that depends on your growth potential, but while we’re in Barren Jewel, it should be as much of a secret as my identity.”

“Are the two of you intentionally teasing me?” asked Fenn with her arms crossed. “Come on, we’re in this together right, I’m a companion, I think it’s only fair that I get to know what everyone else knows.”

“We should be moving,” said Amaryllis. “We’re ten minutes from the walls right now, it’s just around the cliff. Juniper is hurt.”

“I’m dream-skewered,” I told Fenn. Amaryllis trying to compartmentalize information seemed like it was doomed to failure, and I was the best judge of my own injuries. “On top of that, I have some kind of special ability to learn things more quickly than I should, and I have information that I shouldn’t have.” Note to self: Figure out a way of phrasing that which is more concise while also sounding less insane.

“What sorts of information?” asked Fenn with a raised eyebrow.

“In your childhood you spent alternating months in the Isle of Eversummer and the colony of Rogbottom,” I said.

Fenn was already a pale woman, but with the blood drained from her face her skin was practically white. “What was the name of the ship that ferried me?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “All I have is a paragraph of description. Mostly it was things that I had already figured out.”

“Do I have a description?” asked Amaryllis.

“You do now, you didn’t before,” I said. “I don’t know what changed. Probably our connection.” I hesitated for a moment. “I’ll recite them for you both, in private, when we have some time.”

Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 4!

That came as a surprise to me, especially since Amaryllis was only at loyalty level five. I wondered whether that came down to the interactions that I’d had with them, or their individual personalities.

“How does the teleportation key work?” I asked. “You think about the place you’re going and then you go there?”

Amaryllis shook her head. “Either you go to a place that you’ve physically been before, or you follow the pull of a touchstone. It can be used once every two hours, no faster.”

“How do you not know that?” asked Fenn.

“Dream-skewered,” I said. “I don’t have any memories before about three days ago. Or I have memories, but they’re from an alternate Earth. Er, sorry, from an alternate Aerb. Uh, one with no magic. Ish.” I turned to Amaryllis, trying to ignore Fenn’s puzzled look. “So you’ve been here before?” I asked, looking at the desert that stretched out endlessly ahead of us and the cliffs behind us.

Amaryllis nodded. “You have a thought?”

“I’m not sure it’s worth anything,” I said. “We want a room within Barren Jewel, some place that we can stay for days if not weeks. I’m injured and the most conspicuous among us, plus I don’t have even basic knowledge of … anything really, customs, money, fashion, language, I’m essentially a blank slate. So if we need a room, the two of you should go in together then come back out and teleport me directly into a room, since I won’t be able to climb a wall.”

“How injured are you?” asked Amaryllis. “Can you wait outside in the heat and winds for two hours?”

“Huh,” I replied. “If I had to put a number on it, I would say that I’m at about an eleven out of twenty-seven. I’m not losing any measurable amount of blood though.”

Skill increased: Comedy lvl 3!

“I just got a point of skill for that,” I said. The best jokes were the ones that no one else got.

“Congratulations,” said Amaryllis. “That still leaves the problem of how we’re going to get over the wall.”

“As high as the one around Silmar City?” I asked.

“See for yourself,” said Amaryllis, stepping forward. Fenn followed, and I hobbled after, my leg throbbing in pain from where an arrow had been extracted.

Barren Jewel was not as I’d pictured it in my head. In my mind, it was something like Agrabah, a place with Moorish architecture and domed minarets. Instead, a twenty foot tall wall (with parapets but unmanned) surrounded blocky buildings with wires haphazardly running between them. I could see only part of it given how tall the wall was, but there was nothing particularly Middle Eastern about it. If anything, it was cribbing from brutalism; the tall buildings didn’t look like places where people were meant to be comfortable, nor did they give the impression that aesthetics had been considered at all, except perhaps that whoever had made them had deliberately moved in the opposite direction. It made me wonder where the ‘Jewel’ part of the name came from.

“What a beautiful sight,” sighed Fenn. “I’ve never been myself, but I’ve heard enough stories, and they don’t do the place justice.” She pointed at a slender building that rose up above the others, by far the tallest in the city, at least from our vantage point. “If that building was a person, it would be an assassin in the dark.”

Amaryllis blanched. “I’d hoped not to come back here. Juniper, what’s your plan?”

“I can punch fast using blood magic, the Crimson Fist,” I said. Amaryllis nodded. “Is there any reason that I couldn’t do the same with my legs?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “There’s a style of blood mage fighting that uses the legs more than the arms.”

“That’s not quite what I had in mind,” I said. “I was planning on boosting both of you up over the wall.”

It took some time for us to set it up, and then just as I was listening to the sound of my heart with Fenn’s feet balanced on my hands, Amaryllis suggested that I try it with rocks first. I did that twice, getting a feel for it, and on the second time I was able to launch a hundred pound rock fifteen feet in the air, which caused a brief flash of intolerable pain in my leg.

Spell discovered: Crimson Foot!

Crimson Foot: Channels the force of your blood to gain kinetic energy in the form of a kick. Your foot is in no way protected by this spell. Drawing on this spell too often may leave you feeling sluggish. Consumes 3 drops of blood.

Spell discovered: Sanguine Surge!

Sanguine Surge: Channels the force of your blood to gain kinetic energy in the form of a leap. Your body is in no way protected by this spell. Drawing on this spell too often may leave you feeling sluggish. Consumes 5 drops of blood.

Huh. Two spells from trying one thing seemed generous, but maybe it was because I was trying to do something that wasn’t perfectly covered by what the game had in mind.

“I think we should be good to go,” I said. My health bar hadn’t budged, in spite of the pain.

Fenn went first, gamely stepping up with her bow tied to her bag and a prim and proper pose. She stood in my hands, lightly touching the wall for balance. She was heavier than the rock, by quite a bit given what she was carrying. I listened to the beat of my heart and tried to feel my pulse going through my legs, then began a countdown in my head timed to the rhythm. When I got to one, I lifted with my legs and put all my momentum into my arms, sending her sailing straight up, where she deftly grabbed the edge of the wall. I hissed in pain at the feeling of my injured leg, and unlike the time before, the pain didn’t subside. I clenched my fist and ground my teeth as I watched Fenn do a rather gymnastic pull-up that swung her up and over. She stuck an upraised thumb out for us to see just afterward.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” asked Amaryllis. She was eyeing me warily.

“I’ve been through worse,” I said, then when I’d thought about it for a bit, “I’ve been through worse today, actually.”

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. She unstrapped her void rifle from her back and rested it against the wall. “I’m leaving this with you. Barren Jewel is technically a minor member of the empire and there’s a ban in place. Use it if you have to. Get some practice in.” She licked her lips. “I’m sorry that I’m leaving you again.”

“You waited for me in Silmar,” I said. “There was nothing to forgive, but if there ever was, it would be forgiven.”

“You think too highly of me,” said Amaryllis.

I was puzzling that over when she climbed into my hands. She was less steady than Fenn was, but she was lighter, both because she was shorter and because she was carrying less. Her hair briefly got in my face as I crouched down; she smelled like the sewer we’d gone through together, and I was sure that I wasn’t much better, if perhaps with a bit more of the smell of blood on me.

It was harder to find the rhythm of my pulse this time. I wasn’t sure whether it was because my heart beat faster around Amaryllis, or because of the renewed pain I was in, but it was a full minute of her standing on my hands and me trying to concentrate before I pushed her up with a grunt. She let out a squeak of surprise at the movement, but grabbed onto the ledge, and I saw Fenn’s pale hands come out to help her up. Then I lay on my back beneath the wall for a bit, where I’d fallen over, feeling the pain of my wounds and the heat of the sun.

This sort of thing wouldn’t happen in a game, or in any sort of narrative, really. The hero didn’t get stuck outside a wall waiting for his companions to come back over and pull him to safety. If I were a very proactive protagonist, I probably would have leapt to my feet, gritted my teeth through the pain, and then used Sanguine Surge to leap up into the air and climb over the wall myself.

Or if I was the other kind of protagonist, the one who reacted to events going on around him … well, let’s see, the obvious thing to have happened was that when I boosted Amaryllis up I would have seen strange, armored hands grab her, or a tentacle, or whatever, or I would have heard her scream in pain, and then I would have been forced to do something about it. Or maybe some guards would come across me and force me into a dungeon I would have to escape from. Or I would see my health going down, or my blood draining from me, through some injury that I’d opened in getting my companions over the wall. Something like that, something to keep me moving and reacting so the plot would keep humming along.

I waited a bit, but there was only the faint hum of the city on the other side of the wall and an unpleasantly warm breeze, so I continued laying there, not moving.

I was tired. I wasn’t tired physically, because I had leveled up an hour ago and that had gifted me with the equivalent of a good night’s sleep. No, I was tired of this whole thing, being trapped in a strange world that seemed to be a smashed together from things I’d imagined, being ignorant of everything there was to be ignorant about, the lying, the killing … god, the killing. Carter and Tova had been the worst, because I had known them, but I’d killed seven people now. I wouldn’t have done it differently, but it still made me feel a little sick.

“Microhitler”, that had been the achievement I’d been given when Carter died. Craig had been the one to explain it, and I don’t remember where he got it from, but it was probably 4chan. Hitler killed 6 million people, so killing 6 million people could be defined as 1 hitler. Standard SI prefixes applied, so killing 6 people was one microhitler.

(If Tiff had been part of the group during that conversation, I am absolutely sure that she would have done her best Hermione impression and said that actually a Hitler should be defined as killing 11 million people, because it wasn’t just the Jews but the gypsies, homosexuals, et cetera, and actually Hitler didn’t directly kill those people, he gave the orders, and if you accepted that the Nazis were just puppets following orders then you disagreed with the Nuremberg principles.)

The “Microhitler” achievement implied other, more difficult achievements, and I was queasy at the thought that this was a game where it might be possible for a player character to kill six million people. Worse, it might be the sort of game where I would be forced into killing that many people.

I took solace in the fact that the game wasn’t being particularly game-like at the moment. No game I knew of would take a few hours out of the player's time for quiet, melancholic contemplation while laying in the fine sand. I was tired of this place, but it was finally done forcing things on me, at least for a while.

I woke up, and in doing so realized that I had fallen asleep. Amaryllis was slapping me lightly in the face as my eyes fluttered open. It was nice, to wake up to her blue eyes and her pretty face framed by her long red hair. Her clothes had changed and she was wearing a long white robe with a cinch at the waist and a headband over a hood. She still smelled like a sewer though.

“Still good?” she asked as she looked my body over.

“Yuh,” I replied. “You?”

“Fine,” she said. “Wall’s easier to climb from the other side. Ready?”

I let out a long sigh. “Yeah.”

There was that moment of pain again, that seemed to happen all at once while I was nowhere and no time was passing. It didn’t so much fade away as stop completely, leaving only a memory. Then I was in a dimly lit room with a large bed and a small one, with Fenn standing to one side grinning at me and candles flickering at our arrival.

“The hoomans have returned!” said Fenn with a touch of real glee. “Juniper, did you get in a fight out there, or did you look that bad when we left you?”

“If I had to put a number on it, I would say that I’m now a ten out of twenty-seven,” I said. “So yes, four percent worse.” I laid down on the ground, not wanting to stain clean bedsheets. The floor was cool stone tile, which felt good against my skin. I had heated in the sun while I slept. “Oh, I’ve also lost, um … two or three percent of my blood.”

“Seems irresponsible of us to let him bake,” said Fenn as she tapped her chin. “He’s not making much sense.”

“He has numbers in his head,” said Amaryllis. She knelt down beside me and started looking at my wounds. “They’re apparently moving in the wrong direction. We need healing, probably sooner rather than later.” She looked down at her hands, one with a burnt finger and the other scratched up by zombie rat claws. “I do too, for that matter.”

Fenn nodded. “While you were out I asked around, we have our choice of a disreputable bone mage or a disreputable blood mage. I’m sure that the upper crust have their own healers, but we probably want to keep a low profile, given the whole juicy secrets thing. Say, don’t you think it’s a bit unfair that I don’t have a secret?”

Amaryllis ignored her. “We should get going then. My preference is for a bone mage. Their services are more reliable and with less risk.”

“Also more expensive,” said Fenn. She stuck her thumb in her mouth and bit down on the nail. “We have some money from what I hawked thus far, but it was a raw deal given that I’m an obvious outsider with no contacts. If we’re staying here for a while, better for me to hold off on selling the loot until I have some toehold, don’t you think?”

“Juniper is a savant,” said Amaryllis. “He learned the basic principles of blood magic in the space of a few minutes this morning and got us over the wall this afternoon by applying those principles in novel ways. I don’t know whether this will extend to other skills to such an extent, but if he keeps up this rate of progress then he’ll be able to rival the gods within a month.”

“You’re putting your chips on him,” Fenn nodded. “Now that I get. It’s a bet, but not that foolish of one. Juniper, do you agree that you might rival the gods?”

“Um,” I said. “How easy is it for a skin mage to move tattoos around?”

Amaryllis stared at me with mouth agape. “... did you literally learn skin magic in the three hours we were apart?” She stumbled over that last part, just a bit, I assume because she didn’t want to mention that she’d left me to die. “A skin mage is expected to be able to control their skin to such an extent that they can move a non-magical tattoo by the end of their first year of training,” she continued. “Invested tattoos they can usually move freely, but for those applied by others … when you enter into the athenaeum as a student, they put a tattoo known as a Fool’s Choker around your neck --”

“Yes,” I said, giving a weak snap of my fingers. “That’s the one.”

Amaryllis kept staring at me for a moment, then turned to Fenn. “Juniper is a lever by which the world can be moved.”

“Well, that at least explains why you stuck around waiting for him,” said Fenn with a wry smile. Amaryllis frowned, but didn’t deny it. “Fine, we’ll go see the bone mage.”

Chapter Text

I’d had other things on my mind when I got the achievement “Tutorial Complete”, but what little attention I’d devoted to it had been to wonder how in the hell you could have a tutorial section that took three days to clear and featured something like a dozen perilously close brushes with death. Unless the game was meant to be played with a much more generous number of deaths, or it was supposed to be brutally difficult (the Super Meat Boy of RPGs?), everything from when I’d fallen out of the plane to when I’d left Silmar City being a tutorial didn’t make too much sense.

(There was a rabbit hole that I was trying not to distract myself with: the question of what would have happened if I had done things differently. I had been branded a coward by the game for not coming to that nameless girl’s rescue right when I’d first landed. If I had gone over and pulled the zombies off her, rescued her from her predicament … what would have happened then? Or when I’d left the gas station, what would have happened if I had gone away from Comfort instead of towards it? What if I had killed Amaryllis instead of accepting her quest? What if I had somehow convinced her to go toward the Host’s outpost instead of accepting her notion that we should go away from it?

Videogame designers couldn’t actually create that many multiple paths, because there was diminishing marginal utility on each branching path, especially considering that the bulk of players would only play through a game once. In a videogame, there were lots of ways to try faking the element of choice so that the player felt like what they did actually mattered, but generally the changes were cosmetic until it got to the end, where you’d get different endings, or there were two different paths through the game that hit all the same areas and saw you speaking to all the same people.

So in a videogame, trying to go down the road to somewhere unknown when I was meant to go to Comfort would probably have run me into some kind of unstoppable wall, to force me to go where the game wanted me to go. I don’t know quite what would have happened, but it would have been something like the Fuchsia Coterie showing up, or a mass of zombies that I couldn’t beat, or if the game designer were really lazy, then just an invisible wall that broke suspension of disbelief.

But in a tabletop game, it was easy enough to just improvise things. If the party doesn’t want to go to Comfort, then sure, you can take that long road and they’ll think up something for you at the end of it. If I were the GM, I would have planned for Amaryllis to be in Comfort, and if the party didn’t want to go there, or they killed her when they met her, or something else like that, then whatever, she would be dead and I would come up with a new lead-in for that quest, or I would take the hint the party was giving me and figure out a totally new quest.

Or, if you were a sneaky GM, you could do the same thing that game designers did and take away a little bit of choice by making some choices not matter. If the player decides that he wants to go away from Comfort instead of toward it, eventually he’ll find himself in the town of Amenity, which has the same basic design and all the same quests, NPCs, and enemies. Heck, if the player never saw a sign saying “Comfort” then you didn’t even need to rename it.

But what really fucked with my head was that you could do the same thing with people. Let’s say that you wanted the player to meet an important princess from Anglecynn, the recent victim of something sort of like a coup and the main driver of the plot. What I would do is place her down right next to the player at the very start of the game, surrounded by zombies and yelling for help. If this whole thing was like a tabletop game, then a clever GM could have planned for me to see that first girl, and for that girl to have been Amaryllis. After I had ran away instead of helping her, I’d been slapped with a penalty, and since I never knew a single thing about her, a different girl could have become Amaryllis instead, with the whole universe rewriting itself around that change. Come to think of it, I had been slapped with the second cowardice penalty after not running to help a different girl, and it was entirely possible that if I had raced after her and fought her attackers she would have, in time, revealed herself to be Amaryllis Penndraig. And actually, Amaryllis had given me a fake name when we’d first met, so if she’d died, or I had decided not to go back to her, there was still a chance for a rewrite up until the point where I returned with Poul and he recognized her.

In the right kind of tabletop game, reality warped around the player and bridges were built as they were needed.

The length of this digression is why I called it a rabbit hole, and the depth of paranoia and thought I could sink into the idea was one of the reasons I was trying not to question the nature of this reality too much, at least not unless I could come up with something testable, and I had nada thus far.)

When I got out into Barren Jewel though, covered in a hooded white robe that hid the worst of my injuries, I was struck with what the achievement “Tutorial Complete” had meant. Before, I’d been running from one place to another, with clear goals and relatively few metaphorical side streets to check out. Walking (to be honest, hobbling) through the streets of Barren Jewel though, I was enraptured by the sights and sounds, and more than that, by the possibilities.

We passed a creature with chitinous plating and mandibles, walking upright like a person, with a long polearm on his back. Three elves with pursed lips went by us, all a head taller than me, dressed in red cloaks with golden trim, and Fenn cinched her hood to hide her ears from them. I watched a turtle-like creature buying a jar of red powder from an otherwise-normal woman with leathery wings folded across her back. There was a gap in the crowds that I thought was open space, but when we got closer I saw that they were dwarves , not little people but thick, burly, blunt-nosed dwarves with elaborate braids and ornate armor. Most of the people I saw were human, and most were in white, black, or blue robes, but there were also these weird and thrilling things. I wanted to shrug off my wounds and follow the toaster-sized cyan crystal that was floating down the street with purpose, or a lanky man who was still eight feet tall even though he was walking with a stoop to keep from hitting the power lines that criss-crossed above us.

And yes, Barren Jewel was kind of a shithole. All the color seemed to be reserved for the people, with the buildings being a rather uniform off-white color, mostly free from embellishments aside from signs and lettering. There were gutters that stunk more than I did, with the occasional heaped up pile of something rotting. The wires overhead were what my dad would have called an eyesore, and they weren’t up to American fire codes. There were beggars, dirty amputees holding their hands up and small children who raced after me asking for coin I didn’t have until Fenn gave one of them a clap around the ear.

But there was so much to do and see, and it wasn’t like I was playing a videogame where the NPCs were basically just obstacles that would path around me, or where the buildings were just facades with doors that could never be unlocked, this was viscerally real. The world of Aerb had never felt like it was forcing me to do anything, not really, but before there had been a progression and now … I was free to chart my own path through Aerb and decide on what was important to me.

The bone mage’s den was somewhat typical of the architecture I’d seen in Barren Jewel thus far; it was the same off-white material that the walls here (and in Silmar City) had been made from, with a rectangular doorframe that had an ill-fitting door in it. There were multiple holes by the hinges, and I gathered that the person installing it had either botched the door or it had been replaced a few times before. It was recognizably a shop, in that there was a crude logo of a bone on a sign above the door, with another hand-lettered sign on the door saying simply “Kindly Bones”. There were windows, but they were high up, allowing in light but not giving a view to what was inside.

Fenn entered without knocking; Amaryllis and I followed after. There was no proper second story to this place, though it was tall enough for it. Instead there were two long ladders allowing access to the ceiling, where thousands of bones hung down like cloves of garlic in an Italian kitchen. There were bones on the walls too, set in little racks there, and then on the ground there was a wall of cabinets with small drawers, each individually marked with handwritten slips of paper. Atop one of those cabinets was burning incense, which filled the room with a slightly floral scent that didn’t quite cover up a deeper chalky smell.

Aside from that, there was a chest-high padded bench with rotatable arms, and a pale woman with black spots running from her ears down to her collar, where they disappeared beneath her robes. She sat behind a small desk with some papers.

“Welcome to the Kindly Bones, I am Magus Bormann,” said the woman with a short bow, palms pressed together. “How may I serve you?”

“We’ve come for some healing,” said Fenn. “My friend here was accidentally shot with a number of arrows by a party who shall remain nameless.”

“It was you,” I said. “You were the one who shot me.”

“Disrobe and let me see,” said Bormann. Her eyes went to Fenn. “Consultation is free, but can I assume that you will be the one paying?”

“Grudgingly,” Fenn shrugged.

I took off my robe, revealing my torn up jeans, shredded shirt, and bloody wounds. We had discussed it, but elected not to change me out for something else, in part because I was certain to get anything I wore bloody.

“Fully disrobe, if it’s not too painful,” said Bormann. “Have you taken healing from a bone magus before?”

“No,” I replied. I looked to Fenn and Amaryllis (amusement and apathy, respectively), then began taking off my clothes, wincing when dried blood pulled away from my flesh. I sat up on the padded bench and removed my jeans as well, cursing as I pulled the cloth away from my thigh. I was somewhat gratified to discover that my body had undergone changes for the better; I wasn’t exactly ripped, but I had visible abs when I wasn’t sitting down. I hadn’t been fat or paunchy back on Earth, but my dad had some cause to use the word “scrawny”.

“Hrm,” said Bormann. She briefly poked at the wound in my stomach, then at the one in my leg, and after that went to the lacerations I’d taken from the arrows that had mostly missed me. “Was the intent to treat only the most serious of wounds, or all injuries sustained?”

“All,” said Fenn. “Again, grudgingly.”

“Then I think it can be done for half a million tcher,” Bormann said, speaking to Fenn. “He’s in good health, aside from his wounds, no obvious complicating problems, no other visible magics that might interfere.” Fenn grumbled, slipped a hand into her purse, and pulled out a handful of paper notes that Bormann took and counted swiftly. “Lay back and we’ll begin the work. It should take roughly two hours or so.” She looked to Fenn and Amaryllis. “You may leave and come back, if you have pressing needs. Fenn left quietly, while Amaryllis stayed.

“That,” I began, seems long. But I was comparing this woman against Tova, an intimidating woman working under pressure and presumably with vast resources.

“If you have a question, I am free to answer,” said Bormann. “This type of work does not require terribly much attention at this point in my career.”

“I was wondering what it took to learn bone magic,” I said. “Or … anything about it, I guess. I’ve seen it performed once, in an emergency, but beyond that …”

“Let me get the bones first,” said Bormann. She went to one of the cupboards and withdrew a number of bones, which she laid down on a tray table beside the padded bench. She held them up, one by one. “The chief aspect of healing is vitality, so for that we select from resilient creatures. In this case, the Eastern carrier gull, and more specifically, his ribs, which will correspond to your torso, and his leg bones, which will correspond to your leg, plus a few others for the more minor injuries.”

She took a narrow rib not much longer than a finger in one hand and placed her other hand on my stomach, right next to the wound. The bone glowed, very faintly, and a tiny odorless curl of smoke rose from it as she did her work. Eventually she set the bone to one side and picked up another, identical one to repeat the process. I could feel something happening in my stomach, but it was slow going.

“I had five years at the Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh,” said Bormann, “That’s about the minimum required to call yourself a proper bone mage. Study mostly consists of understanding skeletal structures of various animals and how it relates to their aspects, along with the study of aspects and the mortal form. We don’t learn how to pull from the bones until the second year.”

Three more bones had been used while she spoke, and the pain from my stomach had subsided somewhat.

“Almost done with that section, we’ll do your leg next,” said Bormann with pursed lips. “Is my talking calming to you?”

“Yes,” I replied. “So, ow, so you pull aspects of creatures from their bones?”

“Just so,” said Bormann. “Vitality is the most widely useful, because the effects fade as soon as the bone has had its essence pulled from it. With vitality, the concentrated healing remains. The other four aspects are swiftness, strength, focus, and intellect.” She said that last as the wound on my stomach finally closed completely; she wiped away some dried blood there with a stained washcloth and moved on to my leg.

Vitality, swiftness, strength, intellect, and focus. Or, rearranged, strength, swiftness, vitality, intellect, _______, and focus. Which is really close to power, speed, endurance, cunning, knowledge, and wisdom, which appeared in a neat little column by my character sheet.

“What about knowledge?” I asked.

“Ah, you’ve heard stories,” said Bormann. She had the leg bones in hand and was looking over my arrow wound some. “Bone mages sucking the memories out of a person’s skull, that sort of thing?” I nodded cautiously. “Well, it’s not so dramatic as all that, if you pull deep it’s too many memories all at once, disorganized and opaque, and if you take a shallow pull you get pieces too disparate to make sense of. And either way, it needs to be written down or dictated quickly before it fades, which creates its own problems. People always think of it as having their secrets scooped out of them, but that’s not how it works in practice. Either way, it’s not really an aspect as such, and rarely studied.”

Amaryllis spoke up for the first time. “Juniper, if you have further questions, I think it would be better for you to hold off on them until we’ve had a chance to talk.”

Bormann raised an eyebrow at that, but she was enough of a consummate professional that she didn’t question someone coming in with multiple arrow wounds, and she continued on about her work without further comment.

Amaryllis was probably right to keep me from asking more questions, because for all I knew I was three seconds away from asking a question that would expose me as either not knowing things that everyone knew, or knowing things that no one was supposed to know. The former wasn’t that much of a problem; I was fine with being branded an idiot, if less fine with raising eyebrows. The latter could get us killed, especially given how scarce our resources were.

So instead, I sat silently and did some thinking about bone magic. The aspects that Bormann described pretty clearly mapped to the attributes on my character sheet, minus the social attributes, the umbrella attributes, and luck (maybe, unless they categorized those differently). That made bone magic really easy to graft onto the game layer; all you’d need is some logical rule that said “when you pull from a bone, choose an attribute that animal had in life and add it to your own”. I was guessing it was more complicated than that, but I would have an incredible advantage in bone magic even above and beyond my ability to skill up, because I would be able to actually see the mechanical changes.

“Are there other ways to learn how to become a bone mage?” I asked. I caught Amaryllis giving me a slight frown, but she didn’t so much as give me a small shake of her head, so I figured I was on safe ground. “Are there people who train outside the athenaeum?”

“It’s illegal under imperial law,” said Bormann with a grin. My blank face must have given away that I didn’t get the joke, because her grin fell away.

“The argument goes,” Amaryllis began, “That there is a limited number of good, useable bones in the world, and though new bones are being made all the time, that still leaves a limit on how many are created a year, both through natural processes and on farms. A lackluster bone mage pulls less from a bone than a superb one, which means that a weak bone mage goes through far more bones, depleting a scarce resource and overall increasing the price of much-needed healing in the long term. I’m sure that the players in that game are transparent to you,” Uh, no? “The Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh gains in power if they’re the only source of accredited bone magic, existing bone mages get to take out the competition and keep their prices high, the Athenaeum of Quills and Blood sits on the fence for a bit because on the one hand restricting healing to accredited bone mages means that blood mages have some benefit from decreased competition, but on the other hand it lowers the relative prestige of blood mages and those who teach it because now there’s this bottleneck of privilege, and then there are all the farmers, hunters, trappers, et cetera who make their livings, in part, off providing bones, and they’re of course staunchly against this change in imperial law because of how it affects their bottom line, on and on until you have hundreds of voices arguing with varying strength that the imperial law is either good and bad, and eventually the vote gets decided by some combination of money and influence rather than whether it’s actually good policy.”

I could practically hear Reimer with his refrain of “blah, blah, blah, politics”. My problem was, I didn’t actually have the context for most of this to be that meaningful. At a best guess, the athenaeums were like super powerful universities with alumni at high ranks in various companies, political fields, and probably militaries. The empire … was a thing? Actually, all I knew was that there was a thing called imperial law which Bormann found funny for some reason.

That was when I realized that Amaryllis wasn’t feeding me information, she was covering for me. I hadn’t interpreted Bormann’s joke in the right way, Bormann had noticed, and Amaryllis had both offered a distraction and an explanation for my confusion. I wasn’t some idiot who didn’t know why imperial law deserved a smirk, I was obviously confused about the political reasons behind the ban on unlicensed bone mages.

“Are you one of those I should go to if I have problems with political solutions?” asked Bormann. “Most of my clients are involved in a skilled trade, it’s not often that I meet someone who understands what actually goes on in the empire.” She continued with her work, sealing the wound on my leg entirely until there was only a small pink mark where the arrow had entered, then moving on to the minor wounds. “Though to be frank, one of the things that I’ve missed least about the athenaeum is how invested everyone was in imperial goings-on.”

And with that rather diplomatic end to the conversation, we were again silent. I was feeling much better, though still a little light on blood, and I was content to just keep my mouth shut instead of asking more questions. It wouldn’t be too long before I would have some time alone with the rest of what I was starting to accept as my party. Rather than doing nothing, I closed my eyes and looked at my character sheet, but none of the numbers seemed to be changing with the application of bones. With my eyes open and on my hitpoint total, I could occasionally catch it ticking up if I was paying attention, but that was a digital representation of an analog process, or maybe the hitpoints were just a best guess at how healthy I was. (I hadn’t increased my END since turning hitpoints on, but I was going to pay attention when I did.)

“Looking much better!” said Fenn as she sauntered in. “Though I suppose you should be, for half a million tcher.”

“He was lucky,” said Bormann. “The arrow in his leg just missed his femoral artery. The one in his stomach managed not to pierce any internal organs. Whatever you were doing, I would highly suggest that you not do it again … though if you do, I hope that you remember me.” She laid a bone down on the metal tray, then dipped her hands into a small bowl of water and began rubbing them. “The work is done.”

All my wounds had been sealed, now leaving only small pink areas of new flesh. So far as I could tell, what the bone mage had done wasn’t so much magically knitting my flesh back together, she was accelerating the process of natural healing by a few orders of magnitude.

“The girl too,” said Fenn. “She has some cuts on her hand, and a burn, I think.”

Bormann went over to Amaryllis and looked at her hands with a frown. “This burn … blood magic?”

Amaryllis shrugged.

“It’s important that I know, so that I can properly heal you,” said Bormann.

“What exactly would it cost to eliminate your need to know?” asked Fenn.

Bormann frowned. “Double the rate, if you want me to pour more magic in and hope for the best. I also won’t make any guarantees about the quality of the healing.” She looked at Amaryllis’ other hand and stifled a sigh. “You took these wounds earlier today, by the look of them. Were your nails yellow then?”

Amaryllis looked closer at her hand. “No,” she said cautiously. “Infection?”

“It might be rat rot,” I said. The three of them looked at me. “I had it once. That’s what I was told it was called.”

“I’m unfamiliar with it,” said Bormann. “Fifty thousand tcher for your wounds, half that if you tell me more so I can make an assessment. And if rat rot is a disease, I don’t know what it would take for me to burn it out of you. It would be a good way for me to line my pockets, if I was the sort of healer who liked to string people along.”

“Do we have your confidentiality either way?” asked Fenn.

“No,” said Bormann. “If the city guard comes knocking and asking about people who were involved in something they shouldn’t have been, besides just shooting each other with arrows, then I’ll tell them what I know with only the slightest pushback.”

“Then we’ll pay the full rate,” said Fenn. “Better you not know, if you’d be obliged to tell. And we’ll deal with the rat rot later, if we have to.”

Once we were finished, Fenn pulled some clothes out of her bag for me and I put them on. It was nothing special, just a t-shirt and some ill-fitting pants, and it was all somewhat loose, but my robe went over the top of it anyway. Bormann graciously offered to toss my old clothing and then we were on our way.

“So,” said Fenn once we were outside. “I’m thinking that a bathhouse is the next thing on our list, some place that we can wash off the stink of our misadventures.” She yawned, stretching out briefly touching the bow on her back, as though to reassure herself that it was still there. “Also, Juniper, you’ll be glad to know that I found out why we’re really here. No friends, but no enemies either, that might have applied to a dozen places that we could have gone. There’s a deeper meaning to why Barren Jewel was so very, very non-negotiable.” She smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes, and there was no humor left in her voice.

“We should keep our voices low,” said Amaryllis. “We can discuss this in private. I had planned to, after we’d gotten some rest.”

“Suit yourself,” Fenn shrugged. She cast me a raised eyebrow just before she turned away.

We had a very silent walk back to the inn, and though I was no longer limping, the sudden tension between the group was doing its own job of sapping the wonder from me as we walked the exotic streets.

Chapter Text

“So,” said Fenn as soon as we were through the door to our room. “I finally figured out what this companion thingy reminded me of: a kharass, an elf cultural thing. Basically, there are groups of people who are cosmologically linked to one another by a wampeter, which I guess is their … purpose is close, but theme might be closer. I’ve always been garbage at translating.”

“We were going to talk about why we’re really in Barren Jewel,” I said.

“Oh hush, I’m getting there,” said Fenn. “See, I’ve been thinking a bit about us as a trio and what our theme might be, what might unify us. A princess, a looter, and someone with brain damage? There wasn’t that much in common. After a little bit of time though, it occurred to me that we are all displaced in one way or another. You have probably noticed by now that I’m a half-elf, which leaves me between worlds. Juniper thinks he’s an Airthian stuck here on Aerb. And Amaryllis is a princess without a kingdom, a noble among the poor.”

“And?” asked Amaryllis, after a pause in Fenn’s monologue.

“And I was thinking that my situation is not one that can be solved. I will never be an elf, I will never be human, and there are no sanctuaries for half-elfs, nor would I go to one if I could. I was cast out of the two homes I was born into simply by the nature of my birth. Likewise, Juniper’s situation has no solution. There is no place called Airth, there’s no way for him to go home, his displacement is as permanent as mine. Yet you, princess, you want to go home, and while that might just be feasible given the benefits of your bloodline and with Juniper’s help, it’s not part of our wampeter. It can’t be, because neither Juniper or I have any stake in the matter. So, you tell us why we should brave the thaum-suckers of the desert and take back your ancestral home.”

I raised my hand. “Can I ask, are you pronouncing Earth wrong on purpose?”

“I don’t want to take Caer Laga back,” said Amaryllis. “There are a significant quantity of magic items there, all of which should be mine to bind to.”

“Either way,” said Fenn. “This is an ‘Amaryllis gets what she wants’ type of plan you were going to pitch us, and while Juniper might go along with it because you’re a young, stunningly attractive female of his species, I personally must make my reservations known, especially if we are unified by cosmological purpose.”

“I’m missing several things,” I said. “First, what is a thaum-sucker?”

“They’re a creature that feeds on magic,” said Amaryllis. “The Datura Desert would be dangerous even if it were only four hundred miles of hot sand with no water or plants to speak of, but it’s the thaum-seekers that elevate it to the level of a major exclusion zone. It is true that going to Caer Laga would require us to brave them, but I have confidence in our abilities, so long as we have some time to prepare, which I believe we do.” She turned to Fenn. “You’re a self-confessed looter, I would have thought I would get less resistance from you.”

“I never looted for the love of it,” said Fenn. She rubbed her chin. “That is to say, I did love the feeling of finding buried treasures, and the, um, archeology, looking through other people's things, and I loved surviving with only my wits, my luck, and my grossly overpowered warbow. And I loved the solitary nature of it too, certainly. But for all that I’m not some idiot who would have gone and done it if there was some other profession waiting in the wings for me.”

“That’s not why you don’t want to do it,” I said. “You would have led with ‘it’s hard and dangerous’ if that was what was really motivating you.”

“Can we talk about the elephant in the room?” asked Fenn. I nodded. “We are in possession of a fucking teleportation key.

“Um, I don’t really have context for that,” I said. “Amaryllis told me it was our ticket out of the Risen Lands, and that it was valuable, but … it does seem really useful, and it’s irreplaceable, I get that, I just don’t … really understand the fuss except by inference.”

“Dream-skewered,” spat Fenn, as though it was a swear word. “Oh, this is not going to be very fun.” Then she brightened slightly. “Except, wait, you don’t know any jokes from Aerb, do you? This duck walks into a bar and asks, do you have any grapes?”

“When originally created, there were a thousand teleportation keys,” said Amaryllis. “Some were lost over time, a very few destroyed. At current, they number just over nine hundred, but that’s including some guesses as to which are held in private hands or otherwise kept secret. Five people, twelve times a day, times nine hundred keys, means some fifty-four thousand people traveling freely around the world every day. It’s the backbone of intraimperial travel. It’s the glue that allows the empire to functionally work. Now, the value placed on teleportation for a single person is close to ten thousand obols, which means that the per-day value of a teleportation key is six hundred thousand obols.”

“Define obol,” I said. “Define it in terms of … a loaf of bread. How many obol does a loaf of bread cost?”

“And does a spoiled princess know?” quipped Fenn.

“It depends on the sort of bread,” said Amaryllis, with a roll of her eyes in Fenn’s direction. “Barren bread sells for something like a tenth obol apiece. Proper bread, the kind made using wheat flour, would be more like two or three obol. Anything made by an artisan would be more.”

I nodded along, letting the confusing words wash over me. “Okay, let me pick a new metric, how much would someone get paid in hourly wages for, say, being a cleaner? Not a professional, just a small job that needs doing?”

“Five obol, maybe,” said Amaryllis. Which was just about minimum wage. Which probably means that the value of an obol is close enough to a dollar that I’m not that far off if I freely convert the two.

“Thank you for the context,” I said. “I think I understand … except that we used tcher to pay for the bone mage.”

“Is this really something that we should be talking about right now?” asked Fenn. “I personally thought that we were trying to discuss, oh yes, the fact that we have a fucking teleportation key. Or was I the only one interested in that?”

“I am,” I said. “But how easy is it to extract value from? You said before that they go to either the touchstones or where you’ve been before. I would imagine that we don’t want to go to any of the touchstones, because people would see us and steal our incredibly valuable teleportation key that we’re really not supposed to have. That leaves us with the places we’ve already been, and this is another place where I’m sure my ignorance is showing, but … I was also told that bulk teleportation of non-living things is relatively cheap, and you have radio technology, which means that being couriers is probably out, even if we could do that without drawing attention to ourselves, and that leaves … smuggling?”

“See?” Amaryllis asked Fenn. “Juniper has been in this world for three days and he can see all of the inherent problems. Smuggling? We’d be starting from nothing and going against all the gangs, cartels, syndicates, et cetera in Aerb who are already doing their best to occupy that same niche. And they have production, distribution, and economies of scale on their side.”

Fenn shrugged. “Point taken, regretfully.”

“So then the question is how to leverage the teleportation key without drawing undue attention to ourselves, and without putting ourselves in a position where we’re in danger,” I said. “That leaves looting, doesn’t it? We can return to the top of Sorian’s Castle and take everything there that’s not nailed down.”

“I’m not sure that’s wise,” said Fenn. She turned to Amaryllis. “You knew that the key was there. Fireteam Blackheart knew it was in the city. Blackheart got written off, but who else is going to be looking for it? If we teleport in, how likely are we to be surrounded by angry men with swords and guns?”

“I need a day, or maybe as much as a week, to get some news from Anglecynn,” said Amaryllis. “Internal politics are hard to track from the outside. Unless we have some pressing reason to rely on luck … the odds that someone will be waiting for us, or that there will be wards set up to catch us, are unacceptably high and get higher as time passes.”

“And yet,” said Fenn. “Caer Laga beckons.”

Amaryllis bit her lip hard and winced at the pain. “Alright,” she said. “Can I make a proper pitch?”

I nodded and Fenn laid back on the big bed before saying “Fine.”

“Juniper, first you need a very brief education,” said Amaryllis. Fenn let out a “harumph” at that. “Just as on your world, there are artisans on Aerb who make all manner of things,” continued Amaryllis, speaking quickly. “Sometimes, for reasons that no one really understands, one of these artisans will go into a forge frenzy where they’re overcome by a very particular idea and become dead-set on pursuing it, to the exclusion of money, reputation, family, sleep, food, et cetera. Once they’re finished, they come out of it, and sitting on their workbench, or wherever, is this thing that they didn’t actually know how to create, drenched in otherworldly magic and utterly, forever unique. Those are the entads. You’ve seen two of them so far, Fenn’s bow and the teleportation key.”

“But you said there are a thousand of the keys,” I said.

“All thousand were created at once,” said Amaryllis, “All in the course of a single forge frenzy. Supposedly it was a giant tower of keys that interlocked. Anyway, the entads range from useful to overwhelmingly powerful. Now, one of the quirks that most of them have is that they don’t change ownership lightly.”

“Ah,” I said. “Some are bound along cognatic primogeniture lines while others are gavelkind.” Amaryllis stared at me. “It was in your biography, which I still need to read for you. But I get the gist of it, there are magic items that pass down as heirlooms that you have claim-in-fact to, and some of them are sitting unrecovered in Caer Laga for some reason.”

Amaryllis paused to consider her words. “Caer Laga was abandoned by my great-grandfather with wards still intact and a cache of heirlooms, primarily because of the cost associated with maintaining it within the Datura. My bloodline gives me the right to pass through the wards with the two of you in tow. There shouldn’t be anything within and we should be able to use the teleportation key to leave, which means that the only risk involved is in passing through the Datura and facing down the thaum-seekers.”

Quest Accepted: Mothballs - According to Amaryllis, one of her ancestral homes lies empty with riches bound to her within it. Unfortunately, it’s quite some distance away through hostile territory. Prepare carefully.

“I’m in,” I said. “So long as we have some time to prepare.”

“I’d like to first off know what’s in it for me, second to know precisely what you’re hoping to gain from it, specifically the nature of these entads, and third, I want to know what the wampeter of our kharass is. Except I think those are actually in the opposite order of importance, so invert that list,” said Fenn. She didn’t seem concerned that I had accepted quickly.

“I don’t think wampeter and kharass are applicable to us,” said Amaryllis. “Except insofar as they represent useful terms for us to work with in forging a temporary or permanent team. As for the others, the answer to those questions is the same. Three of the seven heirlooms I believe to be at Caer Laga can either be used by the three of us as a whole or given to the two of you through investiture.”

“Well at that I’m all ears,” said Fenn. “You should have led with it.”

“I would have,” said Amaryllis with ice in her voice. “But you came in here talking about elfish traditions and how I was being too concerned with furthering my own interests.”

“Oh, I still think that,” replied Fenn. She had been laying on the bed, partly talking to the ceiling, but now she sat up and pointed a finger at Amaryllis. “You have more to gain than we do, and our gains will be chained to your successes or failures. Let’s say that you invest Juniper with a fancy new sword and weeks or months down the line you have some disagreement with him. That fancy sword was candy you dangled in front of him, but now it’s leverage over him.”

“That is entirely in the nature of investiture,” said Amaryllis, rubbing her face. “I don’t understand why you’re being so difficult about this. What is it you propose to do instead?”

Fenn frowned. “Better for us to get this out now,” she said. “I’ve traveled with people before, partnered for mutual benefit, and if you go skipping off happily into the sunset then come nightfall things get out of hand. I’m game for going to Caer Laga, so long as we do it with open eyes.”

Amaryllis stared with mouth agape. “You … you were willing to go this entire time?”

“Certainly,” said Fenn.

“Alright, fine,” said Amaryllis, swallowing whatever else she might have wanted to say. “Then we need to stop wasting time and get to planning.”

“The two of you smell,” said Fenn, “And I’m not so hot myself. So long as we’re not under a time crunch, I would propose that we find a bathhouse posthaste, get a night of rest, and then plan in the morning, with some sanity restored to us.”

Amaryllis made a strong argument that I shouldn’t go anywhere without having roughly two weeks of education in what not to do in Barren Jewel, but Fenn kept cracking jokes about the sewers smell and complaining that we were going to have to throw away one of the sets of new clothes that she had bought us. Maybe Amaryllis was as close to her limits as I was, because eventually she relented.

“It’s best that you not talk to anyone,” said Amaryllis. “I think you’re smart enough to figure out why. We’ll be apart while we change, which I think is the most dangerous moment, but at any other time the two of us can cover for you.”

“I think you’re overcomplicating this,” said Fenn. “There’s such a thing as being too paranoid.”

I laughed at that. “That really makes me want to stay inside,” I said. “The kind of people who say that there’s such a thing as being too paranoid are invariably not being paranoid enough.”

“Is that an Airth thing?” asked Fenn as she scrunched her nose at me.

“Okay, so you definitely are saying it wrong,” I replied. “And no, it’s not really an Earth thing. I don’t really have the proper qualifications to speak on what is or is not the proper level of precaution. We seemed to do fine with the bone mage.”

“You almost gave yourself away,” said Amaryllis. “Just don’t talk. Any questions you have can be raised later, with us, in private.”

That left the question of the teleportation key, which was worth something like billions of dollars in future earnings. Amaryllis had been guarding it closely and visibly touching her handbag for it often enough that if I were a thief I probably would have gotten a glint in my eye just from that. Going into the bathhouse would mean leaving it with her clothes there, which was a non-starter. Leaving it at our inn was also not an option, because the elderly innkeepers apparently couldn’t be trusted not to go through our things (at least according to Fenn).

My idea had been to hop the wall again and hide it out in the desert, but that was because I was ignorant of the fact that this problem could be solved using magic.

The tattoo mage seemed a little too pleased to be looking at Amaryllis for my tastes, at least until he got a whiff of her. The bone mage hadn’t complained, but she also had the benefit of incense in her shop and a specialty in medicine. After some negotiation with Amaryllis and payment from Fenn, he began a tattoo on the inside of her left arm. To my surprise, he was using a mostly modern looking tattoo gun which was plugged into the wall. I’d never had a tattoo myself, but I’d gone with Tiff when she wanted one to memorialize Arthur. The biggest difference between the tattoo shop in Bumblefuck, Kansas and the one in Barren Jewel was the effort put into sanitation; Amaryllis was getting a tattoo from a guy who didn’t seem like he’d ever heard of latex gloves, cross-contamination, blood-borne illnesses, or anything like that. Amaryllis closed her eyes while he inscribed a circle on her skin. Her tattooist kept looking at her. Any leering he’d had before was replaced by wariness, bordering on fear.

“Can we talk?” whispered Fenn as she slipped her arm in mine. “This will be awhile.”

“Sure,” I replied. She pulled me along until we were outside the shop.

“So how in love with her are you?” asked Fenn. This was about as serious as I had seen Fenn, aside from when she’d told me that Quills and friends were going to kill us.

“Uh, I’m not,” I replied.

“Okay, on a scale from 0-9, how in love with her are you?” asked Fenn.

“There are a lot of different ways to divide up love,” I replied. “Physical attraction, emotional attraction, empathy, those sorts of things. I know you think that my mind is clouded because I’m a teenage boy, but --”

“No,” said Fenn. “I’m worried that I’m about to be the third wheel in this little group we have here. I see how you look at her, and I see how you don’t look at me, even when I’m giving you little lovers’ kisses.”

“That’s not --”

“It’s fine,” said Fenn. “I’m under no illusions about how I compare to a princess,” the word left her lips at a bare whisper, so quiet that I probably wouldn’t have caught it if I couldn’t see the movement of her lips, “and I know a half-elf is no one’s idea of a catch but a pervert’s.”

“I think you’re pretty,” I said.

Skill Increased: Flattery lvl 1!

“Well, you’re a pervert,” said Fenn with a smile. “You really walked into that one, didn’t you?”

“Look,” I said, “I think you’re probably worried about what it’s going to be like down the road, right? If everything goes well in, um, that place we’re going, then that will cement us as a team, even if it’s just one of mutual convenience. You’re thinking that if I were to fall head-over-heels for her then you would always get outvoted two-to-one, and that’s a perfectly reasonable fear.”

A silence lingered between us for a bit. “Except what?” asked Fenn. “Isn’t this the point where you’re supposed to make some soothing sounds at me about how you would never, ever do such a thing?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. I watched the people going by us and was momentarily stunned to see someone riding an ostrich-sized bird. “I’ve been in this world for three days. I’m missing huge swaths of knowledge about how it works and who the people in it are. Your fear seems reasonable to me. If you want me to give you my assurances, I guess I could say that our traveling companion scares me a bit, that she’s too impersonal to have much a connection with aside from what my special eyes tell me, and I’m much more focused on …”

I came up short. This was the place where I should maybe have said that I was focused on getting home, but the truth was that home kind of sucked. Home was a place full of anger and sadness. It was a place where people kept saying that it would get better with time, and they had been right, but I sort of still didn’t believe them. Aerb was all fresh and new, a complicated, aged, worked-over world, but here I was free of scars, and whatever emotional stuff I was working on had been dropped at the door, at least for the time being. I was worried that Aerb was eventually going to make me face some things I didn’t want to face, but until that point, and so long as I was gifted with superpowers and not in that much danger, I didn’t really want to go home.

“Personally,” said Fenn. “I want a big old castle with lots of servants, handsome men waiting on me hand and foot, exotic foods and thrilling plays, and enough wine to drown in if I so choose. Not such a bad goal, if you’re looking for one.”

I didn’t believe that for a second. Partly that was because characters in movies, novels, and games never had that simple of a motivation, even when they claimed to. The mercenary always had some tragic backstory to be solved, or some deep underlying issue that would mean that they would never be happy even if they got their gold-plated castle. The crude biography I had for Fenn seemed to say as much. I also didn’t believe her when she said that looting an exclusion zone was her only viable path in life.

“We should get back,” I said. “I don’t want her thinking that we’ve run off. I’ll take what you said under advisement, and I can at least promise that right now I don’t think we’re close to forming any ironclad voting blocs.”

Fenn nodded and clasped me on the shoulder. “You know, I somehow find that more comforting than a blanket assurance. It shows you’re thinking, at least.”

Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 5!

When we got back into the tattoo parlor, Amaryllis was just finishing up. I don’t know whether she noticed us leave or not, but her eyes were still closed and her face still calm as the tattooist completed the elaborate circle on her skin. When he was finished, he touched it with his bare fingers. Though the skin was red and raw, Amaryllis showed no reaction to this.

“Package?” the tattooist asked.

Amaryllis opened her eyes, reaching into her purse, and pulled out the teleportation key, which was wrapped in white cloth and tied shut with twine. He took it without a word and with a squint of his eyes the tattoo started spinning on her skin. The circle was a hand-length across her arm, curving with it. I watched carefully as the key was shoved into her skin, passing into it with only token resistance. When he was finished, ink moved within the spinning circle, then became part of it, until it reformed into a simple, unmoving image of a package tied up with string.

“Done,” said the tattooist. “To pull it back out, grab at the edge and concentrate on it.”

“I know,” said Amaryllis, flexing her arm. The redness of the fresh tattoo had faded completely, and once she had put her robes back on, there was no way to tell she had a billion dollar magic item hidden within her skin.

And with that, we were off to the public baths.

Chapter Text

The closest thing to public bathing I had ever experienced was in the high school locker room, which had rows of showers lined up and nothing in the way of privacy. I’d say it was obvious that the showers were segregated by gender, but that was manifestly not obvious to the people of Barren Jewel. I paid with money Fenn had given me, stuck my clothes in a cubby, walked out with a towel provided by an attendant, and was greeted by a sea of flesh.

From the outside, the public baths were a big, ugly building, unpainted and unadorned except for a texturing that looked like it would scrape my skin off if I brushed against it. Inside though, a wide open space with tall, sculpted pillars holding up a glass ceiling that let in the last of the waning light. There were sconce lights at regular intervals, each with their own flame, some of them so high up I was left wondering how they were lit. Everywhere there was color, from the turquoise and gold tile to the green and red murals on the wall that depicted an elaborate pastoral landscape. In a way, it was the opposite of the streets of Barren Jewel; there I had seen plain buildings with colorful people walking between them, but here it was a beautiful, lovingly wrought interior with plain, unadorned people, all either nude or with simple white towels.

Which wasn’t to say that I found the people unnoteworthy, because there were skin colors we didn’t have on Earth, people with odd proportions and strange protrusions, men with tusks, women with feathers, and the occasional upright animal with wet fur. Most of the people looked human, but the ones that weren’t drew my attention.

“It’s rude to stare,” said Fenn from beside me, which made me jump. She had a towel wrapped around her, leaving her with some modesty. When I looked at her arms, I realized that I had never seen them uncovered. She had keloid scars in precise patterns starting at the joint of her shoulder and running down to the middle of her forearm. They were curlicue, almost organic looking in their shape, but exactly identical on both arms.

“See, I say that it’s rude to stare, and what do you do?” asked Fenn.

“They’re very pretty,” I said.

Fenn turned away from me and shrugged. “They weren’t exactly my choice. And they’re non-functional, in case you’re wondering.”

I hadn’t been, because until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that one of the differences between ‘skin magic’ and ‘tattoo magic’ might be that there were other sorts of magic you could do with the skin. If I was right in assuming that skin magic extended to ritual scarification, then what else was there? Intentionally stretching the skin? Piercings? I had eight levels in the skill, but knew practically nothing about it. I was about to ask Fenn more, even given her obvious discomfort, but then I saw Amaryllis, who had shed her towel and waded into the water.

I didn’t really have enough experience to say whether this was true of all public baths, considering that the one in Barren Jewel was the only one I had been in, but it wasn’t a particularly sexy place. There were families bathing there with small children running around them, and though it didn’t seem like Aerb was in the middle of an obesity epidemic in the same way that the Midwest was, there were plenty of people whose bodies were far from what I’d define as aesthetically pleasing (in fact, there were a few people I thought looked malnourished).

It might have been because of that context that I found the sight of Amaryllis to not actually be the most erotic thing I had ever seen in my life, instead taking a close second. The position of first is not one that I intend to recount here, but it would suffice to say that I’d briefly had a girlfriend back on Earth, and she had been putting effort into seduction, even though she didn’t need to.

Amaryllis wasn’t trying to be sexy, or if she was, she was doing a really good job of pretending that she wasn’t. She waded into the water, pulling her hair into a tight bun as she did so, which brought her hands up over her head and showed off the muscles of her arms. She had dimples just above her butt and muscles visible along her ribs that tensed with her movements. If she’d really climbed up Sorian’s Castle it wasn’t a surprise that she was in amazing shape, but her curvature still spoke to softness and seduction. She looked back at me while she was doing up her hair with her fingers touching the back of her neck and it felt like my heart suddenly stopped when our eyes met, before it started again, pumping quite a bit faster. My breath caught in my throat.

(Look, I know you probably think that I’m a creep, because one of the classic creep things is reading some kind of sexual intent into things that weren’t intended to be sexual. Tiff was the only girl I had ever talked to at length about that sort of thing, and she’d said that one of the things that sucked most about the boy/girl dynamic was that boys, especially high school boys, would see a girl stretching out and they would not just look appreciatively at her tits, but they would also convince themselves that this was some kind of show specifically for them, or an unspoken overture toward something more. Really, sometimes she just needed to stretch out after sitting in a desk for an hour and a half. I tried to keep all that in mind as I watched Amaryllis, so I wouldn’t think that every little thing she did was some display for me.)

I went into the water until it was waist deep, then tried to wash myself clean and think about something other than the fact that Amaryllis was naked so close to me. That work became a lot more effective when Fenn handed me a bar of soap with a rope through it. Fenn herself had shed her towel as well, revealing her slender elvish body, and gave me a grin and a wink when my gaze momentarily slipped below her eyeline.

I’d just about gotten clean when the fighting started. My first awareness of it was my wrist being grabbed and pulled. I tried to yank back from it, but the grip was like iron, and when I turned to look at my assailant I realized it was Fenn, who was quite a lot stronger than she looked. She was making her way through the water and trying to drag me along as though I was the world’s dumbest man for not simply following her.

I saw the blood in the water shortly after that though, accompanied by screams and the movement of other people around us, which was all I needed in order to start moving as quickly as I could. I looked back to the center of the water to see a pitched battle of magics. I probably would have stopped to watch in awe if not for the pressure of Fenn’s hand around my wrist. All I had were impressions, of a naked man leaping high above the water and blasting red light through a crowd, of a naked woman riding a wave away from the action, and in one spot, a place where time seemed to be flowing backward. There were clothed people too, in among the bathers, armed with guns and swords, cutting through people.

We ran, Fenn at the lead holding my wrist with one hand and gripping Amaryllis’ hand with the other. We had stayed close to the edge and were among the first ones out of the water, in part because Fenn had started moving before there had been any sign of trouble.

“Grab your stuff, meet outside!” shouted Fenn, and with that she let go of my wrist, leaving me to run toward the changing room all on my own. When I got there though, I saw the attendant who had handed me my towel was dead on the ground, his throat slit, and three men with weapons were waiting there with hard looks in their eyes.

Without thinking about it too much, I cranked back my fist and put the entire force of my racing pulse into it. The man I was going for apparently wasn’t expecting a naked man to attack him with blood magic, because his only reaction was a look of surprise before I shattered a number of bones in his face and what felt like half the bones in my hand.

Critical hit!

New Affliction: Broken Bone!

Risen Bile member defeated!

We collapsed to the floor together, me because I hadn’t been thinking about slowing down, and him because I’d apparently hit him hard enough to kill him. I felt a sharp bite in my ankle as I rose to my feet, but it hadn’t been the other two coming after me, only me cutting myself on the fallen sword. I picked it up with a wet left hand and turned to face the other two, but other people were slipping into the changing room now and the two of them were working against the throng of people, stabbing at them. In the distance, I heard the loud staccato claps of gunfire.

Now, you’re probably going to think that this is stupid, but I rushed those two men, naked, wet, injured, and using my off-hand. I might not have, if I hadn’t seen them kill a child. Maybe it was the jarring feeling of one moment trying to adapt to cultural views that made me uneasy and the next running for my life, or maybe it was the small part of me that wanted to right a wrong, but I swung my sword in at the side of one of them and though he was armored enough that I didn’t cut into him, I did force him to turn toward me while his friend held the doorway.

That was about as far as I had thought things through, if that. He came at me like a madman, screaming over the sounds of battle and swinging his sword like he meant to overpower me with his every strike. I parried and dodged, and by the third time I realized that he wasn’t actually a very good swordsman, and in fact, probably worse than I was. All he really had going for him was some leather armor and ferocity, plus the fact that he was using his main hand, and while I’d grant that counted for a lot, he was the first person I’d come across who I thought I might have been able to take in a fair fight.

I dodged another three slashing strikes, getting more sure of myself with each one and ignoring the messages that were coming up, until I found what I thought was an opening and lunged forward, aiming at his chest. Instead, I hit him right at the bottom of his throat, stabbing him through and losing my sword as he spun away from me in flailing panic.

Risen Bile member defeated!

That was when I ran, leaving my clothes in their cubby because I couldn’t spare the time to look through them all, down the hallways and out the front door of the bathhouse. I came out onto the streets of Barren Jewel, still fully nude and bleeding for my efforts. I stood there in the now-cool air breathing heavily and looking around. I was drawing some stares from people, but I was the first one out and no one seemed to be aware that something terrible was going on in there. I wanted to scream for help, but I didn’t know what I would say, and after a few seconds time I realized that getting questioned by the local equivalent of the police was exactly the opposite of what I needed.

I was saved from indecision when Fenn and Amaryllis came out of the bathhouse, both of them in their robes. Fenn took one look at me and let out a laugh, then threw me a towel she’d been holding.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

“Alright,” said Fenn when we were safely home and she’d checked that her bow was right where she’d left it. “I think hiding that key in a tattoo was just about the smartest thing anyone has ever done.”

“What the hell happened there?” I asked, cradling my hand. I was sitting in a towel on the smaller of the two beds. My feet were disgusting from walking through the streets without shoes. I counted myself thankful to not have stepped on anything.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Fenn. “That was one of the crazier things I’ve seen in my life.”

“I think they had at least two goals,” said Amaryllis. “They were going after a few particular people, but they were also killing indiscriminately.” She shook her head. “At first I thought that it was directed against us.” She turned to Fenn. “We were very lucky.”

Fenn shrugged. “Or very unlucky, depending on how you figure it,” she replied.

I looked between the two of them. “Not to trouble the two of you, but I’m in quite a bit of pain here.” Gingerly moving a finger sent pain shooting up my arm. So far as I could tell, there was only a single broken bone in my hand, though it had felt like more when it happened. “I think another trip to the bone mage is probably in order.” My feet stunk from running in the street, and if the first trip to the bathhouse hadn’t been a disaster I probably would have suggested that we return there.

Fenn grimaced. “We don’t have unlimited funds. It wouldn’t be hard to find paying work to bring in some tcher, but that would take time. Besides, you’re the blood magic wunderkind, can’t you just heal yourself?”

“Possibly,” said Amaryllis. “He learned the fundamentals quickly.” She turned to me. “I never had any training in the healing side of blood magic, so you’ll have bear with me. If you pick it up as quickly as you picked everything else up, you should be able to mend that bone within about ten minutes.”

“Yeah,” I winced, “That would be great.”

“Alright, most of what physicians do, especially with broken bones --”

“Oh, we’re doing this little lesson now?” asked Fenn. “Because if we are, I’m going to go find some food. I don’t have a magical pick-up-powers-from-simple-descriptions brain, and I find lessons to be quite boring.”

“Bring us back something,” said Amaryllis. She rolled her shoulders and stretched. “I’m hoping that this won’t take long.”

When Fenn had gone, Amaryllis took a moment to look over my hand, making me hiss in pain a few times before she gently set it back down. A bruise had blossomed on it.

“Most of what physicians do, especially with broken bones, is to set things right such that the body can properly heal itself,” said Amaryllis. “That natural healing is what the lower levels of bone magic stimulate, as you’ve already experienced. For blood magic, I’m given to understand that it’s very similar. The blood in your body provides nutrients and oxygen, it clots your wounds, and it provides the basis for a whole host of other healing when you’re injured. So in a similar way to how you use the heat of your blood for Aarde’s Touch and the pulse of your blood for the Crimson Fist, you need to focus on the healing property of your blood. I … have never felt it myself, as I’m not a proper practitioner, and I don’t know the helpful analogies.”

“Okay,” I said slowly as I looked down at my hand. “Just … feel the healing. Promise you won’t be upset with me if I get this right away?”

“Why would I be?” asked Amaryllis, but she seemed annoyed by the mere question.

“Nevermind,” I replied. I focused on my hand, and specifically on the broken bone, the bone that came down from my middle finger. (Metacarpal? That sounded a bit too much like a pokemon to be right.) I tried to think about my blood healing me, clotting the wound … doing whatever magical blood stuff it was supposed to do. I tried to think back on what it had felt like to have my broken arm heal back on Earth, but that had taken eight weeks and went too slow for me to notice anything except the itching of the cast and the dull throbbing of pain.

I was at it for about ten minutes, with no lessening of pain or skill pop-ups, before my attention began to drift, and it was another five minutes after that before I said anything.

“Is luck a real thing?” I asked.

“You’re supposed to be focusing on healing,” said Amaryllis. She narrowed her eyes. “You did this when you were supposed to be keeping watch too. Do you have attention problems?”

“No,” I said. “Not usually. I was just … thinking that it would be easier.”

“You thought it would take you less than fifteen minutes to learn something that takes multiple years of intensive study for others to learn?” asked Amaryllis.

“Well … yeah, kind of,” I replied. “I picked up blood magic and skin magic pretty quickly and I was under the impression that those should have taken multiple years of study each. In games there are sometimes gates to certain spells like attributes or skills. Normally I’d get a message, but this is pretty far from being normal. So the fact that I haven’t learned it quickly says to me that maybe it’s going to take a different approach.”

“You’re going to have to draw this ‘character sheet’ out for me,” said Amaryllis. “It’s probably better to have a physical version that we can manipulate and mark up.”

It was a little bit shocking to me how quickly I could go from trying to think unsexual thoughts about Amaryllis, to killing people who were basically a mystery to me, to feeling annoyed about Amaryllis taking ownership over my power. She was right; it probably did make sense to write things down, especially those things which weren’t obvious from just looking at the game layer itself, like what ability capped which skill. A message log seemed like it would really have come in handy, especially when other things were going on. But still, it was my weird game power thing, not hers, and I didn’t like or trust Amaryllis enough that I was ready to accept the “we’re in this together” thing with open arms.

“Define luck,” said Amaryllis.

“Um,” I replied. “I’m not sure that I can.”

“Elves are lucky,” said Amaryllis. “If you bet against them in a coin toss, you’ll lose nine times out of ten. If you try to shoot them, the bullets will miss more often than they should, though still within the realm of what’s strictly possible. Half of this comes from changes in the world around them that they have no obvious mechanism to meaningfully affect, while the other half comes from their own actions which they undertake for reasons which aren’t always clear to them.”

“Fenn began pulling us out of the bathhouse before anything had actually gone wrong,” I said.

“Yes,” Amaryllis replied. “She’s a half-elf, which I would assume would make her less lucky by any of the standard metrics, but I’m not actually sure how or whether genetic dominance plays a part. Curiosity satisfied?”

“Why’d you ask me for a definition?” I asked.

“To see what you meant,” replied Amaryllis. “On Aerb there many people under delusions about how the world actually works, who think that there’s such a thing as luck which applies in all sorts of circumstances that it demonstrably does not. Gamblers will say that they’re rolling hot, or that the dice are due for a streak, or things like that, and though the Athenaeum of Mathematics and Metaphysics has done enough research to rule that out, these myths persist. The same goes for things like carrying around a frongal bone or spitting in a fountain.”

“We came to Barren Jewel today,” I replied. “The bathhouse we were in was attacked today. Is that just some horrible coincidence? Because that doesn’t exactly seem likely to me.”

“You’re saying that it was bad luck,” asked Amaryllis. “Not just bad luck, but an effect that someone could presumably measure?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. Really, I was thinking that it was the contrived sort of thing that would happen in a game, except for the fact that it didn’t appear to involve us in any way. In a game, the attackers would have been sent after us because of some cryptic prophecy, or because they had some way to track Amaryllis, therefore compelling us to action, or maybe it would be that Fenn was a mole feeding information to the enemy. But they hadn’t been after us, at least not noticeably, and we’d left without anyone monologuing at us or discovering some vital clue. It seemed too much like coincidence, but also too pointless, which was why I was thinking about my 0 LUK.

Fenn came back while I was in the midst of my second session of trying to heal my broken bone, which was now red and swollen. I was happy to cast aside the fruitless exercise in favor of some food. It was street food, a small, fried animal of some kind, wrapped in thin waxed paper. Fenn didn’t say exactly what it was, beyond “food” and I wasn’t inclined to press her on it.

“The bathhouse thing was apparently the work of a group called the Risen Bile,” said Fenn after she’d finished her portion of critter. “The city guard are out in force, but who knows what it is they’re going to do about it. Word on the street is that they have something up their butts about nubile women like Mary and I bathing in the sight of lustful men, I’m not sure I buy that though.”

“Mary?” I asked.

“We’ll need something to call her in public,” said Fenn. “It’s Amy, Mary, or Liss, and I picked the one that I like best.”

“I don’t really care what I’m called. No luck on the blood magic, by the way,” said Amaryllis.

“And that’s why I picked up some bones,” said Fenn with a smile, waving around a tiny little rib.

“There’s no one to teach him,” said Amaryllis. “And before you suggest it, we’re not going back to the bone mage in order to learn.” She looked at me. “You didn’t acquire bone magic in the time you were there, did you? I’d think that would be the sort of thing that you’d inform us of.”

“No,” I said. “But I didn’t acquire blood magic just from hearing about it, it was from the actual practice of it. Same with skin magic, kind of. Just seeing tattoos and knowing that they did things wasn’t enough, it was the feeling of a tattoo sliding over my skin. I think maybe if I had been more aware of it, I might have triggered the skill from the parachute tattoo. That’s just a theory though.” I took the bone from Fenn’s hand. “I guess now would be a fine time to test it.”

I tried doing what I had seen Magus Bormann do, holding the bone in one hand while concentrating on my injury. She had described it as pulling, but that word didn’t mean a lot to me. Maybe it would have if I could have felt some power in the bone, but it just felt like a greasy bone to me.

“What kind of animal was this?” I asked, hoping that I wouldn’t regret the answer. Please don’t be rat, not after what we saw in the sewers.

“It’s a gunzel,” said Fenn. “They keep them as pets in some places. Here in the Barren Jewel they’re really popular because they’ll eat up rotten manna.”

“Mana?” I asked. “Like magic?”

“Manna,” said Amaryllis. “Extend the ‘n’ sound. Also called Barren bread. I suppose we might as well teach you the words of power.” She held her hand out in front of her. “Besoneth.”

Spell discovered: Alvion’s Flesh!

And there, without any ceremony or lightshow, a small loaf of bread appeared from nowhere and landed in her hand. “Terrible stuff. We won’t be eating it unless we don’t have a choice. The milk is more palatable. She held up her hand in a small fist just above her mouth. “Ilimoneth.”

Spell discovered: Alvion’s Blood!

Milk poured down from Amaryllis’ fist, directly into her mouth. She swallowed it without pause, then coughed once and made a face.

“I’m surprised that a princess would have ever tried Barren milk,” said Fenn. For once, this wasn’t said as a joke or insult.

“I once thought it important to know what the poorest of the poor ate and drank,” said Amaryllis. “It’s helpful in the context of public policy to understand the reality of the people you’re governing. Barren milk and Barren bread are foundational foods for the poor, and even the middle classes sometimes use them to stretch their budgets.”

“So this gunzel,” I said, trying to get us back on track, “It traditionally eats leftover manna? Its life before becoming street food would have been as a scavenger in the city?”

“No,” said Fenn, blinking at me. “You think that would make any sense, for a vendor to rely on scavenger animals caught in traps or something like that? That’s daft. You’d make a horrible businessman.”

“So … farms?” I asked. “Someone keeps these creatures in a cage, says the spell to make them food and milk, and harvests them?” The image of a factory farm immediately came to mind.

“More or less,” said Fenn. “I’m not sure on the specifics myself, all I know is what I asked about. I didn’t think you would need the creature’s life story to get with the healing.”

I wasn’t sure that I did, but I tried to think about this creature as I turned the bone over in my hand. I tried to think about what life would be like for a gunzel, and failing that, I tried to think about what life was like for a chicken that was kept in a cage and fed the cheapest possible food in order to produce meat. Moments of fear as the rarely seen handlers came by, uncomfortable restrictions within the cage, a desire for freedom, perhaps, though maybe more than that just the will to keep on living and growing in spite of it all. Not even necessarily the mind, if gunzels or chickens had them, but the body’s efforts to turn slop into bone and muscle. That seemed like it was at the heart of END, the body’s perseverance, and that was what I was trying to pull on.

Unlocked skill: Bone Magic!

Achievement Unlocked: Sticks and Stones

Spell discovered: Physical Tapping

I felt the magic leave the bone, gone as soon as I’d grasped it, like a kiss on the wind. My broken bone didn’t feel any better, nor had I been able to perceive any change in myself. Yet I had felt the magic of the bone, just for an instant, and more importantly, the game had confirmed that I was on the right track.

“I’m going to need some more bones,” I said with a smile.

Chapter Text

Skill increased: Bone Magic lvl 10!

Spell discovered: Power Tapping!

Spell discovered: Speed Tapping!

Spell discovered: Endurance Tapping!

Skill increased: Bone Magic lvl 12! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat KNO.)

Affliction: Broken Bone Removed!

It took me the better part of eight hours to cap out bone magic and fully heal my hand. Fenn left to go get more bones once it was clear that I was going to power through the hundreds available in the gunzels. Each bone was a pittance of power, even when I was pulling from it as hard as I could. Watching Bormann work made me think that it was less efficient to do it that way, so I tried to stick to teasing the power out of the bones as slow as possible, which gave an even smaller effect but over a longer period of time, which I suppose was meant to be a net gain in healing.

It wasn’t until I hit level 10 that I unlocked the ability to pull specifically endurance from the bone, rather than just all physical stats, and that helped me to speed up the healing process. It still took all of the bones I had available to me to get my finger fully healed, and it was still slightly bumpy afterward where the bone came back thicker. With another few hours and hundreds of the gunzel bones, I might have been able to get it entirely back to normal, but by the time I was finished both Fenn and Amaryllis had long gone to sleep. Fenn had gone first, unceremoniously stripping down to her underwear and claiming the big bed, while Amaryllis watched me work and kept me focused until an hour later when she was yawning so much it was a distraction. They shared the big bed together, and Fenn had one arm wrapped around Amaryllis’ waist, in what I was fairly sure was a subconscious attempt to bother her. That was when I finally changed out of my towel and into a set of clothes that Fenn had bought for me.

I kept on. I could feel the desire to sleep, but not the need. I wasn’t tired, but I was sure that I could have gone to sleep on the small bed within a handful of minutes if I had made the effort. I wasn’t exactly sure where Barren Jewel was in relation to Silmar City, nor whether they had a time difference, nor how much, but it was possible that I was experiencing some combination of jet lag and the magic powers of leveling up. Besides, I had taken a nap out in the sun.

It was nice to have some time alone to think. My mind kept going back to the bathhouse. There were a few things bothering me. First, Risen Bile was a terrible name, not the sort that you’d give to yourself unless you were a punk band or deliberately evil. Second, the rumors that Fenn had picked up said that they had done this terrorist attack because of some moral crusade, but we’d seen them targeting specific members. Third, the two men I’d fought had been weaker than I had expected, given the display of magic inside, which left me thinking that they were pawns or patsies. Fourth, I shouldn’t have been there. This was apparently a world where luck was a real, physical thing, and while I took Amaryllis to heart when she said that only elves had luck, I also knew that she didn’t know everything about my power, and my power said 0 LUK.

I tried to will a quest into existence in order to get more answers from the flavor text, but that predictably failed.

With some pencil and paper that Fenn had procured for me, I began writing down everything on my character sheet and then all the things that the game had told me and not recorded anywhere, with a special focus on the skill caps. I still had two points yet to spend and I was waffling on where I wanted to put them. The fact that Bone Magic had unlocked something on reaching a round number changed my thinking a little bit, since that made reaching those round numbers more valuable.

After I had filled a page with those observations, I began work on filling another page, this one with thoughts and questions about how the game tied into everything I’d created as a DM. I’d so far held off on asking about them, partly because I didn’t want to bother Amaryllis about unimportant things, and partly because there were questions that I didn’t want the answers to. I was feeling like I had put it off long enough though, and to be honest I was feeling a little bit more confident about this world’s ability to handle things, given the magics they apparently had at their disposal.

I was three-quarters down the page when Fenn woke up with a start, dislodging Amaryllis, who opened her eyes briefly and then readjusted herself to go back to sleep. Fenn stretched out and popped out of bed, still wearing very little clothing. She opened the window just a crack, enough that I could hear a very distant sound of gunshots, then shut it again. Had that been what woke her up? The sound of guns, too faint for me to hear while I was writing? I added a bit about the nature of elves to my list of questions.

“Whatcha writing?” Fenn asked as she moved over and peered down at my page.

“Put on some clothes,” I said. I was pretty sure that she was just standing next to me so skimpily dressed to provoke a reaction.

“Make me,” said Fenn. She reached forward, past me, and ran a finger down my list. “You’re listing exclusion zones?” Her finger stopped at Fel Seed. “Or just trying to make yourself feel bad?”

“He’s real,” I said slowly. “This world has a Fel Seed.”

“You don’t believe the legends?” asked Fenn. “Or wait, you have that broken brain that thinks it invented a lot of the details of this world from whole cloth. So you think that you thought up Fel Seed? In what context?”

“It’s a long story,” I replied. And not that pleasant of one. “Is he -- was he killed?”

“Nope,” said Fenn. “Still sitting on his throne in the City of a Thousand Brides. Not sure if that particular part of your brain survived your stroke, but he’s not someone we talk about in polite company.”

I shook my head. “He was built to consume the world. If he were in the process of doing that, or if he were killed, that would make sense, but … he’s still alive, doing his … work?”

Fenn patted me on the head. “You are a very strange hooman,” she said. “What is it you think an exclusion zone is?”

“Um, it’s like Chernobyl, which is a place on Earth where there was a horrible accident,” I said. That seemed like where the terminology would have been borrowed from, if I was designing this world, which in some sense it seemed like I was. “People who went into the heart of it would suffer from horrible cancerous growths and then die, or maybe just be killed outright by the poison there.”

“And the thing that keeps Chernobyl from spreading is the exclusion rule, right?” asked Fenn. She ran a hand over her ear. “The whole world would become a Chernobyl if not for that.”

“Um,” I said. “That’s … not really accurate to Chernobyl. I mean, there it’s something called a nuclear weapon --”

“Ah, Blue Fields?” asked Fenn.

I paused with my mouth open. “There are nuclear weapons on this planet?” I asked.

“There were. But then they got excluded,” replied Fenn. “Gods, otherwise there probably wouldn’t be anything left of Aerb. You could still set one off in Blue Fields, if you really want to make that your life’s goal, but that seems a bit silly, even for a hooman.”

I was mind flooded for a moment by thinking about what that all meant. There were nuclear weapons, which seemed at the far end of the technology I’d seen present on Aerb, but they were somehow prevented from going off in … what, some kind of Dies the Fire type of scenario? Some change in the laws of the universe?

“So Fel Seed can’t spread,” I said slowly. “Because he’s … excluded. Somehow.”

“Yup,” said Fenn. “Just him, his captives, and his spawn, excluded from civilized society. Though we seem to be in something close to a civil war right now, so eh, clear houses, as you humans say.”

“Glass houses,” I corrected her. My eyes began to drift to her midriff and I looked down at the paper in front of me instead. “So you’re saying that most of these are exclusion zones. Places where there was a spreading sickness or evil that was stopped?”

“Sure,” said Fenn, leaning over me. Her arm was next to me as she pointed at the paper, and I glanced briefly at the curling pattern of scars there. I shut down the urge to ask if I could touch them. “Fel Seed, Nightsmoke, yes, Parsmont, yes, City of Lasting Blood, technically yes, Glassy Fields, a big yes … but you’ve got things like the white spires here, which are benign, a few I don’t recognize, like this ‘Teeth City’, and it’s kind of a jumble.”

“How many of these exclusion zones are there?” I asked.

“Fifty-three,” came an answer from the bed. Amaryllis swung her feet off the bed and blinked a few times before standing up and looking down at her rumpled clothes in distaste. “Hand healed?” she asked me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Fifty-three?”

“By a conservative count, yes,” said Amaryllis. “I won’t bore you with the imperial politics of it all. And since we’re all up, we have other things that need doing, like preparing for Caer Laga. Fenn, I would appreciate it if you put some clothes on.”

Fenn pouted, but began slipping her pants and shirt back on. I was certain that it wasn’t by accident that she was pointing her butt in my direction as she did so. I caught a frown from Amaryllis at that, but tried my best not to read too much into it.

“First things first,” said Amaryllis once we were all clothed. “I think that we should train up Joon.”

If this were a movie, here is where we would have a montage.

After Amaryllis looked at my handwritten character sheet, she asked me for specifics on what kinds of things had made those skills go up in the past. I moved ahead of her in the conversation a little bit by suggesting exercises I thought would work well to raise those skills in the controlled environment of our hotel room, and after some discussion of what was most important, with general agreement that a focus on combat was best, I spent about a week maxing out all my skills except for pistols and rifles, neither of which could be done without making a racket, and horticulture, which I didn’t have an easy way to increase.

I learned the skill Bows from simply touching Fenn’s bow, but she wouldn’t let me shoot it and ended up spending a fair sum on a bow that I shot at targets across the room. That was only enough to count once I had some very small targets to aim at; until it was a challenge, the game wouldn’t give me anything for it.

There were a few interesting things that I learned about the game in the process though.

Skill increased: Parry lvl 10! (Skill capped at five times the value of secondary stat INS.)

New Virtue: Nascent Blade-Bound!

First, getting to level 10 in a skill did occasionally unlock something, though it was inconsistent. Second, skills were capped at either three times the primary stat, or five times the secondary stat, which put an additional restriction on how high skills could go and made the social skills more important than I thought they would be.

I got a few more virtues along the way, but they were incredibly minor effects when I looked them up on the ‘Virtues’ screen. Unarmed Combat 10 gave me the virtue “Hardened Knuckles” that lessened the toll unarmed combat would take on me (no numbers, just that flat statement). Dual Wield 10 gave me Ambidexterity, the uneasy feeling of being equally adept at using either hand for a task and removing all preference (which I immediately tested by writing; it was unnerving to sign my name left-handed). Thrown Weapons 10 gave me “Range Finder”, the ability to more easily determine how far away something was. Improvised Weapons 10 gave me “Structural Assessment”, the ability to hold and wield improvised weapons in such a way that they would break less easily, though never outside the bounds of reason.

Like I said, it was nothing that left me in awe, just very minor benefits. If you could have bottled any one of those, you could have sold them for a mint, especially Ambidexterity, but I wasn’t convinced that they would ever make the difference between life and death.

The most awkward were probably the social skills.

“Alright,” said Fenn, rubbing her hands. “Flatter me.”

“Um,” I said. “I don’t actually think this is all that necessary. We’re going to an abandoned castle and fighting some mindless creatures along the way, right?”

“Thaum-suckers aren’t mindless,” said Fenn. “They’ve got a cunning to them, makes them dangerous. But no, they’re probably not going to be swayed by telling them what beautiful blue eyes they have. Me, on the other hand, I’d be more amenable.”

“Your eyes are green,” I said.

“And how beautiful are they?” Fenn asked with a grin.

“Your eyes are …” I hesitated, choosing my words. “I could get lost in the beauty of your eyes, the way they seem luminous in the morning light, and when I see you smile, and that smile touches those elegant eyes, my breath catches in my throat and my heart hammers in my chest.”

Skill increased: Romance lvl 3!

Skill increased: Flattery lvl 4!

“Alright,” I sighed, “That worked.”

“Hooray!” said Fenn. She bit her lip. “Now flatter my, hrm, … tongue.” She stuck out her tongue. “Ad do i’ igh.”

So that was all very silly and awkward, but it thankfully didn’t go on very long because my social skills were capped at 6. Romance was the worst, partly because I couldn’t see myself ever using that skill, and partly because Fenn seemed to like being a flirt. I couldn’t tell whether she had any actual interest in me or whether she was just having fun at my expense, or maybe both. Either way, I wasn’t about to act on it or do anything but be flustered. Still, practicing Romance and Flattery with Fenn was preferable to doing it with Amaryllis.

Other than that? I’m not sure what to say. It was a week of my life, lived mostly in a hotel room because there were recurring bouts of violence on the streets and Amaryllis -- Mary, now -- didn’t think it was smart of me to go out when I was so ignorant of the world.

They did try to remove some of that ignorance, but they were trying to haphazardly cram a lifetime of knowledge into me, and it was mixed in with things that I remembered from D&D, which made me misremember things with some frequency. There were also too many things for me to ask about and too many things that they would both assume were the same between our worlds.

Common Knowledge About Aerb

  1. Aerb was about ten times larger than Earth, flat instead of a sphere, and shaped like a hexagon. If you went far enough north, you would end up in the south, and it was the same in any direction. (Amaryllis gave me a measurement for Aerb and I had to approximate Earth’s size given that I could only remember how wide the continental United States was.)
  2. Aerb had no time zones, because the sun was in the same apparent position no matter where on Aerb you were, with no parallax. Despite that, there were still seasons, because the sun got smaller in the winter and larger in the summer. There were also regional variations in temperature caused by something called the projection layer, a super-atmospheric phenomenon that Fenn was ignorant of and Amaryllis didn’t know too much about.
  3. There were roughly 200 “mortal species”, plus the Animalia, which were anthropomorphic animals like Quills. There had been five distinct waves of elven migration from Celestar, each of which was considered a different species. There were dwarves, but they mostly kept to themselves, underground. There weren’t “evil” species per se, but there were evil cultures made up exclusively of one type of species, which Amaryllis seemed to think was an important distinction and Fenn rolled her eyes at.
  4. There were twenty-seven different kinds of magic, and that was the conservative count. Many of those only included in the less-conservative count were hereditary, racial, or otherwise not the sort of thing that was available to just anyone. Looking at my character sheet and assuming it was laid out in a sane way, I would have access to at most fifteen of them, though probably less. (I was extremely interested in learning more of them, but Amaryllis thought that all the low-hanging fruit had already been picked. That didn't stop me from asking questions, but she was right that there were significant barriers that it didn't seem like my ability to learn things really quickly would overcome, or which would be useless to us without the necessary resources to capitalize on them.)
  5. When people said “the empire” they meant something akin to the United Nations, in that it was a rather toothless organization whose real power came from member countries agreeing to impose standardized laws or make global (they said hexal, for obvious reasons) sanctions against one another. The proper title was “The Empire of Common Cause”, but people just called it “the empire” or “The Third Empire” if they were being snarky, for historical reasons that I don’t think are too important.

“Okay,” I said after one of these infodump sessions. “But there’s one thing that I don’t really get.”

“Just one thing out of literally everything in the entire world?” asked Fenn. She was getting annoyed with the whole dream-skewered thing, I could tell, just like she’d predicted she would be.

“So, forge frenzy is distributed fairly randomly and on a per capita basis, right?” I asked. Amaryllis nodded. “Well, what I don’t really understand is how the Lost King and Anglecynn still have so much power, unless they’ve been hoarding entads and heirlooms created in Anglecynn or brought in from elsewhere. But if that’s the case, then I wouldn’t expect the most direct descendant to have much in the way of any particular power.”

“And why do you think that?” asked Amaryllis. “Why shouldn’t power acquired retain its value? It would dilute, because succession of heirlooms follows different rules, but I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”

“Okay,” I said, “Well more magic items are being created every year --”

“Why?” asked Amaryllis.

“Because … there are more artisans over time?” I asked. “Unless this is a mechanization issue?”

“Why would there be more artisans over time?” asked Amaryllis, using her patient voice. She was getting annoyed with the dream-skewered thing too, but she dealt with it much better.

“Every year there are more people than the last,” I said, just before realizing that wasn’t necessarily true on Aerb. “Okay, explain this to me, is global population going up or holding steady?”

“During the reign of Uther Penndraig, five hundred years ago, the hexal population was twenty billion,” said Amaryllis. “Today it’s five billion.”

“Seems to me that people need to start fucking more,” said Fenn. “At least, I heard that was how babies were made.”

“Sex doesn’t help if people use prophylaxis,” said Amaryllis. “And it’s a complicated issue even beyond the question of whether the replacement rate is high enough. The exclusion zones are a problem that keeps getting worse and there are singular events which cause dips in the world population that we never recover from.”

“Aerb is dying,” I said.

“Well that’s a leap,” said Fenn. “Celestar, now there’s a place that died, if you need context for world death.”

“It’s not clear whether it’s dying or not,” said Amaryllis. “The overall trend is downward. Optimists feel that the final graph will be sigmoid, with a long period of stability before the First Empire, a period of instability, and then a second long period of stability.”

We moved on to other things after that, but it left me thinking holy shit is this world grimdark. There was no heaven, only nine thousand hells, and Aerb itself was becoming a shadow of itself. It was obvious to me that this was a reflection of my own mind; since Arthur had died, I hadn’t really been a believer in bright and happy futures, and even before then I had always made my worlds a little dim so that the heroes could shine all the brighter. That was the thought that gave me hope. If I had designed this world, then maybe I was a hero in it, one of the people whose purpose was to blaze with light and banish the darkness.

Fenn and Amaryllis did most of the other preparations, moving through the city to gather supplies when the fighting calmed down a little bit. There were still periodic bursts of gunfire, audible when the window was open, and the occasional metallic smell of blood in the air. Whoever the Risen Bile were, they were being slaughtered by the city guard. The word from Fenn was that the guard was being a little bit overzealous, which caused civilian casualties that no one was happy about. Between that and the looting that followed some of these attacks, the city wasn’t a great place to be. Perhaps if the tattoo Amaryllis wore wasn’t single use, she would have pulled it out and we would have made our preparations elsewhere, but I almost got the feeling that the instability was to our benefit.

We filled our packs with food and water for the trip. Fenn bought (or perhaps stole) a sword for me, along with a void rifle I discovered to my surprise was the same one I’d left outside the wall a week ago; she had recovered it for me. Fenn filled her quiver with arrows and acquired a new dagger to sit on her hip, replacing the one she’d stabbed Leonold with. I wasn’t sure how much of what we had was stolen by Fenn and how much had been legitimately bought, but it didn’t really seem to matter. On the night before we left, she came into our room and unloaded a sack full of bones for me to pull from, and I was certain that she hadn’t come by them honestly.

And then, just like that, we climbed over the wall and set out for Caer Laga.

Chapter Text

We traveled across the desert together, trudging through the sand in our white robes, moving single file to hide our numbers so that one person could play trailblazer, a duty we rotated. It had been explained to me that magic in the general sense could be divided up into three categories: latent, passive, and active. Thaum-seekers (or thaum-suckers, depending on which of my party members I asked) could sense out and hunt down both passive and active magic at incredible range, but latent magic was mostly safe from them unless they were right on top of us.

Fenn’s bow was latent magic, unless she used its special ability, in which case the thaum-seekers would probably see it like a lighthouse on the horizon. Similarly, Amaryllis wore a magical tattoo on her arm concealing the teleportation key, which would remain as latent magic until she pulled it off and took the teleportation key out. And void crystals were “mundane” though every bone in my body was telling me that they were basically witchcraft.

That left me and the not-inconsiderable magical power that I was carrying around. I had a pack of bones, but was not to use them unless we got into combat. I had the blood flowing through my veins, but wasn’t supposed to even think about tapping into it unless it was a very serious emergency. Skin magic I couldn’t really use, because we hadn’t had any money left over for tattoos. That left all of the weird game character stuff that was unique to me, which we weren’t sure would count as magic at all. It was something we’d want to learn sooner rather than later, because if the thaum-seekers were drawn to me then we’d want to know before we were too far away from the safety of Barren Jewel, when we could still bail out on our trip to Caer Laga.

“It’s confusing to me that you even make a distinction between magic and not magic,” I said as we ate our first meal of the trip, something called portable soup, which reminded me a lot of ramen, minus the noodles. “On Earth we say magic when we mean something mysterious or supernatural, but blood magic seems like it’s got a major university dedicated to its study.”

“Never call an athenaeum a university,” said Amaryllis.

“Rule number 137 for surviving life on Aerb,” said Fenn. She wasn’t actually keeping track of the rules Amaryllis was giving to me, but the numbers did go up each time, and I had a sense that she would be surreptitiously thinking up clever ways to stretch the joke in the future.

“Okay,” I said. “But it seems to me like so-called ‘magic’ has been studied until it’s lost any sense of the supernatural and all mystery has been drained from it. I mean, there’s some wonder left in it for me, because the athenaeums are closed to me and for now it’s not safe for me to have even a disreputable teacher, but that’s not the case for the population at large. There are corner stores that will etch you with ‘magical’ tattoos.”

“What word would you have us use?” asked Amaryllis.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s just something I was thinking about.”

Fenn sat down and began slurping from her own bowl of soup, which she’d been letting steep. “Well I personally was thinking about the thaum-suckers racing across the desert to claw our eyes out,” said Fenn. “I think we’re clean though, and we should be well beyond the range of Alvion’s Word, so we can keep moving as soon as we’ve finished.”

So we walked through the desert, packs on our backs slowly lightening as we ate and drank our way through our reserves. Every time I drank water, I was glad that I was one pee stop closer to carrying less around. While we were back in our hotel, I had this great idea for adapting the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation to desert travel; it takes a certain amount of water to travel a certain distance, but carrying that water means you travel slower and use more water, so you need more water to get further, and that has to be added into your calculations. Eventually, you run into the tyranny of the desert equation. (I didn’t actually remember the rocket equation, so might be badly mangling that; I was a hard fantasy geek, not a space geek.) We were only going about fifty miles, plus some leeway, broken down into about five days of going ten miles across the sand dunes and past rocky outcroppings, one gallon a day, with a gallon weighing eight pounds, meant forty pounds of weight in water alone, plus a sword, plus a rifle, plus food, plus clothing, plus bones.

“I should have built a wind sail,” Amaryllis grumbled at the end of our first day.

“Oh?” asked Fenn. “I’m pretty sure that would have the same problem as my idea of taking some voetsa out to ride on, which is that we’d need to get them over the walls. Also, I'm not sure what winds you'd be planning to harness, because this air is practically unmoving.”

“Still,” said Amaryllis.

“On the bright side, we still haven’t seen any of the thaum-seekers, right?” I asked. “If we can make it to Caer Laga without running into one or having an incident, then we’re basically home free, right?”

“I don’t think we’re that lucky,” said Fenn. “But … maybe we could be?”

I had two ability points floating, yet to be spent on anything. As soon as Fenn knew that LUK was a thing, she’d wanted me to dump those points into it. Amaryllis thought that I should choose a primary and secondary attribute, whichever ones were tied to the most valuable skill, and ditch the bonus from putting the points into the three general abilities. I didn’t quite welcome the advice from either of them. I was still holding onto those two points, partly because I was suffering from decision paralysis and partly because I was hoping that the game would reveal some One True Path to me. There were still skills that I hadn’t uncovered yet; I didn’t want to commit only to find out that I’d given up on something amazing.

I let Fenn’s comment pass by without responding to it, and we slept in the surprisingly cold desert. I wasn’t surprised that the desert would be cold at night, since there wasn’t any foliage or moist air to keep the heat in, and anyway I knew that deserts tended to be cold at night. Still, even knowing all that and taking it into account, I was surprised by the cold.

Walk, walk, stop, eat, drink, walk, walk, rest. Fenn started the trip with a large volume of chatter, but by the middle of the second day she was mostly silent, focusing her efforts on putting one foot in front of the other. Amaryllis was much better at pacing herself.

And for me? I didn’t find it easy, but one of the neat things about my peculiar power was that training Athletics to 15 by lifting makeshift weights in our hotel room for hours on end made me well-suited for a trek across the desert, even though I was pretty damned sure that the muscle groups weren’t related. I almost offered to take some water or equipment from one of the girls, but decided against it because the last thing I wanted was to misjudge my abilities and fall down like an idiot three days in after being too chivalrous.

We walked during the day and slept during the night. There were arguments for doing it the other way around, but the temperature didn’t climb terribly high during the day, and visibility was low during the night. Our biggest concern was the thaum-seekers, not the heat or a lack of water, and on balance we’d decided that it was better to stay in one spot at night with someone keeping watch than to bumble around in the dark making noise. The thaum-seekers would pour on speed to get at active magic, and would track passive magic from miles away, but I was assured that if they came across latent magic they wouldn’t hesitate to go for the kill. In this world that meant anyone with skin, bones, or blood, and we happened to have all three.

Contrary to what Amaryllis had said, I didn’t have attention problems, but I hated keeping watch with a burning passion. Back on Earth I had been something of a daydreamer, and years of schooling had made me very adept at zoning out and thinking about other things. Trying to keep aware and alert was hard enough, but the real kicker was that my thoughts kept turning toward things that I didn’t want to think about when I was left alone with myself, same as they had for the last nine months on Earth.

Tiff’s room was on the second floor of her house, with a window that overlooked the roof of their back porch. The first time I’d come over to her place she’d popped out the screen and led me onto the roof to look at the stars with her.

(Tiff always felt like she had moved to town around the middle of high school, but that wasn’t actually true. She’d grown up in Bumblefuck, Kansas, same as the rest of us, it was just that she lived out in the country and she had mostly kept to herself, cloistered within her own group of friends. That group of girls had collapsed at some point freshman year, first with Laurel, a keystone member, moving away, and then with two of the girls dating boys a few grades ahead of us. Tiff was adrift for a few months, until she fell in with us. Her alternate trajectory into our D&D group always left me feeling like she hadn’t actually been in Bumblefuck until sometime before that first session with us. Whenever I was reminded that she had been there all along, it felt like a sloppy retcon, because how could I have not been aware of her?)

We sat on the roof of her porch, where she’d laid out a blanket for us. I was on my back, looking at the stars, trying to remember some of the constellations we’d made up together but not able to focus. She was curled up beside me in one of her father’s sweaters, three sizes too big for her so it covered her hands in the cold night. Her head laid on my chest, rising and falling with my breathing. She’d been crying earlier, but had mostly stopped, her shaky breath returning to normal. It was a month after Arthur had died.

“I’m worried about you,” she said in a small voice.

“Oh?” I asked.

She lifted up a hand that had been wrapped around me and poked me in the chest. “You’re hurting.”

I did as much of a shrug as I could without dislodging her. “He was my best friend,” I said. “It’s supposed to hurt. I’d have to be pretty fucking sociopathic to feel nothing.”

“I worry that you,” she stopped and bit her lip, “I worry there’s a part of you that’s sinking into it. It’s … well, my uncle, he has a CCW license, and the way he talks about maybe having to use it one day it’s like you know that he’s just high on this fantasy of getting to shoot someone to death.”

“You think I wanted Arthur to,” die, but I couldn’t get the word out. The words were coming out monotone anyway, devoid of the anger that I should have been putting behind them.

“No,” said Tiff. “No, no no no, it’s, the thing I’m trying to say is that it’s like you’re waiting to show people how much you’re hurt. And I get that. I want to scream at them too, to ask how they can just keep carrying on when he’s,” dead, she couldn’t say it either, “gone. And I know that I was this, interloper, I wasn’t his best friend, I know it’s harder for you.” She was quiet for a while as she blinked back a fresh round of tears. “I’m worried that you’re hurting, and there’s something alluring about the pain, because it’s a righteous, meaningful pain. I,” another sigh and a deep, steadying breath, “don’t want you to keep going down this dark path.”

“You think you understand me better than you do,” I told her.

She was silent for a long moment. “Maybe,” she said softly. “I’m trying though. I know there’s this void that can’t be filled. I know that. It’s the same for me --”

“It’s not the same,” I said, almost by reflex.

She was quiet again, until she started crying, but it was quiet, soft crying, not wracking sobs this time. I looked up at the stars, but couldn’t see them because I was blinking back tears. I didn’t mean to make her feel bad. I couldn’t hold back though, I couldn’t tell her the lies that she wanted to hear. She wanted me to say that I missed Arthur, but at least we could still take comfort in each other. I couldn’t say it though, because at the time I didn’t think it was true.

Tiff missed the next D&D session because of a doctor’s appointment, then the one after that because of a family thing, and then she stopped giving excuses and just didn’t show up, which was probably for the best given how those sessions went.

So my cold nights in the desert were pretty miserable, because they were doing a great job of calling up all these unpleasant memories. Maybe it was the isolation, the desolation, or the cold, or maybe it was Celestar hanging in the multi-colored sky and reminding me that sometimes things got ruined and could never be fixed.

Days were better, partly because I had company and partly because walking got me into a sort of zen state where time passed quickly. We navigated by the sun, or rather, Fenn did, and it was Amaryllis who did most of our pace-setting. That left me content to stare off into the distance, white robe shielding my eyes, looking at nothing.

We spotted Caer Laga on day four. The desert wasn’t totally featureless, it just didn’t have any plants, water, soil, or buildings to speak of. That left sand and rocks. It was atop one of these rocky bits that Caer Laga had been built, with the base of it starting some hundred feet up and no clear path up the cliff face. It was a rounded fortress with no battlements or crenellations and a circular sloped roof covering the entire thing. There were windows, but they were small and defensible. We were still a day away from it, but at least our objective was in sight.

Amaryllis suffered a fall not long after that. We were walking along a rocky ridge that one of the dunes was butted up against, hoping to spare ourselves an arduous climb up a second dune or having to take a longer path. One moment I was in my partial daze, the next I was watching her roll down the dune.

“Fuck,” muttered Fenn, who followed her down, skidding along the sand. I squared my pack and did the same, trying desperately to keep my balance.

“Are you okay?” I asked as soon as Amaryllis came to a stop. She was pinned down by her pack, clearly breathing but not moving.

“Ankle,” she said. “Hurts.”

“Well, that’s not how I thought this particular adventure would end,” said Fenn. “I thought it would be more of a claws and teeth type of thing.”

“Help me up,” said Amaryllis. We did, with me doing most of the work, first pulling her pack off her and then moving her so that she was laying with her back against the sloped sand. “I’m not sure this is it for us.”

“Like hell,” said Fenn. “We can’t risk having Joon heal you and it’s another eight miles to Caer Laga, which seems like it’s going to involve quite the climb.”

“Six miles,” said Amaryllis. “We have options. We can outrun the thaum-seekers. Or we can fight some and outrun others. We’re close.”

“Or,” said Fenn. “You can pull the key from your arm, we can go back to the Barren Jewel, and we can be luxuriating in creature comforts within the hour, then back here as soon as the two hour timer is up.”

“Where the thaum-seekers will surely be waiting for us,” said Amaryllis. None of this conversation was all that new to us, since we’d gone over exit strategies before stepping foot into the desert. We still had the room rented in Barren Jewel, with a section carefully marked out on the floor where we would teleport in and explicit instructions that nothing was to be disturbed.

“Can you walk?” I asked.

Amaryllis temporarily put some weight on her foot and then abruptly fell back down with a sharp gasp of pain. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Okay,” I said. “My vote is for dragging Mary to the cliff and healing her there, then climbing up out of the range of the thaum-seekers before they reach us.”

“How long will it take you to heal her?” asked Fenn. “Your hand took eight hours. We’re not going to have that kind of time.”

“I wasn’t as good then, and I had worse bones,” I replied. “It won’t be eight hours. That said … I don’t know. I’m still pretty new at bone magic.” And the game was still being stingy with giving me raw numbers. “I still think moving to the cliff is the right idea. We’re through most of our food and water already, I can transfer everything in Mary’s pack to mine, and we can fashion hers into a sled to pull her there.”

Fenn clacked her teeth. “We planned for five days, we were making fine time, now we’re going to be slowed down some, but … if we didn’t have our get-out-of-jail-free card, or if I were expected to do extra work, I would probably object more strenuously. Fine. Let’s do it.”

The whole thing was a little easier said than done, partly because Amaryllis was clearly in pain and I didn’t want to jostle her, and partly because she kept wanting to help, especially with the sled that we were making. It was clear that one of Amaryllis’ specialties was engineering, but having her direct me was a bit maddening.

Skill unlocked: Engineering!

That took some edge off the irritation though.

Five hours later, we saw our first thaum-seeker. It was sitting at the top of a hill, peering off into the distance, but not in our direction. From a distance I could only barely make out its red dog-like form. I had been given a description though, of terrible claws, teeth that extended well beyond its lips, and wide nostrils that dominated its face. I thought maybe I could see its teeth, but not much else.

“Frick,” said Fenn.

We moved down a slope and out of its line of sight, then stuck to the valleys after that. With the heavy packs and careful navigation we had to do, as well as the effort expended in taking circuitous routes or going up and down dunes, we’d been making about a mile an hour through most of the trip. With me pulling Amaryllis, it was going a lot slower. I was worn out from four days of travel, and I was also pulling a hundred and twenty pounds of princess, plus everything that had remained in her pack. By the end of the day, she was muttering a swear with every bump and shift in weight, and we were still about two miles away.

“What do you want to do?” I asked when we stopped for a break. I made a bowl of portable soup for her with a side of pemmican. Her face was sweaty. The ankle was badly swollen, and I noticed with distress that her right hand had gotten a lot worse since we’d been to the bone magus. The nails were thicker than they had been, almost completely yellow, and cracked down the middle, where they wept a clear fluid. That I hadn’t seen them before said to me that she’d been hiding them from us.

“Continue on,” said Amaryllis. “We’re not far.”

Fenn looked at me with a raised eyebrow. I saw her mouth the words ‘voting bloc’. This was really not the time for us to have a discussion about where loyalties lay, nor for me to be swayed by the desire to get in anyone’s good graces. I surreptitiously flipped her a middle finger, which she smiled at.

“We have an unanticipated climb ahead of us,” I said. “I know we brought pitons and rope, and I know that you’re a fantastic climber, but I worry that I’ll be suffering from exhaustion by the time we get there. Even if I can heal you, it’s too dicey, and we’d be trying to make the climb at night. I think we should teleport out. We can recuperate in Barren Jewel, and if they’re attracted to the scent of the teleport, we can wait them out a bit, then come back in and fight them off while making our way to Caer Laga.”

Amaryllis sighed. “Fine.” She reached over and touched her tattoo. “Fenn, I don’t suppose you’ve changed your mind?”

“As amusing as it might be to leave Joon twisting in the wind on this one, no, I haven’t,” replied Fenn. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Amaryllis reached for the edge of the tattoo with her cracked yellow nails, digging in slightly, wincing in pain, and pulling at the skin. I expected the tattoo to animate or move, with something similar to what I’d seen happen when Leonold pull rope from his arm. Instead, we just sat there while Amaryllis narrowed her eyebrows and tried to dig her broken nails into the tattoo to no effect.

“It’s not working,” she finally said.

“Well are you doing it right?” asked Fenn.

“This isn’t my first time using a tattoo,” said Amaryllis with a frosty voice. “It’s the tattoo that’s not working.”

“Because of the rat rot?” I asked.

Amaryllis curled her hand into a fist, hiding the nails. “I don’t think so,” she said. Nevertheless, she tried to awkwardly curl her left hand in and touch her tattoo with her healthy fingers. Still nothing happened.

“If you’re fucking this up on purpose,” Fenn began.

“I’m not,” said Amaryllis. Her face was flushed. “What would the endgame be? I could pretend the tattoo wasn’t working now in order to get my way, if I was the petulant child you think I am, but what would I do when we’d gotten to the cliffs, or once we were inside Caer Laga? If I were a sociopath you should trust that I’d be the kind that looks to the future and doesn’t get caught in obvious lies. It’s not working.”

“So,” I said carefully. “That would seem to be a problem, since we’re forty-some miles from Barren Jewel and have, conservatively, a day’s worth of food and water left.”

Quest Accepted: Exit Strategy - You are stranded in the desert with limited food and water, no access to magic unless you want to risk being gutted by feral thaum-seekers, and a wounded party member. Hope you prepared carefully!

“Um,” I said. “I just got a quest. The gist of it is that things aren’t looking great. Quest completion is probably getting out of the desert. It said … it said that it hopes I prepared carefully.”

“We did prepare carefully,” replied Amaryllis. “We should get going.”

“Shit,” said Fenn. “To Caer Laga? You said yourself that there’d be no reason to suspect that you’d be able to extract the key there if you can’t pull it here. From everything you’ve said, this place was shut down and left waiting more than a hundred years ago, which means there’s not going to be any food or water there either. Even if we heal you, scale the cliff, and get inside, what does that get us?”

“Heirlooms,” said Amaryllis.

“Wait,” said Fenn, squinting slightly. “The armor, a sword for you, a sword for Joon, the box, the gloves for me, the amulet, the jar for us, … you said the jar had healing properties?”

Amaryllis nodded. “If I’m right, and it’s there, and I can bind to it, then yes.”

“And you think that this healing will prevent us from starving?” I asked.

Amaryllis frowned. “I don’t know. But … I think it doesn’t matter. Our options at the moment are to try returning to Barren Jewel on quarter rations of food and water, or forging on ahead and hoping that we can find some salvation. On balance, forging ahead gives better odds.”

Maybe I should backtrack a little bit here and give you some history, which might help to clear up some mysteries. (If you’re one of those “blah, blah, blah, history” people, I’ll meet you at the next linebreak.)

Mystery #1: How is Amaryllis the most direct descendant of Uther Penndraig, if she’s about as old as a senior in high school and there are thousands of Penndraig princes and princesses? Well, you probably figured this one out for yourself; generations don’t always progress at the same rates. It had been roughly five hundred years since Uther Penndraig had left his two fully grown sons to go off on some presumably ill-fated quest, leaving behind what I’d slowly come to understand was an incredibly vast armory of magic. Amaryllis was ten generations removed from him, which came out to be something like fifty years per generation.

From that you can probably guess what her family line looks like; it was mostly men carrying the name and they were both long-lived by human standards and having children really, really late in life. This wasn’t just happenstance, not after the fourth generation, it was a specific reproductive strategy aimed at creating a solid family line that could take advantage of specific family heirlooms once held by Uther Penndraig. As previously stated, magical heirlooms followed succession rules, but these differed from heirloom to heirloom.

Amaryllis’ line was favored by any succession rule that favored brothers or sisters over sons or daughers, and by any succession rule that favored older generations over newer ones, and any succession rule that split things equally among a generation. That meant a lot of magical power resting in the hands of a single young person.

“But what of her mother and father?”, you might ask. Well, her father had been eighty-two when she was born, and died when she was four years old. Her mother became a power in her own right, because some heirloom successions favored husbands and wives over children, but she died (in what was likely an assassination) when Amaryllis was ten years old. Most of this I learned from Fenn, who had done a fair amount of asking around because she was an intolerable snoop.

Anyway that brings us to ...

Mystery #2: Why couldn’t we just teleport into the fortress, get the items, and then get out? That had been my first question, since not being able to do that seemed like dumb videogame logic to me. The answer was that the teleportation key only allowed you to go to one of the touchstones (which I thought of as magic homing beacons) or to a place that you’d already been, and Amaryllis had never been to Caer Laga. Her father and/or mother probably would have taken her to get it in her memory, but they’d both died when she was young.

But that raised another question, which was ...

Mystery #3: Assuming that Caer Laga was gracefully shuttered in full working order, why were there any magic items left behind? And the answer to this one turned out to go fairly deep. See, Caer Laga was in the middle of construction right when the blight began spreading over what later became the Datura Desert. They had time to finish the fortification and lay some powerful warding magic into the stones of the place. A redoubt in the middle of a wasteland where there are no resources to extract or choke points to defend might seem like a pretty crappy and pointless thing to build, until you remember that in the Lost King’s Court, assassination wasn’t exactly out of place. A redoubt in the middle of an exclusion zone is actually a really great place to lie low if you’re under attack, doubly so because if you’ve been there you can teleport in with a teleportation key, and if you haven’t been there you’re stuck -- well, basically doing what we were doing, but probably with better resources and a bigger team.

And naturally if you have a ton of magic items and most of them only work on you or your closest allies, you’d keep some back at your super secret fortress that you have set aside for when things go to shit. The exact details of these magic items hadn’t been written down, probably for reasons of operational security, with the thought that these details would be told to Amaryllis in person. They weren’t, because Amaryllis’ life had apparently been written by Lemony Snicket.

(The small part of me that had initially scoffed at the adventure as being plainly a stereotypical adventure was mostly placated by all this, but I was still trying to find some cracks in the world, some place where the myriad rules and facts didn’t quite line up with what I observed.)

We forged on ahead, even as darkness fell over the desert. I dragged Amaryllis, trying to keep her steady but sometimes failing to a grunt or gasp of pain. Fenn went a little bit ahead, making sure that the way we were going was clear. By the time we reached the cliff another three hours later, I was exhausted and aching. It would have been a great time to suck the power from a bone to reinvigorate myself, and an even better time to level up.

“So,” said Fenn. “Thaum-suckers don’t have shit on us.”

“We should plan out a route up the cliff face,” said Amaryllis. “It doesn’t look too difficult to me. Joon, if you could get out the void rifle and start firing up the cliff to get us some handholds and places to put pitons, that would probably be a good use of downtime.” She had made a few modifications before we'd left that 'theoretically' reduced the chance of malfunction.

I sat up from the ground where I had sprawled out and grabbed the rifle and began firing it fairly randomly in a line up the cliff. Thunk, thunk, thunk. I took sips of water in between, trying to pace myself on what remained of our supply. The rocks went a hundred feet up before they reached the bottom of Caer Laga’s wall, the equivalent of ten stories, and I wasn’t at all looking forward to the climb.

“He’s been carrying you across the desert for the better part of a day,” said Fenn. “We should rest here for the night and climb in the morning.”

“You’re not worried about the thaum-seekers?” asked Amaryllis.

“Of course I am,” said Fenn. “But I’m more worried about what’s going to happen if one of us falls to the desert floor after we’ve alerted them to our presence. I believe the human phrase is ‘certain death’, and we’re in a place where no one is going to collect and extinguish your soul. Petition to rest until first light, your highness.”

“Fine,” said Amaryllis, looking down at her ankle. “First light. I don’t think I’ll be sleeping much tonight, so I’ll take the first shift.”

I took that opportunity to lay back down in the sand and stuff my face full of pemmican, which was starting to grow on me. I fell asleep with my mouth full of protein and fats.

Somewhat predictably, I was woken up by yelling.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t first light, but twilight had come over the Datura Desert, enough to banish the multi-colored stars from the sky. It wouldn’t be long before the sun (somehow) rose over the infinite plane of tessellating Aerbs (no seriously how) and splayed light on us once more.

I was a bit more concerned with the yelling, which was coming from Fenn, and once I saw it, the totality of my attention was turned toward the beast that was leaping over the dunes on a path straight toward us. One fun fact about the thaum-seekers that I don’t think I’ve shared yet is that they’re really, really fucking fast. They have crap acceleration, but given enough time to get moving, their powerful muscles allow them to chase down pretty much any form of transportation that’s not teleportation. This particular thaum-seeker had apparently seen us, and it was coming right for us.

I heard the thunk of the void rifle, and looked over at Amaryllis, who had positioned a pack behind her to give her something to lean against. She was peering down the barrel of her handmade weapon with a calm chill. Fenn was the one who had been yelling at me to wake up, and she was standing there with her bow drawn and arrow nocked. As I watched she loosed an arrow, which flew through the air and struck the thaum-seeker to no obvious effect.

I scrambled to my feet and picked my sword up off the ground. I was still waking up, but it still struck me that against a beast like a thaum-seeker, a sword was really not the weapon that I wanted to be using.

“No magic,” said Fenn as she drew and fired another arrow in the creature’s direction.

I had just enough time to remember a nighttime story that my father had read to me, which had always scared the crap out of me even though it was supposed to be cute fun. It has terrible tusks and terrible claws and terrible teeth in its terrible jaws.

And then it was on us, swiping wildly as it went over our heads and slammed into the cliff above us. I don’t know why I had expected it to turn on a dime when it took it so long to pick up speed, but I heard a crunch of bone as it hit the rock and it tumbled down to the ground where it sprang to its feet, swiping claws through the air. I raised my sword, which was knocked from my hand in a spray of blood which came mostly from its razor-sharp claws cutting off two of my fingers at the second knuckle. I screamed in pain.

Critical failure!

“Duck!” Fenn called from some distance away, and I flattened myself to the ground without needing another word from her. A second later, a now-familiar volley of arrows flew over my head and drove straight into the thaum-seeker, killing it instantly.

Thaum-seeker defeated!

“Okay, so I shot my wad a little bit there,” said Fenn. “But it looked like --”

“We need to move,” said Amaryllis. “Now. Joon, heal me?”

I went over to her, trying not to stare in shock at my missing fingers, and began picking up the bones beside her. I was bleeding, less badly than I would have thought, which was probably because the thaum-seeker hadn’t made that clean of a cut. I placed my bloody, disfigured hand on her ankle and used my other hand to touch the bones. I pulled as hard on the power in the bone as I could, targeting the particular aspect of endurance I knew was inside it, then picked up another one and repeated the process when the first crumbled to ash.

Fenn had already started up the cliffside. There had been ample handholds before, and it hadn’t been a true vertical, but I must not have woken to the thunk of the void rifle, because there were clearly irregular holes drilled into the cliff at awkward intervals where no other grips were available, at least for the first fifty feet. Fenn was taking advantage of those and moving quickly, not stopping to steady herself or look very carefully at where she was going. For a moment I thought she was leaving us to our fates, but when she was thirty feet up she found a small ledge to stand on and drew her bow again.

“It’s a nice day for a climb,” Fenn called down to us. “When you’re ready, that is. Two shots left, by the by.” I burned through another of the bones and prodded Amaryllis’ leg; she winced and shook her head. “I’d say take your time,” Fenn continued. “But we have company approaching from all sides, six -- nope, seven -- in total. My guess is more to join the party shortly.”

It took another two thick bones of healing for Amaryllis to rise to her feet and begin the climb, her void rifle strapped to her back and everything else left on the ground below. I followed after, trying my best to climb with one good hand, worried that if I used both I would get the handholds all slippery. I was moving slowly, slower than Amaryllis, who climbed like vertical movement was as natural as walking, as though she’d never been hurt at all. Fenn was still on her ledge, now with an arrow nocked, and she kept glancing to the two of us and muttering under her breath. I’d left my sword behind, having lugged it across the desert and only used it long enough to have two of my fingers removed.

“Take the next shot you get,” I told Fenn.

At this point I was praying that the thaum-seekers would prove to be terrible climbers, but that was a flight of fancy. What I was hoping for was a level up. I considered myself overdue for one, seeing as the last one I’d gotten had been from Fenn killing Leonold, back in Silmar City, and I’d both finished a quest and killed two people since then, plus those that Fenn had taken down. I’d thought that the thaum-seeker would be it for certain, but nothing had happened, and I wasn’t entirely sure that a level up would regrow my lost fingers, but I was really hoping it would.

Fenn loosed another of her artillery shots, aiming far away from me. I heard the whistle of them moving through the air as they multiplied through their flight, then arrows driving into flesh and striking sand. I didn’t stop to look down and see the results, because I got a helpful message from the game.

Thaum-seeker defeated!

Thaum-seeker defeated!

And yet still no level up. Fenn only a had a single artillery shot left and she needed to be a good distance away to actually use it, but I was focusing too hard on climbing to think about how fucked we were. Just after I blinked the messages away, I heard a number of dull thuds in a row as thaum-seekers slammed into the rocks. Alright, so they’re suicidally inclined toward killing us, good to know. And then I did take a moment to look down, and saw them climbing up after me, not terribly graceful, and not able to use the handholds as effectively as I was, but still moving faster than I was.

“Sorry Joon,” shouted Fenn as she threw her bow over her shoulder and began climbing again. That was fine, her normal arrows were plainly ineffective and her artillery shot wasn’t any good up close, so if she’d stayed on the ledge it would really be more about moral support than actually helping me.

I got a little more reckless with my climbing, grabbing onto handholds and moving forward without testing my weight or practicing the motion of switching from one handhold to another. To be honest, I probably would have dumped stat points into PHY as an emergency measure if I thought that I could have spared the time to do it.

I heard more thudding, crunching sounds from down below, and I felt each of them through the rock I was desperately gripping onto. Fenn had quoted seven, but they hadn’t stopped at seven, they seemed to just be pouring more and more on. I glanced up higher than the next handhold for the first time in a long time and saw Amaryllis looking out over the ledge right next to the tall walls of Caer Laga itself, with Fenn another twenty feet below her. She hadn’t said where exactly the wards were, but I was hoping it was there, because my pain in my hand was starting to overwhelm the adrenaline.

I was forty feet from the top when something hit my left foot hard enough that I was almost pulled from the rocks by the force. I screamed in pain when I realized that razor-sharp claws had cut through both my shoe and foot. I looked down and saw the thaum-seeker lifting itself up and drawing back for another strike. My foot was dripping blood down into his face. I moved just in time to avoid his swipe, but if we kept doing this I was going to be stopped in place, and there were others climbing up around him.

Alright, time to get stupid.

My heart was hammering away in my chest, fueled by its need to offset the blood I was losing and whatever mixture of neurotransmitters my brain had determined were acceptable to deploy when faced with near-certain death (i.e. all the good stuff). It didn’t take me long to find the movement of my pulse, and I braced myself against my foothold and handholds just in time to catch the beat of my heart. The power of blood magic launched me twenty feet into the air along the surface of the cliff.

I was mostly saved by the fact that the cliff wasn’t at a true vertical, but it was a close thing, because my injured hand slipped from a handhold and my injured foot spasmed again the rock, leaving me momentarily stopped from tumbling back down by only a single hand. It took me time to find my footing again and steady myself, time that the thaum-seekers spent clattering their way up the cliff. I could barely hear them over the sound of my ragged breaths. That left me another twenty feet from Fenn and Amaryllis, both standing beside Caer Laga, so I steadied myself and used the power of my blood to do another supernatural leap.

Fenn and Amaryllis were waiting for me, both laying down on the flat ground with their hands stretched out. Fenn grabbed my right hand and Amaryllis grabbed my left, but my right was covered in blood down to the elbow from where my missing fingers had been bleeding, and I quickly slipped from her grasp, off to the side, which started pulling Amaryllis. I landed one foot on an awkward piece of rock jutting from the cliff and managed to stop myself from falling. Amaryllis was halfway off the cliff, still holding onto me but not secure herself.

“Coming up,” I said, before pushing off from the foothold with another surge of blood magic and landing in a heap with both of them on the slender piece of flat ground. I scrambled to my feet and looked down at the approaching thaum-seekers. We had barely seen them on our way to Caer Laga, but at the first use of magic they must have come in from all over the desert. There were dozens, maybe hundreds, with more of them racing in. This high up we could see all the way to Barren Jewel, which was little more than a smudge on the flat desert.

I finally had a chance to check my vital stats and saw that I was at 15/27 health and 69K/75K blood, better than I thought I had a right to. Behind us was a wall too flat to climb, with windows too high to reach, and there was no path we could take. The thaum-seekers were closing in fast. “We have to get behind the wards!” I shouted.

“We are,” Amaryllis replied.

I watched as one of the great red beasts slipped a claw up above the ledge and my mouth opened in shock as that claw was vaporized. The thaum-seeker lunged up regardless, and I witnessed it being peeled back like someone was doing a destructive scan, revealing strange bits of bone and flesh that took away first its hands, then face, then head. The legs and lower half of the torso fell down, having not quite risen to our level.

Thaum-seeker defeated!

I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.

The rest of the thaum-seekers stopped where they were on the cliff face, and the ones on the desert a hundred feet below us came to a halt, save for those that were still barrelling across the sands to us, but even those slowed down, digging their claws into the sand to gain traction or tumbling across the dunes to kill their momentum. They didn’t retreat; they simply stared up at us.

“Well that’s frickin’ creepy,” said Fenn. “We’re confident in this ward business?”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “Mostly. Caer Laga has been standing abandoned for generations. The wards weren’t supposed to degrade with time.” It felt like there was more to that thought, but she didn’t say the rest of what she was thinking.

“Then let’s get our butts in gear,” said Fenn. She looked up at Caer Laga. “That is quite the wall to scale. And not much in the way of windows.” She pointed at the narrow windows. “I suppose it wasn’t enough that this place was built in the middle of an exclusion zone, a hundred feet up, but the windows had to be arrow slits too, just in case some silly fuck decided to … god, I don’t even know what your ancestors were thinking.”

“They’re not that narrow,” said Amaryllis. “I think we can slip through, if I can get up there.” She unslung her rifle and began firing at the wall, carefully making handholds. I wondered how confident she was in whatever changes she’d made to the void rifle. I wasn’t sure what catastrophic failure would look like, but wasn’t eager to find out.

“You okay Joon?” asked Fenn as we heard the thunk of the rifle, over and over. Her attention was directed down at the unmoving thaum-seekers that peppered the rocks. “You should really learn to climb better.”

“I should learn to use a sword better,” I replied. I looked down at my hand, which was still trickling blood. I was missing the pinky and ring finger of my right hand, which was shaking badly. It began to hurt more as I came down off the high of fearing for my life. “Fuck.”

“You’ll live,” said Fenn. “I thought you were supposed to do some magic healing thing soon.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m … not entirely sure what happened.” I sat down with my back against the warm wall of Caer Laga. Blood loss was going to become a problem again, I could tell that, and if I was going to get dizzy I wanted it to be as far from the cliff as possible. “I’m hoping that it wasn’t just because it’s been you doing most of the work.”

“Well, if the game is going to punish you for being smart about things, then it sounds like a shit game to me,” said Fenn.

“Sure,” I said. “But if you were making a game where people can get more powerful by killing goblins, then --”

“Don’t speak of goblins like that,” said Amaryllis.

“Oh,” I said. Note: ask about goblins later. Were they the bookish variants? Or was this just some fantasy political correctness thing? “Well, imagine that you made a game where someone was supposed to kill the undead, but instead of using a rifle and sneaking around, they built a giant trap and lured all the undead into it. You’d want to say ‘nu-uh, that doesn’t count’.”

“Why?” asked Fenn. “Is this a human thing? You set up an objective, but you need to have that objective accomplished in some circuitous way, and then you slap people on the wrist when they figure out a clever trick?”

“Unspoken rules,” said Amaryllis. Thunk. “We had to remove a general for violating them during war games.” Thunk.

“Anyway,” I said. “If it were me, I’d put an xp penalty on things that you killed with the power of that bow. That hasn’t been a bad heuristic so far, so … I’m not asking you to stop, but if that’s how we resolve encounters, I’m not sure that I’ll get that much out of them.”

“Feh,” said Fenn. “Well, the ugly beasties are still staring at us. I was hoping they’d give up.”

“Holds are done,” said Amaryllis. “They’re awkwardly angled. I’ll go up first, alone for now.”

“We’ll be safe here?” asked Fenn. “That ward won’t activate on us if you’re too far away?”

Amaryllis hesitated for a brief moment. “You should be fine. Besides, there are several wards here, I can feel their bindings when I pass through them. That one, the one that the thaum-seekers were hitting, I think it was only for them, projected away from the physical structure for added protection. There are different ones for people, which shouldn't start until we're past the walls. My will should allow you past those. Like I said, you'll be fine.”

Fenn sighed and sat down next to me. “Let us know when we should follow.” She rested her head and closed her eyes.

I watched Amaryllis climb. I had known that she was well-muscled (a flash of her at the bathhouse went through my mind, that one specific image trapped like amber of her putting her hair up and looking back at me), but watching her climb was awe-inspiring. She used not just the dime-sized holes she’d drilled into the wall, but small imperfections in the stone exterior, sometimes seeming to stand on a perfectly flat surface. At other times she pulled herself up with her upper body alone, all of her weight put onto a few fingers. Through all this, she was still carrying the void rifle across her back. Climbing was apparently just one of the things that she was really, ridiculously good at.

She came to the lowest of the windows and with a careful series of motions, took the void rifle from her back using a single hand, placed the muzzle against a specific portion of the window, then using the same hand got her fingers in position to squeeze the trigger handle. Thunk. If I had been asked to do that at ground level after having ten minutes to practice, I was fairly sure that I would have failed nine times out of ten. Both my companions are higher level than me.

After Amaryllis slipped inside, Fenn spoke up.

“So,” she said. “What are the odds that she abandons us?”

“One percent,” I said.

“Alright,” Fenn replied. “I will take those odds.”

“I don’t have any money,” I replied. “I actually don’t have anything but the clothes on my back, and I’m down half a shoe.” I looked at my foot, where the heel was bleeding. “So I’m not sure what we’re betting.”

“An unspecified favor,” said Fenn. “If she doesn’t come back, you owe me a hundred favors. If she does come back, I owe you a favor. You said hundred to one, right?”

“Seems like you’re just giving me a favor,” I replied. “If she was only pretending her tattoo had failed, and really intends for us to die here, there’s no way for you to collect, is that?”

“Who knows,” said Fenn. “We might end up in the same hell. There’s no death clause on this bet, Joon. If we starve to death out here, or if the ludicrous wards up and kill us, then I’m a-coming for you to make you pay up.”

After twenty minutes had passed, I was getting a little bit nervous, not just that Amaryllis might have left us, but that something might have happened to her inside. It was dead quiet. The thaum-seekers were still below us, arranged in exactly the same positions, waiting on us to come to them, or whatever their thought process was (if they had thoughts). Fenn was silent, and I was too injured to want to make conversation. Come on, level up.

Amaryllis finally climbed back out the window when a half hour had passed, much to my relief. I nudged Fenn, who had fallen asleep (or pretended to). “One favor,” I whispered.

“Took your time,” said Fenn.

“Got the glove,” said Amaryllis, pulling a single black glove from her pocket. She had shed her robes, her rifle, and her shoes, leaving her in a t-shirt and pants. The glove was the single blackest thing I had ever seen, so black that I would momentarily lose my idea of the shape of it when its individual parts overlapped each other.

“I thought it was supposed to be two gloves?” asked Fenn.

“I guess not,” said Amaryllis. She slipped the black glove on. “All I had on this one was the word ‘extradimensional’, but so far it seems to suck in whatever the glove touches and then spit it back out on command. It should be the solution to getting the two of you inside. There’s no way Joon is going to make that climb in his condition.”

Fenn frowned. “You want to stick us into a glove,” she said.

“Just for a moment,” said Amaryllis. “I can make the climb before you run out of air, if there’s air to run out of inside the glove.”

“How safe do you think it is,” I asked. “If you had to put a number on it?” A 1 on a 1d20? A 1 on a 1d100? I probably would have taken a 1% chance of death at this point, if there weren’t better options.

“I tested it inside,” said Amaryllis. “It can fit at least two covered armchairs, both of which I returned to existence without any damage to them. Usually heirlooms don’t fail catastrophically if you exceed their bounds. I can make the climb faster with bare feet, you shouldn’t have any problems with any time limit.”

“I’d be more comfortable with rope,” I replied. Amaryllis’ face fell. “Not that I don’t trust you, but we have some time.”

“I found the jar too,” said Amaryllis. “It was sealed. There was a warning on it. All our food is at the bottom of a cliff that’s still covered in magical beasts who would like nothing better than to kill us. They seem to be content to wait. If I’d found any rope, I’d be throwing that down to you now. The faster we can get inside, the sooner we can split up and search for something that will let us extend the time it takes for us to starve.”

“You had me at starve,” I replied. That was an old D&D joke, one that we’d collectively run into the ground. Amaryllis didn’t laugh, and neither did Fenn. Neither gave the traditional continuation, which was ‘but starve was the last thing I said’.

“Fine,” said Fenn. “Juniper, if I die, avenge me.”

Amaryllis rolled her eyes. “Hold your breath as long as possible, and don’t try to leave until you have to, I don’t want you falling out of the glove while I’m climbing, because that could kill us all. It takes ten seconds to charge up, so try to time your breathing to that.”

Fenn went first, sucking in a huge amount of air while Amaryllis gripped her forearm with a gloved hand. After ten seconds had passed, Fenn disappeared entirely and without any obvious effect. Amaryllis quickly moved to me, and I began taking in deep breaths, trying to find one to hold. At nine seconds I started holding my breath, and at ten seconds the world went black.

I found the way out right away, almost instinctively. It was like I was in a space no more tangible than a soap bubble, and all I needed to do was to direct a thought at it to pop myself out. If not for that, I might have panicked, but I could feel at the back of my mind the possibility of escape if I really needed it. I wasn’t particularly claustrophobic, but it was completely dark, I was holding my breath, and I was weightless, with my clothes drifting away from my skin until they were tugged back.

I started counting, for lack of anything better to do, and tried to figure out where Amaryllis would be on the wall, based on how fast she’d climbed it before. She’d be moving faster now, both because she had a route and because she was carrying cargo with a time limit on it. How long could a person hold their breath? In D&D you could hold your breath for double your CON score, so about twenty six-second rounds, or two minutes, if you were an average human. I didn’t know what the game used for that, though I suspected it would be END. Obviously there was no math that I could see or rulebook I could consult, but I was hoping that I could at least last a minute, maybe two.

My counting was getting faster the longer I was in there, and I tried to consciously slow it down to compensate, but either way I was starting to get that panicking feeling of needing to take a deep breath of air by the time my count reached the triple digits.

I came back into the world disoriented and gasping for air, with a sudden jolt of pain as my wounds were exposed to fresh air. Then all that pain went away in a glow of light.

Quest Completed: Mothballs - You have arrived at Caer Laga and laid claim to the heirlooms within. You may return to Caer Laga at any time with your teleportation key.

Level up!

It had been too long since I’d felt that light touch me, the fingers of it gently gracing the pleasure centers of my brain. I felt somewhat hollow as it receded from me, a feeling that hadn’t come with it before, and it was with regret that I returned to the real world.

We were in a stone hallway, more spartan than I might have expected with nothing adorning the walls. But then, this place had been constructed in a hurry as the land was turning to desert around it, hadn’t it? There’d have been no reason for them to make it luxurious.

“Better?” asked Amaryllis. I nodded and flexed my hand, where my fingers had returned, whole. I wondered whether we would find duplicate fingers if we went back down to the desert floor.

Fenn was standing next to Amaryllis with her hands on her knees, breathing heavily. “Ya know,” said Fenn. “Elves can hold their breath for an hour. Guess I didn’t get my dad’s lungs. Also, let’s never travel by glove again.”

“Come on,” said Amaryllis. “Let me show you to the fruits of our labors.”

Chapter Text

She led us down several hallways as we slowly regained our breath, moving with purpose. I caught glimpses of other rooms, mostly bare but some with covered furniture in them. These were ideal conditions for keeping things in stasis, since there was rarely weather in the Datura and it was almost constantly warm and dry. A part of me wondered whether this was going to be our base of operations, which any good videogame needed to have. I could see that as a quest, to get this place up and running again, to have people and things shipped in at great expense … even though it would be pretty damned impractical, which was the whole reason that this place had been mothballed in the first place.

We eventually came down to an opened metal vault, lined with pedestals, hooks, and shelves, most of which were empty. Three mannequins sat at the back, only one of them with armor on it, a suit of elegant full plate with a heavily stylized anvil on the front. There were two swords. One was a thin basket of metal around the handle, and I would have called it a rapier if its edge didn’t look too sharp for it to be primarily a thrusting weapon. The other was a very plain blade with a somewhat dull reflection; it was a sword so generic that it somehow seemed like it was hiding something.

There were other things as well, an amulet with a blue gem sitting on a pedestal, a small wooden box inlaid with ivory, and a ceramic jar depicting fairies playing, its lid closed tight with red tape. With the glove, that made seven items in total.

I recognized three of them from the games I’d run.

“We probably shouldn’t open that jar until we’re ready,” I said.

“You have some hint?” asked Amaryllis.

“I don’t know what its proper name would be,” I replied. “I, um, never gave it one. But if it’s what I think it is, it’s full of fairies made of marzipan. When we open it, they’ll attack.”

“What is the godsdamned point of that?” asked Fenn.

“I think they’ll only attack the first time,” I said. “At least, that’s how it was when I made it.”

“In this long dream you once had,” said Fenn with pursed lips.

“He’s been right before,” said Amaryllis.

“Marzipan fairies,” said Fenn, with a raised eyebrow. “And they … heal you?”

“If you eat them, yeah,” I replied. “The jar keeps generating them over time, but after the first batch I think the rest should be docile.” I had given the party the item as a way to partially make up for the fact that no one had wanted to play healer; fairy murder became a recurring joke. You had to snap their necks so they didn’t wriggle on the way down.

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “We can prepare for that. These fairies will be our food source then. Hopefully it’s enough to stave off starvation for a while.”

“I think that armor is immobility plate,” I said, pointing at the suit. “It’s basically an immovable rod in armor form. It stops you from moving.” I pointed at the box. “And that’s probably the clonal kit, which can make a copy of any of the standard adventuring kits, though I’m not sure how that would translate here.” Amaryllis and Fenn were both staring at me.

“Well, damn,” said Fenn. “I guess we get to see whether you’re nuts or not.”

“This is the first time you’ve made specific, testable predictions,” said Amaryllis, which sounded enough like agreement that I was slightly hurt.

“That’s not true,” I said. “I’ve had all sorts of insights into things that I shouldn’t have, given that I’m dream-skewered.”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “But most of those were pieces of knowledge available to the general public, or provided to you by the words written across your eyes, which I would consider separate. If I’m hearing you correctly, this is the first time that your actual memories of creating this game will be tested. Everything else could have been formed post hoc by an irregular skewer. You remembered about Barren Jewel, but it didn’t fit in with the dream of Earth, so the skewer warped your mind by inventing this game you played and placed Barren Jewel within that fiction. If you’re correct about these items, that rules out the backformation hypothesis.”

I looked between the two of them. “Have you been talking to each other?”

“Of course,” said Fenn. “We’re a team, that’s what we do. Did you think that we’d have a self-confessed mentally diseased team member and not talk about it with each other? I’m not that irresponsible.”

“We didn’t mean anything by it,” said Amaryllis. “Nothing was said that we wouldn’t have said in front of you. There were just … decisions that we needed to be prepared for.”

“Ah,” I replied. I let out a sigh. “Okay, I get it.”

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 6!

“You do?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “The story as you’ve heard it is basically, ‘I created most of the elements in this world with my friends as part of a game and now I’m trapped here’. I would probably think that was absolutely crazy if someone said it to me, even with the demonstrable abilities I’ve displayed. Caution was, or is warranted. It’d be pretty dumb of me to chastise either of you for doing what I would have done.”

“That … is remarkably mature,” said Amaryllis.

“I’ve been through some things, in the last few months,” I replied with a shrug, but I was blushing, because Amaryllis was impressed with me.

“Hoomans, I admire this display, but I was promised a glove, and you know the saying,” said Fenn.

“No glove, no love?” I asked. I smiled and then laughed at my own joke, which neither of them had any reason to find remotely funny. That made it even funnier to me.

Amaryllis handed over the glove and went to the swords (and for having a fancy name like “investiture”, apparently all it meant was handing the magic item over to someone else). Amaryllis touched first one sword, then the other, and handed me the suspiciously boring one. It immediately sprang to life in my hands, changing and warping into different forms, becoming thicker, then thinner, sharp, then dull, long, then short, never staying as one particular sword for very long. Despite that, it was perfectly balanced in my hand the entire time, forming counterweights in the grip to ensure that the shifts it underwent weren’t too jarring.

“Oh, neat,” I said. “It’s the Anyblade.” I directed a thought at it and transformed it from a sword to an axe wrapped in decorative gold hair, then to a small dagger with a skull on the hilt, then to a bronze khopesh. When I turned it back into a plain, generic sword it had settled down considerably, shifting only gradually between different forms. I stilled it with a thought.

Amaryllis was staring at me again. Her own sword had done nothing much of note while I’d played with the Anyblade.

“How many magic items did you think up?” asked Fenn. She was looking at my Anyblade with envy in her eyes.

“First off, you can’t have it,” I told Fenn. “Second … I think the answer is probably hundreds, if we’re just talking about the ones that I made, not the ones that were appropriated from a sourcebook or intentionally adapted from some other canon. If you included all the really derivative stuff, I’d say maybe a thousand.” I tried to quickly check my math. Four players, times eight years playing, times two sessions a week, times fifty-two weeks a year, at one magic item per session per player, was a sloppy-rounding upper bound of three thousand two hundred. With weeks off, being low on players, not always being DM, or handing out duplicates it had to be a lot less. “I don’t know for sure. Why?” (Truth be told, I was quite enjoying myself. I had acquired loot, and I was on pretty solid footing, especially relative to Fenn and Amaryllis. The feeling of knowing something that they didn’t, and having it actually be useful instead of just being some bit of 'Airthian' pop culture, was a pleasant one.)

“Mary, how many magic items are there in the world?” asked Fenn. She pointed straight at Amaryllis while keeping her eyes on me.

“I find it annoying that you would expect me to know that,” said Amaryllis with a frown. “Also, we’re talking about entads and heirloom entads, magic item can refer to a larger class off …” Fenn was moving her hand to mimic a flapping mouth. “A billion would be a close approximation, that’s one for every five people, but Pareto’s Principle applies, and twenty percent of the population has eighty percent of the entads.”

“Pareto was from Earth,” I said quickly. “He was an Earth mathematician.”

“No, she was a well-respected computer,” said Amaryllis.

“Irregardless,” said Fenn. “There are a billion magic items in the world, and Juniper claims to have thought up hundreds or maybe thousands of them. If he’s right about what the items do, and I think he probably will be, then … someone else could apply math, but that seems like a pretty astounding coincidence to me.”

Amaryllis tucked her hair back behind her ear and frowned for a moment. It took me watching the marginal movement of her lips to realize that she actually was doing the math. I wasn’t even sure where you’d start for that.

“It’s a pretty astounding coincidence, yes,” Amaryllis finally said. “One in one quintillion, or thereabouts. That would require a bending of probability beyond even the powers of the oldest elves.” A silence fell on us after that.

“Welp, add that to the ol’ mystery pile then,” Fenn smiled, “I helped!”

“We should fight the fairies soon,” I said. “If I’m remembering right they spawn in slowly, and if we’re going to be here for a while, we’ll want to get as much out of them as possible.”

“Armor first,” said Amaryllis, stripping off her shirt as she walked toward the mannequin. I averted my eyes after a moment of shock. We’d all shared a room together for a week, and I had seen Fenn naked more times than I could count, since she took some delight in seeing me react. Amaryllis wasn’t exactly shy, but it seemed to me like she’d taken some steps to be more modest, for my sake if not her own. She was beautiful, and though I tried, I couldn't quite constrain myself to believing that I was simply her traveling companion when I saw her unclothed.

I turned my back and kept my attention on the Anyblade, testing the limits of its abilities. It could only do blades, but it was pretty permissive when it came to what a blade was, and I could work whatever I wanted into the ornamental features of the sword, axe, or other bladed weapon I formed it into. Changes didn’t quite happen at the speed of thought, but it was fairly close, enough that I thought that I could probably use a change in shape to my advantage during combat. The Anyblade had belonged to a rogue of Reimer’s, and Reimer had a tendency toward munchkinry which I liked to indulge him in, within reason. I tried to think of the things he’d tried, and which I had allowed. With a thought, I protruded a key from the base of the hilt. I smiled at that, and had the sad thought that Reimer would probably have loved to be here.

I turned around when I was nudged in the back, and saw Amaryllis in her full armor.

You know that scene in stereotypical teen movies where the artsy girl with no fashion sense or the tomboy who wears baggy clothing or whatever -- the hot actress that everyone pretends isn’t hot, because she needs to be hot to sell the movie but needs to be unattractive for the story to work -- anyway, she has prom, or a big date, or something like that, and so she gets her hair styled, puts on a dress, takes off her glasses, and applies some makeup. Then there’s this big reveal, where - ta-da! - it turns out that she’s actually really pretty.

Amaryllis was not more pretty wearing magical armor. It was pretty armor, and she was definitely pretty, but the armor was proper full plate, which meant that it didn’t display any curves or expose any skin. No, instead of becoming pretty, Amaryllis became deadly. I mean, she was already deadly, muscular and precise, my introduction to her had been her calmly pointing a gun in my face, I’d seen her kill a lot of people, and yet … somehow I hadn’t fully understood it until I saw her dressed in full plate, holding a magical sword, her hair tied back in a neat bun, and with a blue amulet glowing around her neck. Amaryllis wasn’t someone to fuck with. She would scythe her way through an army and stand on a mountain of corpses if she thought that was necessary. She would kill without mercy or warning. She would display as much compassion and regret as a claymore mine.

(And I hope you can see where I’d draw the comparison to a teen movie, because we’d already had our equivalent of that scene where the female lead drops her glasses and the male lead reaches over to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear and say something like, “you know, you’re kind of cute without your glasses”, but for us, it had been the moment she’d killed Poul in cold blood because her motorcycle wouldn’t comfortably fit three people, and I’d thought, “you know, you’re a little bit of a cold-blooded killer”.)

The first proper thought to run through my head was, “Holy shit am I glad she’s on my side,” which did soften the jolt of fear and unease I’d experienced. My second thought was the less reassuring, “Wait, how sure am I that she’s on my side?” The answer to that was, of course, 6. I was 6 sure that she was on my side, 6 out of maybe 10, maybe 100, maybe even more. My only consolation was that both Amaryllis and Fenn were at about the same loyalty, which wasn’t actually much of a consolation at all, especially not if they were talking about me behind my back.

“You look nice,” I said.

“It’s not about looks,” said Amaryllis. She spun her sword around, then held it in front of her. The blade disappeared, leaving her holding only a hilt, then reappeared in place. She frowned at it briefly. “The sword’s benefit is fairly minor, but might be useful in a pinch.”

“Um,” I said, no longer sure that it was wholly wise to offer her good advice. “Is it actually gone, when it disappears? What happens when it comes back in and there’s something in the way?”

Amaryllis made the blade disappear again and pointed the hilt toward the nearest mannequin. The blade reappeared, stuck halfway through its chest. Amaryllis pulled the blade out, inspected it, then slashed at the mannequin with frightening speed, flickering her blade on and off, which left a series of deep, penetrating cuts.

“Thanks,” she said, giving me a small smile.

“That leaves only the amulet unaccounted for,” said Fenn. “I don’t suppose it has the power to get people out of a desert? Because even if we can survive off fairies made of almond,  then we’re still stuck here.”

“The amulet is passive, and no real help here. We’ll unseal the fairies first,” said Amaryllis. “Then we’ll try to figure out what our endgame is. Joon, we might need you to put everything you can into tattoo magic. You should have four points to spend now?”

“Yes,” I replied. Her continued possessiveness over my power still rankled. “I’ll hold them in reserve. Obviously I don’t want to go down that path as yet.”

“Sure,” said Amaryllis. She slipped on the helmet that came with the suit of armor, which locked in place all on its own with a hiss. “Let’s go.”

We did actually end up doing a little bit of monkeying with the clonal kit before opening the jar. One pleasant surprise was that we could all use it, which brought the item count to one for me, one for Fenn, two shared, and three for Amaryllis. The unpleasant part of the kit was that it was fairly particular and somewhat finicky. What you had to do was hold the box (roughly the size of a backpack, but boxy) in both hands, think about some sufficiently generic profession, and the box would give you a collection of items related to that profession, which you could direct to some degree by concentrating correctly.

We tried some stuff that might have worked and gotten us out of the jam we were in, like trying to make the clonal kit produce a box of teleportation keys by thinking specifically about a guy who had that as his profession, but that didn’t work at all. The clonal kit could make food if we thought about chefs or waiters, but here we ran into one of the limitations I’d worried we might; anything you made with the clonal kit needed to be repaid.

“So, the problem was that telescopes are like, really, ridiculously expensive in D&D,” I said. “And I made the mistake of saying that yes, it could make telescopes, which were worth … um, the equivalent of what someone working minimum wage would make in ten years or something dumb like that, I don’t know, the games had kind of dumb economics unless you did a lot of work, anyway,” I took a breath, “To curb that, when the players decided that they were going to just make a bunch of telescopes and sell them, I said that you had to pay the box back. In other words, you have to put things back in the box for it to work again, or you have to give it something of equal value.”

“And the box was worth more as a magical box than just, I don’t know, making a box full of precious gems?” asked Fenn.

‘What profession do you think just lugs around a bunch of gems?” I asked with a laugh.

“Gem mage, o weak-brained human,” replied Fenn. “They’re the ones with the gems?”

“Er,” I said. “Right, but that wasn’t a thing in our games, probably because no one ever thought it was a good idea to tie a class power to material wealth.” Beyond what was already in the game, anyway.

“Even without the fairies, the clonal kit will allow us to stave off starvation for quite some time,” said Amaryllis. “Depending on what the kit thinks things are worth, we can likely cannibalize much of what was left behind in Caer Laga, or use the kit to arbitrarily turn items into higher value, lower weight items for transport. For now, we need a net.”

What followed was a few different attempts at making nets as we tried to get one that was tight enough to potentially capture a marzipan fairy. Eventually Fenn came up with a profession that captured butterflies, which were apparently a delicacy in some far off land, and while that had the ring of pure bullshit to me, the clonal kit produced a fine mesh net for us.

We draped the net over the jar, popped off the lid, and that was about when all hell broke loose, because either I had forgotten just how tough I’d made the fairy fight, or I had thought that goddamned fairies made of literally nothing but honey and almond meal wouldn’t actually be a threat to us. Maybe I just hadn’t been properly paranoid, since I wasn’t considering that the fairies would coordinate.

The first twenty or thirty out of the jar (it’s really hard to count fast-moving creatures the size of a thumb) lifted off the net, putting their full weight behind it and moving to the side so it would slip off. We hadn’t weighted down the net, because we were idiots who had underprepared. Once the net was clear, the rest of the fairies flew out of the jar in a torrent, spreading gossamer thin wings and darting around the room for just a moment before they went on the attack.

Amaryllis’ sword flickered through the air, strobing in and out of existence as she cut through the mass of fairies, and a fair number of them split in half and tumbled to the ground. A few of them plinked against her armor for a moment, then they split away from her and went towards Fenn and I. I swung my sword through the air, but the individual fairies were small and agile, and swords really weren’t meant for that kind of work. I tried to give the Anyblade a different shape, but nothing came to mind, partly because I quickly had fairies all over me.

They tugged at my skin and bit at me, going for my eyes, mouth, nose, and ears, grabbing my fingers and slipping in under my clothes. I dropped my sword and swatted at my face, scraping several fairies off and injuring myself in the process, because they had grabbed onto my eyelids and nostrils. My hands slapped against the places I felt pain, squishing fairies flat, until a quintet of fairies made a play for my mouth, opening my lips before I realized what was happening, then slipping past my teeth and using their tiny legs and hands to force themselves down my throat. That was about when I started worrying less about the fairies that were biting me and trying to rip through my skin, and started worrying more about whether I was going to choke to death. I chomped down to kill the fairies that had ahold of my teeth and then stuck my fingers in my mouth to try to grab the ones that were already activating my gag reflex. One I caught by the leg with my thumb and forefinger, enough that I could pull her back and bite her through the midsection, but the other one was too far down, kicking my uvula and making me short on breath.

Then Amaryllis was on me, slapping away at the fairies on me, but I was still choking on the one in my throat, which was doing its level best to squirm its way down. I was already panicking and trying to take deep breaths that would let me get air around it, but when she grabbed hold of some internal piece of my throat, that flap that lets you not get food in your lungs, I began a choking scream.

Amaryllis, in full plate, pushed me to the ground and placed a knee firmly on my chest. She held the sword hilt high above me, pointed straight down, and my eyes went wide with fear and understanding right as the blade materialized, the point of it suddenly going right through my throat and impaling the fairy inside.

I choked and turned over, spitting a slimy marzipan fairy onto the floor and then scrambling to my feet, looking for more of them and trying to take in deep breaths while at the same time using my shaky hands to protect my mouth. I was bleeding all over, spotting my clothes with blood from a hundred bites, and especially on my face it felt like my skin had been ripped and torn at the membranes.

The room was silent. A half-dead fairy wriggled on the ground and Amaryllis stomped on it with an armored boot. The floor was littered with fairy corpses and splattered with blood.

“Fuck me,” said Fenn. “Fuuuck me.” She was laying face up on the ground, staring at the ceiling, looking like she’d been smacked in the face with a rake a few times. She was bleeding all over her face, with small chunks taken out of it and a small bit of her ear missing. “Joon, if you did actually invent that thing through some stupid metaphysical loophole, I’m going to cut off your limbs and consume your flesh.”

“We should eat them,” I tried to say, but there was a hole in my windpipe, so it came out as, “Wegh a ggeh,” and then a bunch of coughing that ended up with a lot of blood on the floor. I stuffed a fairy into my mouth, chewed it as viciously as possible, then gulped it down, trying to ignore the burning pain of marzipan mush sliding past the hole in my throat. Almost immediately I began to feel better though, and I saw my health go up two ticks. I grabbed another bloody fairy corpse from off the ground (my blood, not the fairy’s) and shoved it in my mouth. It took some time, and another eight fairies, but my wounds closed up and I was feeling much better.

Fenn had taken the hint and done the same, taking a bit less time than me, probably because she hadn’t been subjected to an emergency tracheotomy.

“Well,” I said. “That’s the jar o’ fairies.”

“Why would you make a thing like that?” asked Fenn. “How is that fun for anyone?”

“It’s complicated,” I replied, but it wasn’t really that complicated, we were just teenagers in Kansas during a time of peace and prosperity, and the jar of killer fairies had been part of a pretend world with only fictional consequences.

“Well,” said Amaryllis, taking off her helmet again. She peered into the jar. “It appears that this has been claimed, and if Juniper is right then we should have a much more convenient source of healing than a bone or blood mage, as well as food to ensure that we don’t starve. The only cost was pain.”

“Very easy to say when you weren’t hurt,” replied Fenn.

“Yes, it is,” said Amaryllis with a conciliatory nod. “There are other suits of armor that belong to my family line, a few of them I could grant to you through investiture. Once we get out of here, we might want to look into getting more for the two of you.”

“So it’s bribery, eh?” asked Fenn. She looked down at her black glove. “You certainly know the way to a half-elf’s heart, I’ll give you that. I’m less confident that there is a way out of here. Stripping down to expose the tattoo again might not be a bad idea, and I have always said that your upper arm was your most fetching feature.”

Amaryllis sighed and began to undo her armor, which was apparently quite the process.

“Wait,” said Fenn, suddenly tense. Her long ears twitched. “You wouldn’t have happened to have set up a rescue for us before we left, would you?”

Amaryllis shook her head and I could see her straining to listen, just like I was. I heard the distant sound a little bit later, a rhythmic one coming from outside and getting louder, but though it was very familiar I couldn’t quite place it until Amaryllis spoke up.

“Is that a helicopter?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “And if you didn't arrange for it, then ... you said that going to Sorian’s Castle wasn’t wise, because there might be wards set up to catch us? Is there a chance --”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis.

“Elf sense is screaming at me,” said Fenn. “Usually I listen, but it’s a bit incoherent right now, which is never a good sign.”

“Human sense is screaming too,” I replied. I picked the Anyblade up off the floor. “Exactly how safe are we here? How much will these wards protect us?”

Amaryllis put on her helmet. “We’re going to have to hope that our enemies have once again made the mistake of underestimating us.”

Chapter Text

Warding magic was, apparently, a really complex thing, at least to hear Amaryllis tell it. I didn’t care so much about the low level aspects of warding, like how shapes were defined, just the high level stuff, like (hypothetically) how a fortress would be warded against intrusion and how intruders would get around those protections. Amaryllis had complained that I was asking her to describe centuries of cat and mouse games between warders, then mostly not indulged my need to know on the theory that I probably wasn’t going to think up anything clever in the next ten to fifteen minutes.

I found that really frustrating, so I’ll lay some knowledge on you so that you’re not as annoyed as I was.

Wards provided generalized, rules-based, countermagic. This was really, really powerful in Aerb, where “magic” included abstract categories and concepts, like ‘blood’ or ‘bones’ or ‘water’ or even ‘velocity’, especially since wards could act on so-called latent magic. Trying to explain all the rules behind warding would take too long and be too boring, even if I just stuck to Goettl’s Laws, but I can boil it down to some practicalities:

  1. Buildings older than two hundred years tended to have permanent wards, while newer buildings tended to have periodically refreshed ones. (The clickbait explanation would probably have a title like, “How Bessemer Killed The Permanent Ward”.)
  2. Most high-value buildings were warded against teleportation, except for the occasional room meant to handle teleported goods (or more rarely, people).
  3. Most high-value buildings were warded against sufficiently high velocities, making them resistant if not impervious to ballistics and explosives.
  4. Wards generally acted as either barriers or nullification zones, usually with some holes poked in them by whoever made them in order to alter their functionality. A consequence of this was that as soon as you were within the wards, you were as affected as you ever would be (unless the ward alerted the warder, in which case you might have company).
  5. Wards could be broken by a skilled warder, but that took a lot of time and money, plus direct access to the ward itself, which could often be a problem.
  6. Wards could be bent fairly easily by a warder, but would resume their shape after the fact (wards were generally unmoving). This was a far more common method of ward circumvention.
  7. While most wards were used as barriers, some sufficiently powerful ones annihilated the magic in question instead. A powerful ward against blood would annihilate blood that got inside it (this kills the human).
  8. Warders were athenaeum-trained and used a tool intrinsically tied to them that they spent something like six months building. It called to mind a Jedi having to build his own lightsaber, and was the primary reason that I hadn't unlocked Ward Magic, or whatever the skill would be called.

Speaking non-generally, Caer Laga had a ward that blood couldn’t pass, which would have prevented anyone from entering if not for the fact that a clever warder had poked a hole in it shaped specifically for a hereditary bloodline and anyone marked-through-thought as friend. This was our primary defense against intruders. It wouldn’t do anything to the intruders, it would just hold them back … unless they could bend or break the ward and then just walk right in.

“Could be worse,” said Fenn as we moved quickly down the stairs to the vault. “They came in a helicopter instead of teleporting in. We know they’re there.”

“And they can’t hover forever,” I said. “Unless this place has a helipad or they’re willing to risk an uneven landing on a sloped roof, we only need to hold out a few hours before they have to fly back.” My dad flew helicopters for a living and I was happy to have picked up a few things from him.

“Souls,” said Amaryllis, her voice muffled by the concealing helmet. Oh. Right. Helicopters here wouldn’t use petroleum products, they would use human souls. We’d driven for two days on a tenth-full tank of seven souls and not used up one of them. Odds were, they’d be able to hover nearly indefinitely.

“So the plan isn’t to lock ourselves into this vault, is it?” asked Fenn, as we reached the place we’d picked the magic items up from. We’d avoided windows, for obvious reasons.

“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “It’s heavily warded, more than the rest of Caer Laga. If they’re breaking the wards, it’s a decent place to take a stand against most of the opponents we might face. If they’re only bending the wards, then I don’t think they’d be able to get down here, the distortions would be too extreme for that. They have radio though, and they’ve almost assuredly called in their arrival, which means that we’re more trapped here than we were before.”

“Less trapped,” I said. “We can steal the helicopter.”

“None of us knows how to fly one,” Amaryllis began.

“My dad flew them, back on Earth,” I said. “I know, they’d be different here, and even on Earth I wouldn’t have been able to manage take-off or landing, but I think I can fly well enough for us to get back to Barren Jewel and have a survivable crash landing, especially with you in the immobility plate. We’re closer to getting out alive than we were five minutes ago.”

I hated the helmet Amaryllis wore. It was finely detailed and solidly built, but I could only see her eyes through a slit and though I hadn’t been good at reading her before, now it was basically impossible.

“Okay,” she finally said. “We figure out exactly who we’re dealing with, then we kill everyone on the helicopter and somehow figure out a way to do that so that it doesn’t crash in the process. And we’d still have to worry about the thaum-seekers, because they’ve been known to launch themselves high into the air in pursuit of winged craft.”

Well, fuck. I had ‘flown’ helicopters before in the sense that I was allowed to take control of the flight stick under my dad’s direct supervision in calm, clear weather, because what’s a little gross violation of FAA regulations between father and son? I was fully aware that A) flying an Aerbian helicopter would not be the same B) I was completely unprepared to take evasive maneuvers if a thaum-seeker launched itself into the sky at me and C) if this game even had a skill like Helicopters or Piloting, I hadn’t unlocked it, let alone trained in it.

And the thing was, I still wasn’t sure that “hijack a helicopter” wasn’t the best plan we had available.

“So I guess we need a scout,” said Fenn, “And I would guess that it’s not going to be the one of us in full plate, and probably not the one who has almost zero experience being a sneak-thief, which leaves yours truly.”

“You have the glove,” said Amaryllis. We’d taken twenty seconds to put both the jar of fairies and the clonal kit into it. “Be careful. If you can, spin some kind of story, but we don’t know who they are or what they know.”

“Huh,” said Fenn. “You surprise me sometimes. I thought you would --”

“Go,” said Amaryllis. “Time is short.”

“And there she is,” smiled Fenn. “Joon, you’re still on avenging-me duty.”

“I’d rather kill them before they kill you,” I replied. “You owe me a favor.”

“Go,” said Amaryllis. Fenn smiled and slipped out the door.

As before, I lit the place with a hand of fire. It had been a while since it was just Amaryllis and I, and even longer since we’d been together with just the light of my blood. I felt awkward around her. Maybe it was the armor, or maybe it was what felt like sure knowledge that she would kill me if I threw too much of a wrench in her plans. The armor did a wonderful job of hiding her face and body from me; I wondered how much her prettiness had been a factor in how I interpreted everything about her.

She pulled a clasp on the side of her neck and slipped off her helmet, revealing a slightly sweaty face. Yup, she was still beautiful enough to make me weak in the knees. “You’re going to have to decide what it is you’re going to specialize in, sooner rather than later,” she said.

“I know,” I replied. “It’s kind of moot now though, since I don’t have the time to train up anything.”

“To me, that indicates that you should have decided a week ago,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t want to push you to do something that you’ll regret, but you have four points to spend now. That’s enough for you to double your ability in Blood Magic, or if you wanted to become blade-bound you could do that too, but Joon, you need to stop waiting, because there’s a chance that we’re going to die in the next hour because of your indecision.”

That hit me like a kick to the heart. After Arthur had died, people had always told me that it wasn’t my fault, and I had known that was true, but I still thought about all the things I could have done differently, all the actions that I could have taken to prevent his death, all the little ripples through time of everything I had ever done which had led Arthur to that specific time and place.

And Amaryllis was right. We might die because I decided it was better to hold onto those points instead of spending them. My experience in the game thus far had been routinely running into problems that I had just barely survived, with a dependence on level ups to save my life, and powerful allies to kill my enemies. That did not indicate that this was the time to sit back and be conservative.

“Fine,” I said, the word coming out harsher than I’d planned, “What’s your preference?”

“Everything into wisdom,” she replied. “The strength of blood magic at its upper tiers can be frightening, but even at lower levels you shouldn’t be too far from being able to heal yourself. In the long term, I think sending you to an athenaeum to hone your skills is going to be the right choice, and I spent enough time at the Athenaeum of Quills and Blood to ensure I can help you navigate it.”

That didn’t sit right with me. Not the fact that she had plans for me, though I wasn’t entirely fond of that either; the idea of blood magic being my long-term future just didn’t seem compelling. Blood magic was essentially ki magic, and the end game for it, so far as I had heard, involved making swords from my blood and pouring energy into wounds in order to heal them, which wasn’t terribly interesting to me. Or rather, it was interesting, but it didn’t seem like it would crack the world open, and if I wasn’t going to crack the world open, then I wanted something that actually resonated with me.

I didn’t have the problem some of my friends did of constantly rerolling new characters. Instead, I had the problem of constantly rerolling new worlds. There came a point where I had sucked all the fun there was to suck from a place, and green pastures beckoned. Changing my character class or making a new character didn’t seem like options here, at least not with ‘Diamond Hardcode Ironman Mode’ enabled, so I was sure that I was going to run into that wanderlust problem eventually, but I didn’t particularly like blood magic even now, in part because of the weak, nauseous feeling of blood loss I was starting to get all-too familiar with, and in part because it seemed to pale in comparison to some of the others, especially if I already had the ability to leap twenty feet into the air.

Deciding to go down that path now was like … well, I was going to say like taking an English degree instead of a Computer Science degree, but I guess even if you hate computers and love literature that’s still a fairly reasonable choice given the job market. And I was going to say that it was like playing a healer because that was what the party needed, instead of what you prefered, but I had seen what happened when the tragedy of the commons struck and a party went without a way to regain health. The truth was, there was something to be said for a conservative, boring, sensible option, and maybe I would have gone for that if the description the WIS stat gave itself were more alluring, or hinted at deeper promise. Wisdom: How much you can mentally withstand. Used to prevent stress reactions, make decisions without emotion, or meditate. Useful, maybe, but did it even make people more wise in the conventional sense? It seemed more like the mental counterpart to END or POI, given it used some of the same language.

What I was really thinking about was Quills, katana in hand, slicing through elevator doors like they were made of paper and able to advance on five archers and slice their arrows from the air as he went. Amaryllis had said that a standard fireteam included one in their ranks, didn’t she? That meant at the very least they weren’t strictly outclassed by other kinds of magic, not unless there were stupid political pressures from the athenaeums or something like that which forced suboptimal fireteam composition, which would have actually been pretty typical for Aerb.

“I think I’m going blade-bound,” I said, conscious that I was probably giving up an opportunity to increase my loyalty with her.

“Whatever you do,” said Amaryllis, “What I care about most is that you do something.”

I closed my eyes and put two points into PHY, raising it and all its child stats by 1, then two points into INS. I’d gotten the “Nascent Blade-Bound” virtue by increasing Parry, and that wasn’t going anywhere until I raised its secondary stat of INS. Putting INS up by two points meant that I would cap at 20, except that primary stats constrained at triple the value, which meant that I was going to get to find out what the primary stats were for both Parry and Dodge, probably when they hit 18.

This was one of the options I had been considering for awhile. On the one hand, there were physical increases that I thought were probably good for my continued survival, even if I ended up being some kind of wizard. On the other hand, I didn’t think that this was the sort of game where social skills could be safely dumped, especially not if internal party strife was going to be a theme. INS seemed like the best of the three social skills to me, not just because it was needed to raise Parry and Dodge (by anticipating attacks?), but because getting a better handle on other people seemed like it would solve many of the same problems that CHA would, while understanding and empathizing with others would theoretically make low POI less of a problem.

(The other reason I wanted at least one social ability was that right now, either Fenn or Amaryllis was the party face, and I didn’t quite like how much steering power that gave them, especially since I was still having trouble teasing apart what their individual plans and motives were.)


6 POW 15 Unarmed Combat 15 One-handed Weapons 15 Two-handed Weapons 15 Improvised Weapons
6 SPD 15 Thrown Weapons 15 Dual Wield 12 Pistols 12 Bows
6 END 10 Rifles 0 Shotguns 10 Parry 15 Athletics

4 CUN 10 Dodge 0 Engineering 0 Alchemy 0 Smithing
4 KNO 0 Woodworking 0 Horticulture 0 Livestock 0 Music
4 WIS 0 Art 12 Blood Magic 12 Bone Magic 0 Gem Magic

2 CHA 0 Gold Magic 0 Water Magic 0 Steel Magic 0 Velocity Magic
4 INS 0 Revision Magic 8 Skin Magic 0 Essentialism 0 Library Magic
2 POI 0 Wards 0 Language 6 Flattery 6 Comedy
  0 LUK 6 Romance 6 Intimidation 8 Deception 0 Spirit

I was hoping that I would have some stunning breakthrough by doubling my INS. I’d been trying to figure out what each of the abilities would look like if they were maxed out some day, and my imagining of INS was that I would basically be Sherlock Holmes except exclusively for social situations, able to tell that someone had unresolved issues with their father because of the way they clicked a pen twice before signing a contract. I got nothing like that.

Of course, I knew Amaryllis already. Her father had been an old man when she’d been born and died when she was two years old. It wouldn’t have taken the magical deductive powers of a Sherlock Holmes to guess how she felt about that; he would have been a shadow over her life, a man who her culture defined as her protector, gone before she could know him, and maybe she resented him for it, or maybe she’d made peace with it, or she venerated him because of the things he’d accomplished and the fact that he was never around to fuck things up and prove he was human. Or maybe she just never thought about him at all, because she was too focused on the needs of the present and future to worry about the past.

I did wonder how much of that I would have been able to think through a few minutes prior, when INS was 2 instead of 4. You probably didn’t get social superpowers from a single level’s worth of points, but you had to get something, right?

“Good,” said Amaryllis. “Now if we die, at least I’ll know it wasn’t because we were conserving resources for future fights. Cold comfort in hell, I’m sure.”

“We’ll make it through,” I replied. “I haven’t failed a quest yet.” I smiled, and she gave me a weak smile back, which was enough for me to start thinking that 6 Loyalty meant something.

Fenn ruined the moment by slipping into the room with us, her breathing slightly hitched.

“Alright,” she said with a smile. “We have some good news. The first bit is that there are only four people, plus the pilot who’s staying well back, which means that we’re at even odds. And if you can do basic math you’ll be thinking that I said four when there’s only three of us, but the second bit of good news is that one of the four is their warder, and they’re just bending the wards, not breaking them. So if we fight inside, that means three on three. Our third bit of good news is that they’re not true professionals, like Mary thought they would be. If these lot were hired by the same fucks who sent me to die in Silmar City, I’ll buy a hat. And fourth is that since they’re just bending wards, they keep having to circle around the place to find new windows, because the tunnel they’re putting in the wards sucks.”

“And the bad news?” I asked.

“I didn’t say there was bad news,” replied Fenn. She took her bow from her back and casually checked the string. “Of course, now that you mention it … their leader is the gold mage of Barren Jewel.”

Gold mage? That had been part of my week-long briefing, but … was that the one that reversed time? No, those were revision mages, gold mages used actual metallic gold somehow, and I couldn’t quite remember the details, in part because there was a confusing jumble of ideas about it in my head and I wasn’t sure which one was right. I was pretty sure that they weren’t a Mistborn rip-off, but the metal tribes which were loosely adapted from that series did exist in Aerb, confined to their own section of the world.

“Telekinesis won’t protect him from a void rifle,” said Amaryllis. Oh right, tactile telekinesis, that was the gold mage thing. She was holding her sword, but had the rifle slung across her back.

“No, gold mages don’t have a defense against the void, that’s true, not unless you count flinging a coin at your forehead before you can get a shot off,” said Fenn. “But the second bit of bad news is that they have a revision mage with them. He’s penny-ante, from the way he’s being treated, but I’m pretty sure he’s got the power to patch up holes faster than you can make them, at least if we’re talking about the rifle.”

“And what’s the third piece of bad news?” I asked.

“I can’t blame you for following the pattern, little human friend,” said Fenn. “But the unaccounted for member of their little group didn’t do or say anything that would let me peg her. I’ll grant that’s bad news in its own right. She had a blade, but she had a pistol too, which makes me hopeful that she’s just meant as backup muscle for the gold mage.”

Amaryllis chewed on her lip for a bit. “I agree that these people are probably not from the Lost King’s Court,” she said. “You know for sure that it was Barren Jewel’s gold mage? He couldn’t be from somewhere else?”

“It was him,” said Fenn. “Accent, clothing, and description all matched. I took the lay of the land our first day there.”

“Then who would these people be?” I asked.

“We were thinking that someone from the Lost King’s Court, probably one of Larkspur Prentiss’ people, came here, set up a ward of detection, then left,” said Fenn. “They’d have to figure out that you have the teleportation key to think of Caer Laga, but maybe, since the scene we left back at Sorian’s Castle could have been a bit more subtle.” She ran her black-gloved hand through her blonde hair. “However, there’s no reason that there couldn’t be a standing detection ward around Caer Laga, laid there by someone else.”

“The resources that would take,” Amaryllis began, then stopped, thinking. “A gold mage, based out of Barren Jewel, ferrying a warder he doesn’t have to pay for her labor … maybe.”

“Giving it the personal touch, as it were,” said Fenn.

I rubbed my face. “I’m not sure that I understand this,” I said. “If they’re not specifically after us, then what are they doing here?”

“Well, no one said they weren’t after us,” said Fenn. “If I were one of the top ten richest, most powerful men in Barren Jewel, and I’d been making the investment of flying out here every year or so with a trusted warder in tow, I’d have been doing it so that I could sidle up to one of the scions of Penndraig when she most needs my power and resources. Favorable position for a trade or contract and all that.” She paused. “Alternately, it would be so that I could capture or kill that scion in exchange for a reward from her enemies.”

Amaryllis closed her eyes and sighed. “I think you’re right. I also think that this fight isn’t winnable as it currently stands, only avoidable. Which means that it’s time for diplomacy.”

“Did you miss the part where I said that he might be here to kill you?” asked Fenn. “Aumann is supposed to be fairly ruthless.”

“Let me know if you think there’s a better option,” said Amaryllis.

Fenn grimaced. “I was preferential to the kill everyone approach,” she said.

We made our way through Caer Laga, which was partly lit in most places by the sunlight coming through the thin windows. There were light fixtures set into the walls, but whatever source of power this place once used, it was long-since dormant.

“They’re up ahead,” whispered Fenn, her ears giving a slight twitch. She had her bow out and arrows at the ready. “Based on what I saw before, they shouldn’t be able to push past where we are now. Ideal conditions.”

Amaryllis cleared her throat and spoke to the bend in hallway, raising her voice. “Isaac Aumann,” she said. “My name is Amaryllis Penndraig, tenth of her name, Princess of the Kingdom of Anglecynn. I hold claim-in-fact of Caer Laga, one of my ancestral homes, which you are intruding upon.”

There was silence for a moment. “You’ll forgive me, princess,” came a mellow voice, “but it would appear that our tunnel into your wards doesn’t allow us to speak face to face. I’m sure that is a matter of coincidence rather than any mistrust on your part. Would you mind terribly marking me as a friend so I could gaze upon your legendary beauty?”

“I think for now it would be better if we didn’t meet face to face,” said Amaryllis, keeping her voice hard. “A gold mage by his nature cannot be disarmed.”

“Oh, well I wouldn’t dream of asking you to put yourself at a disadvantage,” replied (presumably) Aumann. “If you have weapons and armor I wouldn’t insist on you disarming and disrobing as courtesy might dictate. Friends allow each other the freedom to be rude.”

“And that’s what you consider yourself? My friend?” asked Amaryllis.

“Every stranger should be considered a friend until there’s reason to do otherwise,” replied Aumann. “It was the Lost King who said that, was it not?”

“The quote is apocryphal,” said Amaryllis. I guessed that it was authentic though; when Arthur had been playing Uther Penndraig, he’d said it often. “I’d like to know why you’ve come to Caer Laga, so we might discuss terms.”

More silence. “I suppose by now you’ve noticed some trouble with teleportation,” he said. Amaryllis looked to the two of us, but of course neither of us knew what the hell he was talking about, unless he had set up the tattoo mage to sabotage the teleportation key, which … well, which seemed like the sort of convoluted plan that you’d see in a videogame to enable the plot, when I thought about it for a few seconds. “My warder can explain it better than I, but the wards on Caer Laga are now hundreds of years old, and contained a number of defects that later wards do not have, namely regarding the barriers against teleportation. The long and short of it is that you’re not going to leave here until and unless it’s on the say-so of my warder.”

Amaryllis had narrowed her eyes. “You set a trap to extort the next member of my line to arrive here,” she said. “You … were not acting on recent information?”

“An unhappy coincidence,” Aumann replied. “I understand there is less for you to pay me with, since you are, of late, impoverished. Still, I should think that you didn’t arrive here entirely bereft of heirlooms. Pass them to me and I will lift the secondary interdiction, allowing you to be on your way.”

“They’re useless to you,” said Amaryllis. Her jaw was set. “Heirlooms respond only to my bloodline, and you wouldn’t be able to trust those which have been given over through investiture.”

“Oh, well, the value of a thing is not in the personal use one obtains from it, but in the value placed on it by others,” Aumann replied. I could practically hear the smile in his voice. “I would, naturally, be willing to sell them back to you when we are both in a less confrontational mood.”

Amaryllis clenched her fist. I had no idea what was going through her mind, aside from perhaps the indignity of being blackmailed in what was supposed to be a secure base of operations. I was also a bit confused; the reason that we weren’t able to teleport out was that the tattoo was malfunctioning (or had been sabotaged), and that was skin magic, not teleportation magic. We’d been miles away from Caer Laga the first time we’d tried retrieve the key from the tattoo, and it seemed unlikely to me that an interdiction would extend that far.

Which meant … what, that the tattoo had been sabotaged, and then Caer Laga had been separately sabotaged by a different party, one which apparently thought it was playing a different game with us?

I put down my can of Mountain Dew, gave the group my best evil smile, and began chuckling. “You fools, so quick to believe that I would be willing to put your vile past behind us, so ready to believe that others would fall for the self-righteous fictions you’ve spun for yourselves.” I steepled my hands. “The meal you’ve just eaten was poisoned. And with that, my son’s death will be avenged.”

Tiff made a T with her hands, which we had started using for “timeout, I am speaking out of character now”. It was just the four of us, with Arthur gone for mock trial. Craig would show up later in the night, without explanation, like he often did.

“Yes?” I asked.

“We still have the tongue-wigs, right? The little bugs that we replaced our tongues with, along with the glamour on them?” she asked. “I’m pretty sure those were supposed to eat all poisons or something with their alien biology.”

“Yes, you have them,” I said.

Reimer looked up from his notes. “They confer poison immunity.”

“Yes, they do,” I said.

“So …” said Tom, before belatedly making the T symbol. “I don’t get it, why is he poisoning us?”

“You had a long conversation about this,” I replied. “You killed his son during the werewolf epidemic, before you found out there was a cure.”

“No,” said Tom, “I mean --”

“He’s trying to poison us,” said Tiff. “He just picked a strategy that was never going to work on us, because no one knows about the tongue-wigs but us. Makes sense, from his point of view.”

“It’s about frickin’ time,” said Reimer. “You remember that rogue I built, and then we spent like three months real time fighting only things with sneak attack immunity?” He brought that up a lot. “Sometimes things have to go our way.”

“It’s not really about that,” I replied. I wished that Arthur were there, because I knew he would be able to word it better, and I knew I was about to pull back the curtain a little bit too much. “People need to have their own plans in motion that don’t have anything to do with you, that imperfectly counter your strategies because they don’t have the right resources or information. So, imagine Count Gardner, distraught over his son, angry with the Vibratos for absolving you, and plotting his revenge. He hates you, sees you as a law unto yourselves, which you pretty much are, and he wants you to die, right? So he decides that you’re all foolish enough to sit down to dinner with him, if he made the right monologue about how it took him some time to put the past behind him. He does his own research on poisons, talks to various alchemists, pulls black market sellers up from his dungeons to acquire some for him, and after a significant amount of planning, time, and money, he gets you all to ingest powdered green-elk horn, its flavor perfectly masked by a combination of herbs in the meal you just ate. He called you self-righteous, but right now, that’s his sin. A cleverer man, or one less consumed by retribution, would have just waited until you were dead and not gloated about it. Then the poisoning fails, for reasons that he couldn’t comprehend.”

“I stand up from the table and say the command word to materialize my blade,” said Reimer. “Not today, Count Gordner.”

“We’re going to need to gather some proof of this,” said Tiff. “Probably not smart if we kill another noble and only have hearsay in our defense.”

“Either way, roll for initiative,” I replied.

Trying to work backward a little bit, and extrapolating some, this was Aumann’s plan:

  1. Use exploits on unpatched wards to set up a second anti-teleportation ward on top of the first that would allow people to teleport in but not out.
  2. Set up a detection ward to find out when someone comes into Caer Laga.
  3. Wait until someone teleports in.
  4. Arrive triumphantly at Caer Laga and extort whoever is there.

This didn’t seem like a terrible plan, except for the part where he’d be making an enemy for life with a powerful branch of a powerful family, and the other part, where he would have to be ready to face down whoever came into Caer Laga. The problem was that we needed more than just him lifting the interdiction on teleporting; we needed him to give us a ride in his helicopter. Telling him that was probably a bad idea, because then he’d know he had more leverage than he’d thought.

“Your ultimate aim here is money,” said Amaryllis. “Not power?”

“They’re the same for a gold mage, you know that, princess,” said Aumann.

“You know that my family line has fallen on hard times,” said Amaryllis. She turned and began miming to Fenn, holding out her right hand and touching her amulet, then pointing at my sword. “Aside from those heirlooms that were waiting in the vault, of which there were only two, I have little of worth to give you.”

Fenn was already moving into action, touching the amulet for ten seconds until it disappeared into the glove, then touching the void rifle on Amaryllis' back, then touching her bow, then moving to me. I wasn’t quite willing to give up the Anyblade though; instead of handing the sword over, I shrunk it down to the size of a toothpick, made the blade as blunt as possible, and stuck it in my mouth, held firmly between my teeth. Fenn shrugged, disappeared her quiver (which would have looked mighty suspicious with no bow) and then slipped off the black glove and stuffed it down into her dirty robes.

“If you take those two heirlooms from me, I will be left with nothing,” said Amaryllis. “It’s unlikely that I’d ever have the money needed to buy them back from you at a rate you’d find acceptable. I came to Caer Laga to get a toehold of power and wealth back, from which I would be able to retrieve what remains of my interests elsewhere in the world. If I hand my heirlooms to you, it’s over for me, and if it’s over for me, you gain nothing from this venture.”

“Fine,” said Aumann. “Then hand over the teleportation key.” Part of me wondered why he hadn’t asked for that in the first place, if he thought we had one (which we only technically did).

“I don’t have one,” said Amaryllis. “I walked here from Barren Jewel and climbed the cliffs. If you circled around the outside of Caer Laga, you’d find my blood and an open window.”

I occurred to me only then that Amaryllis had been using exclusively ‘I’ instead of ‘we’ as she spoke. Now she was claiming that my blood was hers. To me it seemed to put her in a weaker position for negotiation, especially since she was going to need to mention us eventually, and while the flip side was that we were a card left to be played … well, I wasn’t sure how that actually helped too much, given that it was an ‘unwinnable’ match even before we’d stowed our weapons.

It took some time for Aumann to respond. “It appears you’re telling me the truth, or at least part of it,” he said. “The unhappy fact of your family’s fall from grace has made this venture much less profitable than I’d imagined. Unless you had something in mind?”

“I want passage by helicopter back to Barren Jewel, as a show of good faith on your part,” said Amaryllis. “After that ... I told you that I intended for Caer Laga to be the first stepping stone on a climb back to power. I would be willing to make an alliance. There are four hundred eighty-six heirlooms bound to my line. Two hundred thirty-seven of them can be invested or otherwise shared. I am offering power, if we can have mutual trust.”

I could see Fenn mouthing ‘no’. Amaryllis held up crossed fingers. Was that the universal sign for ‘I’m telling lies’, even on Aerb? Either way, Fenn seemed to accept the assurance.

“A good first step to mutual trust would be for you to grant me a bridge past this ward,” said Aumann. “I’m getting somewhat tired of speaking without seeing your face, and I’m sure my warder doesn’t appreciate holding this tunnel open for so long.”

Amaryllis winced at that. Her sword grip was at her side, the blade hidden in extradimensional space, or wherever it was it went off to when she willed it away. She looked to me and Fenn, shrugging. Fenn put her hand sideways and waggled it. I slowly, hesitantly, put a thumb up.

“Fine,” said Amaryllis. “Just you though.”

Moments later, a bald man with mottled red and white skin poked his head out from around the corner. He smiled when he saw us, then strode forward. He was wearing bracelets made of small metal balls, and a necklace of the same design. His suit was close-fitting and made of what I assumed to be silk; his feet were bare.

“You didn’t mention friends,” said Aumann, looking us over. “Quarter-elf?” he asked, looking at Fenn. His eyes dipped to her clothes for a moment, which were stained with blood and had some holes where the fairies had bit her. My own clothes were in a similar state of disrepair.

“Half-elf,” Fenn replied. “Fenn Greenglass. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Hrm,” said Aumann. He looked at me, but apparently didn’t find me interesting enough to comment on. “Your passage to Barren Jewel does not include those two.”

“Yes, it does,” said Amaryllis. “They are trusted companions, invaluable to me.”

Aumann made a show of scratching his chin. “The helicopter doesn’t have more room,” he said. I could still hear it, though it was somewhat distant, flying high, I assumed, in order to avoid the monsters that were surely sniffing after it.

“Two trips then,” said Amaryllis. She took her helmet off and cradled it in one hand.

“My, I can see why they say such things about you,” said Aumann. “They make a mention of your beauty every time your name appears in the newspapers, which is often, of late, at least for those of us interested in foreign affairs.” He looked between me and Fenn. “Two trips? That sounds fair to me, though it comes at some risk and expense.”

“I would, of course, need one of your people to stay back with them,” said Amaryllis.

“Whatever for?” asked Aumann. Then he laughed. “Oh, I see, as insurance. You worry that I would renege on our deal and leave them as stranded as you were before I showed up. Tell me, what was your plan for leaving this place?”

“We were placing faith in the power of a helpful stranger,” said Fenn. (I had resolved to keep my own mouth shut, at least partly because there was a sword in it.)

“Well, I’m afraid I won’t be agreeing to keeping one of my people back as a hostage,” said Aumann. “I’m not averse to this partnership, but there are few too many imponderables for me to stick my neck so far out.”

“I’m afraid I must insist,” said Amaryllis. Her grip on her sword hilt didn’t quite tighten as she said it, but her tone did enough that it felt like she was promising consequences. I was hoping that was a bluff, because by the way the girls were acting, I didn’t think she could win a fight against him, if it came to that.

Aumann grinned. “If I leave, are you planning for another to come along and rescue you?”

“We would figure something out,” said Amaryllis.

Aumann held out a hand and the metal balls that made up his bracelet shifted and split, following the contours of his skin and rolling along until they lined up in place on his hand. From the way Amaryllis reacted, it was the tactile telekinesis equivalent of pointing a loaded gun at us. She was too far away to strike at him with a sword, but her helmet was off anyway, and if I was treating the metal balls on his hand as bullets … well, it didn’t look good.

“It’s clear to me now that any relationship between the two of us would largely revolve around me waiting for you to stab me in the back as soon as you had accumulated enough power. You have two options,” said Aumann. “I can kill your minions with two pulses of power and then take you with me by force, perhaps after a brief fight that you would almost certainly lose, or you can submit to my hospitality and allow these two to, as you said, figure something out.”

Amaryllis hesitated. Having 4 INS didn’t help me figure out what was going through her mind, leaving me with only guesses. Her options weren’t good either way. I was pretty sure that if Aumann was tanking his chances for a peaceable alliance, it was because he intended to use her as a negotiation chip with those who wanted her dead. There was also the more horrifying option, which was that she would be subjected to torture and coercion until every last bit of use had been wrung from her.

She set her sword hilt on the ground, where it materialized its blade.

“So,” said Fenn. “As it turns out, the correct strategy was to wait them out.”

“Shut up, for once in your life,” said Amaryllis. She turned to me. “Juniper, I hope you know that my trust in you goes beyond numbers. This is only goodbye for now.”

I responded with a nod. Shit, she actually thinks that I can somehow save her.

“Come along,” said Aumann. “I’ll treat you nicely if you promise not to bite.”

Watching Amaryllis walk away with him filled me with the painful but not unfamiliar sensation of helplessness. Aumann kept an eye on us the entire time, until finally they rounded the corner.

“Might have gone better for her if she hadn’t stuck her neck out for us,” said Fenn with a sniff.

“You still have the bow,” I said. “We can follow and end him.”

“If I thought that would work, I would have done it without you needing to say it,” said Fenn. She sat down on the ground and crossed her legs. I heard people talking from around the corner but resisted the urge to follow Amaryllis. She had accepted the deal and taken the best of two bad options. “Looks like it’s just you and me now.”

“She can still beat them,” I whispered, as the voices beyond us faded. “They’re going to be in a helicopter and she has the immobility plate. All she needs to do is wait for it to get going at speed and then turn it on.”

“Which, at best, crashes the helicopter and drops her into the desert where the thaum-seekers would assuredly be waiting,” said Fenn. “Sit back, relax, and we can think about things when they’re gone.”

“This can’t be it though,” I said. “I was supposed to fly that helicopter. Narrative convention dictates that I was supposed to fly that helicopter, I have a fucking very specific skill in my backstory, mentioned to both of you, and what the hell, I don’t get to fly the helicopter? This is garbage. There wasn’t even a fight.”

The sound of the helicopter was getting closer. I wanted to yell at Fenn to grab her bow and shoot the thing down, but that would only force a fight that neither she nor Amaryllis had thought we could win, and in conditions that were less than ideal.

“You understand that this isn’t a game, right?” asked Fenn. “The world doesn’t follow narrative conventions, no matter what kind of black magic is fueling your rapid learning and incredible healing.” She hopped back up to her feet. “She’s gone. She made sure we had some gifts for our troubles. Unless you think she’s going to turn the tables around and come back to rescue us, which knowing that one isn’t entirely out of the question, then it’s me and you for a bit, and that means that I need you to understand this thing we’re in right now as reality. You stop thinking like you’re in a game, or a story, or whatever it is, because that’s not what’s going to help us, alright?”

The sound of the helicopter began to recede into the distance.

New Affliction: Cowardice!

Quest Accepted: Your Princess is in Another Castle - Amaryllis has been captured by the gold mage of Barren Jewel, Isaac Aumann. Find her, rescue her, and there might even be a kiss at the end.

Chapter Text

It was the first time I really felt like Aerb had failed me. It hadn’t exactly been fun before, though parts of it certainly were, and it hadn’t been easy. And for all that, I wouldn’t even say that it was particularly gamelike, just maybe able to be mapped onto a game. This garbage? This felt like I was sitting through an unavoidable cutscene where Amaryllis got taken from me, and there was nothing that I could have done.

Maybe what I was supposed to have done was go full shonen anime. On hearing that we weren’t likely to win the fight, I should have given a rousing speech about going beyond the impossible and kicking reason to the curb, or believing in the heart of the cards, or being the very best there ever was. I had a really hard time believing that the result of that would actually have been a victory. Aumann hadn’t really known who he was going to find at Caer Laga, and he’d come anyway, probably because he assumed that he was strong enough to fight whoever was there.

While I was sitting propped up against the wall, feeling sorry for myself and idly changing the Anyblade’s form, Fenn pulled out the black glove and began depositing things onto the floor.

“There,” she said, when the clonal kit hit the floor, “This is what we have to work with. Box that makes something from someone’s profession, jar that’s slowly filling itself with marzipan fairies of healing, artillery bow, amulet that we don’t know what it does but neither of us can use, void rifle, and extradimensional glove. Plus a sword that can be any sword we want it to be, which doesn’t seem all that much more helpful than a dagger.”

“No obvious plan is jumping out at me,” I said. “We had all this stuff when Amaryllis was still here. If there was a way to escape Caer Laga and get back to Barren Jewel, we would have found it then.”

“We weren’t in dire straits then, plus there were things going on,” said Fenn. “Look, I’m not good at the pep talk thing, so if you want to just go ahead and assume that I consoled you about whatever it is that’s upsetting you, it would probably work out better for both of us.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just not seeing it.” I looked at the laid out items. “You’re missing a few though. We have Caer Laga and its wards, we have packed up furniture, we have everything else there is stashed away here … at least the clonal kit can make us proper food so we don’t have to eat fairies.”

“See, isn’t it better to focus on something?” asked Fenn. “I think tricking the clonal kit is the right path to success here. All we need to do is think of the right travel occupation. Oh, or maybe we could make some gems!”

“Gems,” I said.

Fenn touched the top of the clonal kit, screwed her face up in concentration, then opened the box. Sitting inside were eight small gems, six of them in the colors of the rainbow, arranged in a circle on the wooden bottom of the box, and a clear diamond next to a black jewel in the center.

“Ta da!” said Fenn. “Alright, now do your thing.”

“Um,” I replied. “Am I correct in thinking that you want me to learn gem magic, right here and now?”

“Yes,” said Fenn. “That’s your whole thing, right? The reason that the princess has, or had, such a throbbing erection pointed your way? To hear her tell it, you were able to give yourself a three-year course in three different types of magic within hours with almost no instruction.”

“I was under the impression that gem magic was more of an offensive tool,” I said. I reached into the clonal kit and pulled out the diamond, looking it over. I wasn’t an expert on gems or how they were cut, but this one seemed to be unpleasantly asymmetrical, as well as being quite small.

“Yes,” said Fenn. “The important word there isn’t offense, it’s tool, as in a thing that we can use, if need be. If you’re strong enough to grasp a diamond and shoot the white light, that might be enough to stave off thaum-sucker attacks for a few hours. That’s not a solution, but it might be part of one.”

I grasped the diamond in my hand. I had seen a gem mage, as it happened, back in the bathhouse. He’d been naked, jumping into the air, blasting a thick beam of red light at someone who was presumably his attacker. Cut and polished gemstones had power to them, which mostly came out in the form of light, with variance in them produced by the color, cut, clarity, and size. It was on the more systemic end of magic systems I’d learned of in Aerb, though I didn’t know the full set of rules that governed it, nor how to get my start as a gem mage.

I tried a lot of analogies, since those had been helpful in the past. “Think of X as Y,” seemed like a good starting point for trying to conceptualize most of the magic I had come across so far, maybe because it was borrowing from familiar mental pathways. I wouldn’t be surprised that those analogies were wrong on a fundamental level, like most analogies were, but they were still helpful in me gaining skill. None of the analogies I thought up helped me though. Really, I’d been hoping that the answer would just be the first thing that I thought up, because Aerb was infused with my memories, preferences, and intuitions, or at the very least, I was warped in such a way that I could make predictions about the world.

Gems were not the light pouring from them, they weren’t filters, they weren’t lasers, they weren’t faucets, they weren’t distillations of power, they weren’t a color wheel, or anything else I tried. No matter what I did, I couldn’t feel even the smallest scrap of latent power from them, not even for a moment, which meant I never had a crack to dig my fingers into and pry the magic open. Maybe one of those analogies really was right, and I just didn’t have a firm enough grasp, but either way, I put the gems down after half an hour of trying everything I could think of. In retrospect, it had been wildly optimistic for me to think that I could learn a new school of magic just from base principles and a handful of reagents.

In the meantime, Fenn had been making her way through Caer Laga, looking for things of use. She brought everything that wasn’t nailed down to a large room off the hallway I was practicing in, placing things noisily down with the glove.

“This glove is great,” said Fenn as she watched me put the gems down in the box. “It needs a name though, all the best magic items have names. Shadow Fingers? Sable Palm? No, neither of those are right, I’ll think on it. I assume from the lack of searing light that you’ve had no luck with gems?”

“None,” I said. “Did you find anything we can use?”

“Furniture, mostly,” said Fenn, “I’d assume that it’s a few hundred years out of style, if I knew anything about fashions of the rich and famous. There are a few pieces of art, but from what I can see they took all the stuff that was worth anything, leaving behind whatever was not worth the cost of transport. I did find a much more mundane armory, probably the place where hired help would keep their equipment. Most of what was there is gone, but a few pieces remain, probably as part of the emergency retreat plan. There is a kitchen, with nothing in it, there are bathrooms that I assume lead to a dry septic system somewhere, there are pipes stuck to the walls, probably put in after construction, that I know lead to a cistern near the top of the fortress, confirmed dry, and there are bedrooms with no mattresses.” The armory was a boon, but other than that, it was more or less what I expected.

Fenn held out her gloved hand and a metal box came crashing down to the ground next to her.

“I also found a lockbox with half a million obols worth of paper money, stocks, bonds, and gold,” she said with a smile. “That’s the kind of find that would normally get my heart hammering, except that we don’t have any way to get back and spend it. Yet.”

“It’s something we can feed the kit,” I said. I paused. “That seems like a lot of money.” I wanted to tell her that in the first editions of D&D, experience points were awarded based on number of gold pieces obtained, but I held back, because it was of interest only to me. It annoyed me to not be able to share things like that. I would have said I missed my friends, but I didn’t even really have that many friends left on Earth.

“It is a lot of money, to the likes of you and I,” said Fenn. “To the ruling class of Anglecynn, not so much. A cool half million, locked away for years? Well, no problem, there’s a whole lot more where that came from. I don’t mock her for being spoiled without cause.”

“She was captured,” I said. “I would appreciate if you were a little less flippant.”

“I suppose I can make the effort, for the boy I’m probably going to die with,” said Fenn. “But do you know what I think we’ll find if we get back to Barren Jewel? I think we’ll climb up the tall castle that we think she’s sequestered in, and when we get to the top, we’ll see twenty or thirty dismembered bodies, with your princess standing in the middle of them, dressed in her fancy armor and with her fancy sword coated in blood.” She was getting into this, talking faster and with more animation. “Then she’ll turn her sword off and the blood will fall to the ground in a perfect little line, and she’ll look at you and say, ‘What took you so long?’” The impression she did of Amaryllis was terrible.

“I think her situation is a bit more dangerous than that,” I said. I looked down at the clonal kit, then at her glove. “Do you think that the extradimensional space of the glove counts as latent or passive magic?” I asked.

“No clue,” said Fenn. “Our dear Mary would know, I’m sure, bless her heart.”

“I’d think that it depends on how it functions,” I said slowly. “I don’t know how extradimensional space is defined on Aerb, but if the glove is magically folding space around it, I’d assume it’s passive, while if it’s sending things somewhere and then calling them back, I’d assume that it’s latent when not in use and active when it’s calling or retrieving. That’s the distinction that the thaum-seekers care about, right? Your bow isn’t a magic bow to them until it does something magical, just like my blood is just latent blood until I do something with it? I guess the glove is black, but I’m not sure it’s supernaturally black, since we have vantablack on Earth.”

“And what, exactly, are you thinking, human?” asked Fenn with narrowed eyes. “We obviously can’t take things out of the Obsidian Hand while we’re in the desert, for fear of calling the thaum-suckers to us. We can take whatever we’d like from Caer Laga, because I’ve yet to find an upper limit on what Raven’s Claw can pack inside it, but how does that actually help?”

“You need a single word name for it,” I said. “The adjective-noun construction says that you’re trying too hard. Just call it Sable.”

“And what is it you want to do with Sable?” asked Fenn.

“Well,” I said. “You know how you said we should never travel by glove again?”

“Yes,” Fenn said slowly.

“Well, I’m thinking that we might be able to travel by glove the entire fifty miles back to Barren Jewel,” I said.

“That’s,” said Fenn. “I’m trying to think of the word, but stupid doesn’t seem to quite cover it. You’d have to … well, first of all …” She stopped again, not seeming to know where to start.

“I can list the objections,” I said. I was momentarily frustrated by my lack of pen and paper, before realizing that we had the clonal kit in front of us. I laid my hand on it and tried to figure out what profession would get me what I wanted. Scribe? I opened the box to find a quill, a sealed pot of ink, and some thick papers. I closed the box again, not quite satisified with that, in part because I had no idea how to use a quill. Computer, that was a profession here, right? I opened the box and found a slender pen and thin, scratch paper.

  1. Is the glove latent magic or passive magic?
  2. Can the glove be used on its own wearer?
  3. How can we move the glove fifty miles …
    … in the right direction …
    … without the ability to control it?
  4. How can we breathe for long enough to get to Barren Jewel?
  5. How can we ensure the thaum-seekers don’t get us?

“So,” I said, “That’s two things that I think we can test fairly easily, and a few problems to solve, but we’re closer than we were before.”

“How are we going to test whether the thaum-suckers will go after it?” asked Fenn. “You know even less about wards than I do, and I have no idea whether we’ll be allowed back into this place if we leave. Amaryllis gave us something like a guest right, but do you normally allow your guests to freely move in and out of your house?”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “So we get some string.”

“You are not throwing this glove out the window,” said Fenn. “It’s my friend. I’ve named it.”

“Do you have a better idea for getting across the desert?” I asked.

“We climb down the cliff and walk,” said Fenn. “Like we’re not actual, legitimate morons. We have the clonal kit, it can make us as much food and water as we need, especially now that we have money to feed it when it gets hungry.”

“And you’d be willing to leave the glove behind?” I asked. “Because if the glove attracts the thaum-seekers, we aren’t going to be able to move with it. We need to figure it out either way.”

“I hate it when other people are right,” muttered Fenn. “Okay, but we’re going to dink around with the clonal kit for long enough that we get some really good string.”

The clonal kit was actually sort of a pain. You couldn’t ask it for specific items, all you could do was think of a profession that had that item as part of its “standard” set of tools and materials. You couldn’t just grab an awl, you had to think “leatherworker” at it. This alone wouldn’t have been so bad, but there were some professions that were either too specific or just not recognized. On top of that, the way we were using it was basically generating a “kit” and pulling a part of it out, then “repaying” the box for what we’d taken.

“Two problems,” said Fenn. “First, this fucking thing does not give us the change we are due, and second, it’s absolutely gouging us.”

“Probably to prevent arbitrage,” I replied. I got a blank look. “One of the problems with a magic item that can create things is that people will try to sell those things. The clonal kit has a restriction on that already, in that you have to pay it back for what you created, but that could still lead to other problems. Say you know the clonal kit values pliers at 12 obols, and you find a place where you can sell pliers for 14 obols, then all you’d have to do is sit there, make a kit with pliers, take the pliers out and sell them, then put some of the money back in the box, making a profit indefinitely.”

“Well, until the guy you’re selling pliers to has enough pliers,” said Fenn.

“Sure,” I replied. “But then you move on and figure something else out, and that becomes your profession: figuring out what the box values things at, then finding someone who will buy them for less. And that’s … not really what games are about. Or at least not D&D.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Fenn. “You’re positing this world where … what, magic items have no value?”

“No,” I said, “That’s not it at all, the value they have is always about adventuring, not about setting up shop somewhere and becoming a boring merchant who spends his days with his nose in spreadsheets. Or ledgers, whatever you guys use here.”

“But that’s not this world,” said Fenn. “People with magic set up shop with it all the time, that’s practically the entire function of magic. I keep forgetting that your entire life in this world covers about two weeks, but Fireteam Blackheart? They are not the norm. Amaryllis is not the norm, she’s … do you have equalists on Airth?”

“I’m not sure what that is, but there’s probably a correlate, yes,” I replied. “Also, it’s pronounced Earth and I think we’ve known each other long enough that you can stop pretending you don’t know that.”

“Amaryllis Penndraig is everything that the equalists rail against,” said Fenn. “She is basically privilege incarnate, born with power vested in her by her bloodline and by the vast sums of money her ancestors have accrued. Most of that money comes, directly or indirectly, from the heirlooms passed down from the time of Uther Penndraig. You see what I’m getting at? On Aerb, magic items aren’t like what you’re describing.”

“Except this one is,” I said with a nod at the clonal kit. “And there are other ways of limiting utility, if you wanted to. The teleportation key is extremely valuable, so valuable that we can’t really use it to make money because of the risk that someone would come after us and try to take it. Or with some of the others, maybe the market has already reacted to magic being able to do certain things, or a magic item is undercut by existing services, or something like that. The jar of fairies? We could use that to heal people and charge for that, but would we really be making that much money when a blood or bone mage could do the same?”

“Yes,” said Fenn flatly. “You understand that healing you wasn’t cheap, right? If I could set up shop somewhere selling dead fairies, I could live a comfortable life. Not a fancy life, but a comfortable one.”

“And you’d have me believe that you’d actually do that?” I asked.

“No, of course not,” said Fenn. “I’d get bored within a week. Mostly likely I’d pawn the work off to someone else and go for something bigger and better, but that’s me, right? You could give me a goose that lays golden eggs and I would probably get myself killed trying to get a second one. I suppose that’s why I’m out here in this abandoned castle trying to figure out a way to get back to civilization, instead of in Barren Jewel working a trade.” She sniffed. “I suppose that’s also why I’m on board for rescuing the princess.”

“Really?” I asked. “Then let’s go throw a glove out a window.”

Except that it wasn’t actually that simple, because things kept getting in my way. The first problem was finding the right kind of material to anchor to the glove. We ended up settling on thick, cabled wire, which took about thirty different iterations of looking in the clonal kit to get. Second was the problem of fashioning some way of attaching the glove that would absolutely ensure that the glove wouldn’t slip off once we threw it out the window. In the course of making a holder for the glove, my engineering leveled up, which led to …

“You have to practice it up,” said Fenn. “If your life were on the line, would you go up against someone with three swords when you could have ten swords by holding off a few hours?”

“Three levels and ten levels?” I asked. She nodded. “No, I guess not --”

“Then you have to make sure that the number in your head is as high as it will go before we try this, and we’re still doing a dry run first, with a different, non-magical glove,” said Fenn. “And stop looking at me like that, I know I’m being too cautious.”

“It’s not that,” I replied. “You’re being paranoid, that’s good, I just … didn’t expect it from you. I am a little worried about how much time we’re going to eat doing all this stuff, especially given what might be happening to Amaryllis.”

“She’ll keep, even if they resort to torture, which I don’t think she’d let it come to,” said Fenn. “I know you’re sweet on her, but we have to trust that she can hold her own. For now, stupid experiments with gloves.”

“She knows about the things we have,” I said. “All loyalty and emotion set to the side, the longer we wait, the more likely she is to reveal that we’re here, which means a repeat visit from the gold mage, which … probably doesn’t end well for us, does it?”

“Fuuuuck,” said Fenn. “Alright, point taken. But I’m not letting you lose this glove.”

Skill increased: Engineering lvl 10!

New Virtue: Material Analysis!

Material Analysis supposedly allowed me to see “weak points”, though I noticed nothing terribly obvious when I started looking around (which made me really hope that this wasn't one of those things silently disabled by Verisim mode). It certainly didn’t flash red on anything or give me a targeting reticule. I could see the weak points of Fenn, the places where I could hit her to inflict the most damage, but I’d been able to see them before getting the virtue. Still, better to have than not.

Skill increased: Engineering lvl 11!

Skill increased: Engineering lvl 12! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat CUN.)

“I think now would be a great time to put more points into cunning,” said Fenn, when I informed her of this fact. That was when I realized that I hadn’t told her.

“I already spent those points,” I said.

She frowned at me. “Amaryllis got to you, didn’t she?”

“I wouldn’t put it like that,” I said. “We didn’t know exactly what we were going to face and I didn’t want to hold back when I’d already been having too many close calls, so … yeah, she talked to me, and I spent the points.”

“Ugh,” said Fenn. “And you didn’t end up spending them on something useful to our current situation, perchance?”

“No,” I said slowly. “I put them toward becoming a blade-bound.”

“You dummy,” huffed Fenn. “It was either cunning, knowledge, or luck, those were the three you should have done, and I have to tell you that luck is something this plan seems entirely dependent on. Doesn’t cunning say that it’s about being smart and solving problems? Isn’t that what we’ve spent the last however many hours doing? And I haven’t even agreed to this! I still think we’re probably better off just going for a walk.”

“I think we underestimated the thaum-seekers,” I said. “We ran up against one and couldn’t get out of trouble without calling dozens more toward us by using a limited resource. If that had happened while we were halfway across the desert, we would have all died. Do you think otherwise?” Some of that was down to my critical failure, but certainly not all of it.

“No,” said Fenn. “But I’m going to help train you up before we go, either way we decide on. You’ve got to get better with a sword.”

It was already set in my head though. I hadn’t just been doing nothing while I increased my engineering, I had been using tools and materials from the clonal kit to build a rocket, which was mostly done. I had a very slight advantage from having a short-lived stint in the school rocketry club (mostly at Arthur’s insistence) but I had no internet to consult for a guide, and the clonal kit either couldn’t or wouldn’t produce books for me to read on the subject. My plan was starting to get some details; build a rocket, give it wings, make sure that it can glide on its own, figure out how to get fifty miles of distance, and then --

“How’s it going to get anywhere near Barren Jewel?” asked Fenn. “I don’t trust your aim at something fifty miles away.”

“Radio,” I said. “Took a bit for the clonal kit to give me one that had its own power source, but eventually I got one from a ‘park ranger’. I’m not sure how to do it just yet, but there are broadcast towers in Barren Jewel, which we’re going to be flying towards --”

“Inside the magical glove,” deadpanned Fenn. She had done that test herself; yes, she could use it on herself, putting her into the extradimensional space and leaving the glove to drop to the floor.

“-- and the fact that we’re flying toward the radio signal helps us, because I can set up reflectors on the glider that will allow totally analog alterations to the rudder orientation without anyone needing to control it. We don’t need pitch or roll, in theory, just yaw.”

Fenn stared at me. “Just how much did leveling up engineering help you?” she asked.

“That’s just the plan,” I said. “It’s the implementation that’s going to be tricky. You can say that you’ll set up circuit conditions all you want, but actually doing it, and in a way that can survive at least some of the unexpected … that’s a lot more difficult.”

“You wouldn’t have thought of all that this time yesterday though,” said Fenn.

“No,” I replied. “Definitely not. I think that engineering might be like magic, where just a little bit of training gets me past the first few years that I’d have to sink into the thing. I’m at fifteen with one-handed swords, but from what you said I’m only a bit above being competent. But for blood magic, I’m far past where Amaryllis ever was, and she was in the athenaeum for three years. If I got, say, the equivalent of a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering by raising it to twelve … I’m not sure.”

“Competence is on a scale,” said Fenn. “You’re better with a sword than most people who’ve ever held one. They’re not much used in armies anymore, but I’d favor you against the average foot soldier, before even taking into account your magical blade. You’re likely to surpass my ability soon. Of course, bows are more my thing, for obvious reasons, and you have a ways to go before you match me there.”

Not long after that, we finally threw the glove out the window after three different test runs to make sure that we could get it down past the barrier and then pull it back up. That all went smoothly, and no thaum-seekers showed up, which was the last barrier of resistance for Fenn. I think that fear of the thaum-seekers was what finally pushed her in my direction; it was clear now that we couldn’t fight off even one, not without using magic.

Chapter Text

It would be another three days before we were ready to go, which meant that Plan Glove-Rocket didn’t actually save us any time as compared to walking through the desert, but at least part of the delay was from all the time that Fenn wanted me to spend training. I didn’t like it one bit; I kept imagining that the worst was happening to Amaryllis and had to reassure myself that she was tough enough to handle things on her own.

“Hooman, it was your dumb choice to focus on blades,” said Fenn. She held a slightly rusted sword from the armory in her hand. “I’ll be damned if we’re going to try this escape plan without you as good as you can possibly be.”

“I’m already better than you,” I said. I was keeping the Anyblade as a simple longsword, but some testing had showed that I was equally proficient with it in any form it took. The skill was One-Handed Weapons, not simply swords, which meant that I could wield an axe or dagger with equal ease. The feeling of switching between them was a little bit unsettling, since I had muscle memory for things I had never done before.

“Yes, you’re better than me now,” said Fenn. “But you’re not going up against me, you’re going up against a suicidally ferocious beast that cut off two of your fingers and almost killed you last time.”

That was a fair point, and I kept my complaints to myself after that. I even embarked on some independent training of my own, which was to test the limits of blood magic as far as putting speed into my stride. All it really took was using Sanguine Surge with every step and trying to angle myself so that I was gaining horizontal speed instead of vertical. I had hoped that I would unlock another spell, but apparently it didn’t count. It was six drops of blood for every step, which meant that I could actually suffer from blood loss if I tried to run all out. I didn’t get a good grasp on my top speed, mostly because the longest corridors in Caer Laga were curved and the largest rooms were too short.

It wasn’t all building things and training though. We took breaks for eating and sleeping, naturally, but we also stopped to talk.

“Can I ask about the scars?” I asked. We’d finished a bout of sword-fighting and were both somewhat sweaty and breathing hard. I had capped out Parry at 18, as planned, which revealed its primary stat as SPD, a minor (and predictable) bit of new information.

“You can ask,” said Fenn. “And by my measure, just did.”

“You said that they were non-functional,” I said. “I wasn’t told much about scar magic.”

“Oh,” said Fenn. “For a moment I was worried that you were trying to get to know me.”

“I was giving you an out,” I shrugged. “I do want to know about you, but not if it’s stuff that you don’t want to talk about. So you either say, ‘here’s some stuff about scar magic’ and then I take a hint and drop it, or you tell me something personal.”

“Can this count as the favor I owe you?” asked Fenn.

“Not a chance,” I replied with a laugh. “You know, I’m really worried that we’re going to get in a fight someday, and you’re going to stop there with a nocked arrow and ask me if shooting the guy charging at me is a favor.”

“Oh, now that is a good idea,” said Fenn. She chuckled softly, then was silent for a bit. I let the silence breathe and gave her time to collect her thoughts. “Elves,” she began, then stopped, frowning. “People say that elves stop aging when they reach maturity, but that’s not the half of it. When an elf hits about forty years old, that’s adulthood, and adulthood means that their physical form is set for life, unless someone cuts off their hand or brands them or -- you know, that sort of thing. Humans? They change all the time, put on muscle, put on fat, get skinny from malnourishment, they tan, they sunburn, all sorts of things. Elves can get stronger or whatever, they can die from not eating, it’s just that their body does not change, not ever.”

She let out a puff of air. “So anyway, scar magic. The short answer is that you get scars on your skin and they give you abilities. It’s a form of passive magic, a pretty powerful one. You go through the pain of this scarring in very specific patterns, and when you’re done and they’ve healed, you can put your fist through stone or leap up a few stories into the air. The problem with it, aside from the perfection of technique needed to do the scarring right, is that the scars themselves need to be positioned properly upon the skin, and if the skin changes too much, the magic gets lost.”

“So elves use it more than other races,” I said.

“I’m tempted to say that only elves use it, but I don’t really know,” said Fenn. She sat up some and took off her shirt, revealing her scarred arms in all their glory, their curving, organic looking patterns that must have taken a master to do properly. They were pretty, in their own way, but I wasn’t about to say that to her until after she’d finished her story. “The different types of elves have their own ways of doing things, but among the wood elves it’s a rite of passage. You get your magic scars when you come of age, to say that you’re now unchanging, and anyway, it plays into this cultural thing called ‘fäsh’ that -- well, it’s complicated, but the elves are really big on things staying the same.”

She frowned. “The elves hated me. A lot of my childhood was basically meant to torture me, and I guess that I can only be thankful that a lot of it washed over me because I didn’t fully understand elvish culture. The scars though … I knew that I wasn’t going to ever be perfect and unchanging like them, I had freckles, for fuck’s sake, I had to cut my hair every so often, like, duh, I’m not an idiot, the scars were just going to be scars on me. And I wasn’t even forty, I was seventeen, but they wanted to spit in my face so they decided that I would take the rite early. I refused. They drugged me and did it anyway.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“The worst part was that it worked, for the space of about a week,” Fenn continued. “I was so strong, so fast, and it felt so good. Then my skin changed, just a bit, and the scars lost their power, and I’ve been living with them as ornamental ever since. It’s a brand, basically, saying ‘this one, she’s not an elf’.”

“I’d say ‘fuck the elves’ but I worry that you’d take it the wrong way,” I replied.

“No, fuck the elves,” said Fenn. “Not that anyone else is that much better. I grew up getting lots of speeches from elves about how humans were terrible, and lots of demonstrations from humans determined to prove the elves right.” She stood up and stretched. “So that’s the deal with the scars, satisfied?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks. It’s sometimes hard to … to know what you’re thinking, whether you’re just saying things for a joke.”

“Me?” asked Fenn. “Psh, no, never.” She paused slightly. “Did I get a loyalty bump?”

“No,” I replied. “Were you thinking about that?”

“Well, it crossed my mind,” said Fenn. “I never tell that to anyone, I usually say that I was mauled by a bear. I just thought, you know, embarrassing personal trauma, that’s gotta be worth at least a point, right?”

“I think my loyalty to you probably went up a few points,” I said. “But the game doesn’t track it going that direction.”

Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 8!

Fenn gave me a warm, genuine smile, which she hid by putting on her shirt. I declined to tell her about the loyalty increase, partly because I was worried that it would undercut what I had said. I wasn’t trying to game the system like she had been, but maybe she would see it like that.

I ended up building an entire second glider, work that went much faster than the first one, especially given that I now had what was basically a workshop full of tools and parts in the main dining hall of Caer Laga. It ate up more time, during which I was particularly worried that we’d hear the sound of a helicopter in the distance, or, since gold mages could use their telekinesis to fly, that we’d simply see Aumann walking down the halls. Neither of those things happened though, and I launched the first rocket-glider out the highest window we could find.

We watched as it shot off into the distance, using spyglasses (helpfully provided by the clonal kit) to track it. I was faintly surprised that I was able to judge how far away it was, but I had the Range Finder virtue, which apparently extended to looking at rockets. Eventually I lost track of it, when it became too small to see, but it had been going in a straight line even after the propellant was spent.

“Shit,” said Fenn. “Are we actually doing this then?”

“Yes,” I replied. I could feel my hands shaking. If I were DM, and my players tried something like this, I’d allow it, wouldn’t I?

“All we need is sunlight,” said Craig. “We have the linked portals, right? So we just hold onto one of them and get the other into direct sunlight.”

“Range is a mile,” said Reimer. “London is cloaked in fog out to much farther than that.”

“Okay, so we just send the portal up instead,” replied Craig.

“How?” asked Arthur. “We can’t fly. I know we talked about one of us becoming a vampire and infiltrating their side, but that doesn’t help us in this specific case because we’d have to fly into the sunlight.”

“Step one, steal a cannon,” said Craig. “Step two, point it straight up. Step three, fire one half the portal instead of a cannonball.”

“While we’re inside, fighting Dracula?” asked Arthur. “I guess we could get someone to do it for us, timed to the bells of St. Mary’s …”

“Joon, how high up does the magical fog go?” asked Reimer. “Also, how high up could we shoot a cannon?”

“Three hundred yards is maximum range for a Napoleonic 12-pounder, and the fog rises up to about 300 feet, meaning that St. Paul’s Cathedral just pokes out over it,” which is where I’d planned for the climax of the arc to take place, but I guess we’re not doing that.

“Okay, easy peasy,” said Craig.

“Except for the part where we’re basically subjecting a magic item to ballistic velocities,” said Reimer.

“What kind of a roll would I need to make to know whether the portal would survive?” asked Tom.

“Knowledge arcana,” I replied. He rolled and told me 19. “You think that it would probably survive the firing, especially if you take the time to magically reinforce it, but you have no way to control its descent or prevent it from landing in the Thames or similar.”

“Okay, so, we can’t test it and we have one shot, but it’s certain death if it works,” said Reimer, pinching the bridge of his nose. “And we’re also going to probably lose the portal rings, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay given their restrictions. By my calculations we’ll need some kind of parachute to slow it down once it’s at the apex ...”

They agreed on a plan, and moved on to the next things, which was getting a cannon from somewhere and finding out a way to sneak into Whitehall, where Dracula had set up shop. In the meantime, I was trying to figure out what to do about this cockamamie scheme of theirs. I couldn’t just say that it flat out worked, because then they’d only succeed by DM fiat, and I couldn’t have them fail either, for the same reason, but I’d never liked turning major moments on a roll of the dice, not when we were so far outside the bounds of the systems we were playing in.

So I decided to split the difference.

Fenn had sucked everything up into Sable, and we both wore our breathing gear, which we’d gotten from thinking “pearl diver” at the clonal kit. I touched the glove, which was set into rocket/glider, and Fenn closed her eyes in thought. Ten seconds later, I was in the void.

I don’t think I can properly describe how terrifying that was. Sable was invested in Fenn, not me, which meant that everything I had set up was going to have to be done by her. I trusted her, but I still would have preferred to have been the one to set everything in motion. I was properly equipped for the interior of the glove this time, and spent some time looking around, just to take my mind off of what was going on outside. I had a pocket watch, a flashlight, and the Anyblade, along with a small waterskin. Across my chest was a bandolier with five dead fairies in it. The flashlight was mostly so that I could see without using Aarde’s Touch; I wanted to be in peak condition when we got out of the glove.

We had independently tested everything that we could. I’d spent some time with the radio reflectors sweeping them back and forth across Barren Jewel, watching the rudder adjust itself in response. I had spent an hour inside the glove with the breathing equipment on, just to make sure that I wouldn’t suffocate or get the bends. That still left a lot of area uncovered. We didn’t know for certain that the glider would be able to make it to Barren Jewel. We didn’t know that the mechanisms I’d put in place would allow us to stop. We didn’t know what would happen if the glove were destroyed, but we couldn’t test that either.

A look at my watch showed that a minute had passed, which meant that we were probably off to the races, flying through the sky at ludicrous speeds as we burned through our propellant. I tried to stay calm as a feeling of claustrophobia came over me. Getting out now would mean plummeting down into the desert sand, which meant that the things I had with me were the totality of what was available to me until it was safe to get out of the glove -- and there was no information from outside coming in to us, so the only thing that we could do was time it.

Achievement Unlocked: Outside the Box

Achievement Unlocked: To Infinity and Beyond!

I stared at those two messages for a bit, trying to decipher them. The Buzz Lightyear one was probably because I was flying, though this was a world with planes, so that didn’t seem so exceptional to me, and I had already done a skydive right at the start of the game, which if you watched Toy Story was the kind of “falling with style” that they most often referenced.

“Outside the Box” worried me a bit. Was the game making a comment on my solution to escaping from Caer Laga to complete the Exit Strategy quest? And if it was, what was the “intended” solution, if there was one? How was “Outside the Box” being said? I didn’t have a firm enough grasp on the game’s sense of humor to know whether that was something it would say sarcastically.

So I spent some time thinking about that, then tried to let my mind wander when I wasn’t looking down at my pocket watch. We had agreed on an hour, by which time the glider should definitely have crashed, which meant that it would be safe to exit. In theory, the glider sitting on the desert dunes would be safe from everything but an errant thaum-seeker, so it didn’t matter too much if we left right after the crash or after half an hour. I was sitting in the void, breathing air from a metal cylinder, but I could still feel that opening waiting for me, and I wasn’t dead, so I at least had that going for me. It was claustrophobic, but it was also a little bit calm, right up until the half hour mark.

Quest Progress: Exit Strategy - Your homemade rocket glider has crashed five miles short of Barren Jewel, thanks to a bit of errant sand in the rudder. While the thaum-seekers haven’t been alerted to your presence yet, they’ll be coming for you as soon as you step out of Sable.

My heart started racing as soon as I saw that. It had an unusual amount of specificity, down to the name we’d given the magic glove. More than anything that had happened thus far, this felt like the hand of a Dungeon Master reaching down to set things up for me. Would I have allowed the rocket glider to work, if I were DM? Well, yes … but I would add in a complication. When Craig had wanted to shoot the portal ring up into the sky above the magical fog so that they could use the other end to shine sunlight at Dracula, I had decided that it would work … but not completely, not enough that the encounter itself was trivial.

Alvion’s Word was the name for the magic that protected all of Barren Jewel, and it projected a mile out past the city walls. That meant that we had roughly four miles to go, four miles across hot sand dunes, with thaum-seekers that would be on us as soon as we left the glove. How long had we had, from when Fenn had fired her artillery shot to the others showing? Long enough for me to heal Amaryllis, long enough for Fenn to climb up and keep watch, and it had felt short, but I was rushing and under pressure, so … a low single-digit of minutes?

I moved faster than Fenn when I used my blood to run, and she wouldn’t have any reason to come out of the glove for another half hour, since she wasn’t getting any messages directly from what I’d have to describe as being my own personal god. I could wait and exit the glove with her, but she would just have to go right back in for me to carry her, and if our timing was off, we’d burn valuable seconds when I could be running.

I shrank the Anyblade down, small enough to once again fit in my mouth, its blade as small and blunt as it would allow. I unclipped the waterskin and unbuckled the tank of air. Was I really doing this? Trying to outrun a creature I knew could exceed a hundred miles an hour?

I stepped out from the extradimensional space of the glove, and the things I’d unstrapped came crashing down. The glider was half-buried in the sand, but the vantablack glove was sitting exposed, and I pulled it from its casing in a single fluid motion, then put all the motion of my blood into my legs to climb the dunes and get my bearings.

As soon as I saw the smudge of Barren Jewel on the horizon, I leapt again, trying to get as much horizontal distance as possible. I landed on top of another dune and took a moment to get my footing, then jumped again, trying to get into a rhythm, but it was difficult, because the dunes were unevenly spaced. Three more jumps though and I was clear to run on a flatter stretch of sandy ground.

I was surprisingly fast, even given the experiments that I had done in Caer Laga. There I hadn’t had much room to get up to speed, but on the desert flats it was easy to add on more velocity. Before long, the biggest impediment wasn’t the way the sand stole the force of my feet, but instead the air resistance. I remembered reading that for cars at low speed the tires provided the majority of the friction, but that fell away at higher speeds, when it was all about trying to move air out of the way. Cars were designed with airflow in mind, and I was just a muscular teenager without the aid of modern airflow designs.

I looked behind me just in time to see a thaum-seeker racing after me, its clawed feet only briefly stepping on the tops of the dunes I’d left behind. I had no idea how fast I was going, but his relative speed made it seem like I was practically standing still. I pulled the Anyblade from my mouth as I ran and reshaped it so that it was a thin dagger in my hand, small enough that it had little weight to it. I was trying to increase my speed as well, but the air seemed too thick, and any effort was wasted on it. (So why wasn’t it a problem for the thaum-seekers? Magic, probably, those snaggle-tusked bastards.)

The big problem (aside from the thaum-seeker and all his buddies surely right behind him) was that I couldn’t watch him and keep my eyes on the ground ahead of me at the same time, and I was moving fast enough that I barely knew where I was going to step before I laid a foot there. I started bounding as the thaum-seeker got closer, using the brief time I was in the air to look back and judge his approach. On the last jump I landed just ahead of him and lunged with the full weight of my blood magic to the left --

Critical success!

-- just barely in time enough to Dodge him as his clawed hand swept past me, and like I’d seen at the cliffs, these things had little ability to control their monstrous momentum. He went skidding across the sand, out ahead of me, and tumbled across the ground as he tried to dig his claws into the sand.

But by now there were others visible, converging on the magic that I was putting out, and when I looked at Barren Jewel I could see that I was still two miles away, which meant a mile to safety, which meant … well, that I was going to be sliced to ribbons unless I did something drastic. They were moving too fast and just as I could get crit successes, there were crit failures too, the last one I’d gotten while running enough to twist my ankle.

I dug deep into a well of power I really hadn’t wanted to touch. There was magic in my blood, magic that lay latent until I tapped it, but I was already tapping it as hard as I could. I grit my teeth and focused on another source of latent magic: my bones.

I sucked power from my ribs one by one, tapping each of them for speed, and the burst of movement I got from them was intoxicating. It wasn’t just velocity though, it wasn’t speed, it was SPD, the governing attribute for dexterity, grace, and nimbleness. It wasn’t like time was slowing down, but instead like I had a better knowledge of how to use every second available to me. Each rib drained left me feeling slightly hollow, and each was accompanied by a message about an affliction, but I didn’t waste my time reading them because another stolen glance behind me showed that I still wasn’t safe, and just like that I ran out of ribs to pull dry. But now I was going too fast, tearing my way through the air that was solid as a wall trying to stop me, and if I lost the SPD I was certain that I would tumble and fall, so I started pulling from the fingers of my left hand, extracting power from each knuckle in turn, and when those were done, the bones that lay under the palm.

I had finished the bones of my left hand just as I felt a cold pain on my back -- another message at that -- and I pitched forward, into the sand, scraping my face across it as I suffered the equivalent of a major motorcycle accident while going freeway speeds. When I came to a stop, my back was burning with pain and my face was thoroughly abraded, but a wild look toward the thaum-seekers showed that they weren’t after me anymore. I stopped to read the long message printed on my eyes.

Quest Complete: Exit Strategy - Safely within the protection of Alvion’s Word and in no danger of starving, you’ve made your way back to Barren Jewel. If safety isn’t what waits for you there, then at least it’s a different, more human kind of danger.

I slumped back onto the ground and with a weak hand reached into my bandolier to take out a fairy and eat it, then again, and again, until I had eaten all five, each one sealing wounds. My breathing slowly came back down to normal and my heart stopping threatening to explode in my chest, but I felt hollow inside. To my surprise, my hand and ribcage felt no worse the wear for having been drained with bone magic, but at the same time, I could feel that there was no longer any magic left there. I checked the glove to make sure that it was okay, then lengthened my Anyblade so it was usable, thankful that I hadn’t had to try fighting. After three seconds, I had my menu open to check on what had happened to me bones, but all that greeted me was this:

Affliction: Drained Bone (x51)

After some time had passed with me laying on the sand, I got to my feet and started walking toward Barren Jewel, which was still a mile away. The quest had triggered early, because I could very easily see myself dying out here, especially if I hadn’t had the fairies for some quick (if incomplete) healing. I had also lost a full six thousand drops of blood, some from running and some from the cut on my back, and the fairies hadn’t restored any of it.

What I really wanted was a level up, to feel that golden taste, to be refreshed in body and spirit. They didn’t remove every affliction, and I was skeptical that they would take care of something as drastic as using my own bones for fuel, but just to feel it again, if only for a moment … wasn’t this a major quest? Didn’t I deserve it?

I was a hundred steps from the walls of Barren Jewel when Fenn popped out of the glove, which I’d been carrying, and landed on her butt in the sand. She looked around for a moment, then took off her breathing mask and grabbed the glove from me, which she slipped on with a sigh of satisfaction.

“We did it!” she shouted. “What the hell happened to you?”

Chapter Text

I ate from the fairy jar, squeezing their tiny bodies to crush their marzipan internal organs, until I was fully healed, back at 36/36 hit points. My health meter had increased in size when I’d put points into PHY, but I didn’t fully understand the pattern I was seeing, nor did I fully grasp what it meant to have health points, since I certainly didn’t feel like I had more survivability. That was a mystery for another time though, because Fenn and I went back over the wall (using the clonal kit to grab some clean robes) and into Barren Jewel. The warning on Sanguine Surge about sluggishness was definitely holding true, and that wasn’t just because of the blood loss I’d suffered from running four miles using it.

“We should find a different place to stay,” I told her. “Visit the old one, sure, check for messages there, but anything Amar - er, Mary knows, it’s got to be assumed compromised. I can see them asking her where she was staying, and her telling them because it was something that didn’t really matter.”

“We’re not going to stay at that hovel, thank you very much,” said Fenn. “No, you and I are going to live the good life. We’re stacked, remember?” She had her bow across her back and her full quiver, but the glove was too conspicuous, so had gone into her pocket. Within the glove was the box containing a fortune. We’d burned through a sizable amount of it paying the clonal kit to make various things for us, but that still left us flush with cash.

“I’m worried we’re going to need it to get Mary,” I said.

“You’re in no shape just now, you need rest,” said Fenn. “Why do you keep getting hurt so badly? Even with the fairies, you can’t keep from hurting yourself in ways that they can’t fix.”

“I saved both our lives,” I said. “I’d think that would get me a bit more credit.”

“I’m sure it was very heroic,” said Fenn. She frowned. “I was going to try being serious for a moment and thank you, but then it occurred to me that I could keep score instead. I saved your life, what, four times now? Against your -- I’m being very generous here -- one?”

“I am too tired to even think about it,” I said. “But I’m pretty sure that your count is off, because I should have two, including this one.”

“How so?” asked Fenn.

“Can we please find a place to stay first?” I asked.

Most of the temporary housing in Barren Jewel was for residents of the city. That made sense when I thought about the fact that teleportation cost the equivalent of $10,000 per passenger, which meant that it wasn’t a cost undertaken lightly. Barren Jewel wasn’t much of a tourist destination either, for obvious reasons, so most of the people who would have need of a hotel, motel, flophouse, or similar would be those who had been displaced for some reason or another and were in the process of finding a new place to live or waiting on construction or repairs. That was where we’d stayed on the first go-around, in a building with maybe twenty units whose owner probably prayed for calamities that would let him fill rooms.

But there were still people who teleported into this city, and those people didn’t always have the favor of someone with a great deal of power and a nicely furnished guest room, which meant that there was at least one place in Barren Jewel that catered to those of means. Fenn and I now counted ourselves in that group.

The first thing I noticed were the plants in the lobby.

I wasn’t counting the days, but it had been maybe two and a half weeks since we’d left the hellscape that was Silmar City and come to the different hellscape that was Barren Jewel and its surrounding environs. Both were exclusion zones, but at least the Risen Lands had plants, trees, and grass, some of it working its way up through the cracks in the sidewalk of the city or creeping into buildings. In the Datura Desert, nothing grew, and the blight extended into Barren Jewel itself. So I hadn’t seen a plant in quite some time.

Fenn gripped my arm and gently guided me away when I went to go look at one of the palm fronds in the corner. “I’ll excuse it this once, since you’re in rough shape,” she said in a low voice. “Don’t go poking things.”

She paid for our room in cash -- well, she would have to, wouldn’t she, since Aerb didn’t have credit cards, because they were pre-computer? Except didn’t credit cards predate computers by a little bit, they used carbon paper and a machine that took impressions from the raised letters, or something like that. So it was entirely possible that there were credit cards in Aerb, I supposed. Even setting aside the plants, the lobby was stunningly presented, in a way that reminded me somewhat of the bathhouse. Was that a thing in Barren Jewel, to have ridiculously ugly exteriors hiding shining, clean scenes within them?

“We’ll be up in the room soon, darling,” said Fenn. “It’s been a long day,” she explained to the concierge. We had on fresh clothes, helpfully provided by the clonal kit, but we’d had nothing but sponge baths during our stay in Caer Laga. I’d never been big on baths, which felt too much like soaking in my own filth, but right now I would have given quite a lot to slip into a warm tub of water. The feeling of blood loss and overall sluggishness that was overcoming me were another reason not to invest too heavily into blood magic. I couldn’t spend my life like this.

Fenn led me to an elevator and we stood in silence next to an elevator attendant as we rose.

“Better than our last elevator ride by a fair sight,” said Fenn.

“Fewer deaths, certainly,” I replied.

The elevator attendant looked at me, but I hadn’t even managed to pique his curiosity enough for him to raise an eyebrow. Fenn rolled her eyes, but there was a slight smile on her face, and she slipped her arm into mine, though that might have been because I was swaying a bit.

When we got into the room, I flopped down onto the white cotton bed without bothering to change out of my robes. It wasn’t much past midday, but I felt like I could do with some sleep. It seemed like such a pleasant place for a nap too, with cream-colored walls, blue-colored trim, and smooth, slightly cool tiles. Instead of actually doing that, I pulled myself up into a rough approximation of sitting and looked at Fenn, who was undressing.

“Not wasting time now that we have a bed, are you?” I asked.

“This is not for you,” said Fenn as she stripped down to her underwear. “Unless …” she put her hand to her mouth and looked at me with wide eyes. She turned slightly away from me. “Are you propositioning me? Because I’m quite flattered, but --”

“Knock it off,” I muttered, looking away.

“Fine, fine,” she replied with a laugh. “I paid for hot, running water, and I’m going to take advantage of it.” She removed her underwear and stepped into the private bathroom, which she absolutely could have done in the other order. I heard the sound of a shower not long after and slumped back onto the bed, where I closed my eyes.

I had been invested with the Anyblade, Fenn had been invested with Sable, and we had both been invested with the jar o’ fairies and the clonal kit. Investiture was a complicated thing that varied from heirloom to heirloom, but I had been assured that we had at least a month left before we risked losing any of those four, and most likely we would have them until either Amaryllis cut a magical mental tether or some while after she had died.

I could take some solace in the fact that our four magic items continuing to function properly was very weak evidence that Amaryllis was still alive, somewhere in the city. The fact that we hadn’t been visited by a helicopter or gold mage also spoke in favor of her continued good health, because we were expendable if she were under pressure, especially given that our chances had looked grim. On the other hand, the fact that she hadn’t sent us rescue meant that she was still trapped.

We’d have to do some investigation on this gold mage Aumann, and figure out a way to either beat him or steal her away without him knowing, but we knew that he had a warder and a revisionist, probably some others as well, and that’s about where my chain of logic was when I drifted off to sleep.

I woke up from my cat nap when Fenn sat down on the bed beside me, still wet from her shower and with a towel wrapped around her. “Shower’s open for you, stinky hooman,” she said. “Get your rest after that’s done, so you don’t stink up the bed.”

“Don’t leave while I’m showering,” I said. “We have things we have to talk about.”

Fenn flopped down onto the bed. “I have bought this room with our hand-earned loot and intend to enjoy it, at least for a bit.”

I went into the bathroom, which was filled with the warm steam of Fenn’s shower, and turned the water on before closing the door and then stripping away my clothes. The robes were relatively clean, but the shirt was bloody and had gashes through it, and everything was soaked with sweat from the long run. The warm water of the hotel shower was the first time since the ill-fated bathhouse trip that I finally felt like I was actually getting clean, rather than just smearing sweat, dirt, and sand over my body. It was nothing like home, of course, since for one the water pressure wasn’t as good and for another the water had a faint smell to it that spoke of filtration systems that hadn’t gotten everything clear, but it was still a hot shower, taken in private. I rested my head against the tile of the wall and might possibly have fallen asleep like that, just for a few seconds.

When I came out, with a towel wrapped around my waist, Fenn was asleep on the bed, half-covered by a blanket but not enough to be modest, since she wasn’t wearing clothes. Beside her, on a small table that hadn’t been there before, was a metal plate with two large metal domes, what I had to assume was room service. I opened both of them and took the thing that looked like a burger with too-red meat over the thing that looked like a curl of fried something sitting in soup. I demolished the maybe-burger in no time flat, since it was vastly better than the street food in our first hotel room, rations on the road, and whatever we could convince the clonal kit to make for us in Caer Laga. The thick-cut fried vegetable wafers next to the maybe-burger soon joined it in my stomach. I was eyeing the fried soup thing when Fenn woke up.

“There’s food,” she said as she yawned and arched her back.

(I talk a lot about how pretty Amaryllis is, and not as much about how pretty Fenn is, and I would rather just not mention either because they’re people beyond how attractive I find them. Comparing them is unfair to Fenn, plainly, because Amaryllis is just complementary to my tastes in a way that goes beyond how pretty she is in general. I thought there was a good argument for the look of Amaryllis being designed, but how fucked up was that to say of a woman, “Oh, she was designed specifically for me”? So even if that were true, I wouldn’t have said it.

Fenn was slender bordering on skinny, somewhat flat-chested, and not very muscular at all, though you wouldn’t have known that if you’d taken a punch from her, because elves laughed in the face of muscle mass, and half-elves at least gave the concept a chuckle. I had thought her scarred arms were pretty, before she’d told me her story, and I still thought that they were pretty, beautiful even, but it was tinted with a sense of “fuck those elves for leaving their mark on you”, and I knew that neither part of that was something that she wanted to hear.

I liked the freckles on her face, more now after days in the desert than when we’d first met, clustered around her cheekbones and across the bridge of her nose. I liked the shape of her ears, her slightly crooked and inhumanly white teeth, and it was all more than the sum of its parts, especially in the way that she smiled and joked. She was pretty, and I don’t want to diminish that by comparing her to anyone.

And this is a really long way of explaining why I was, very briefly, staring at her tits, something that I would normally gloss over because you don’t need to know every little thing that goes through my mind, except that she caught me.

“Oh gods,” said Fenn, covering herself with an arm and laughing. “Were you actually propositioning me?”

I could feel myself blushing, not just because of the implication, but because I had gotten caught being unchivalrous. I turned away from her and looked at the food. “It’s not -- I’ve explained that things are different in my culture, I can’t -- you could be more accommodating to me.”

“Oh I bet you’d like me to be a lot more accommodating,” laughed Fenn. “If you catch my drift? That works as a human expression, for a woman to accommodate a man? As a sex thing?”

“You know damned well that it does,” I said. The flush in my face wasn’t going away. “Just eat your food.”

“On a scale from 0-9, how in love with me are you?” she asked. She leaned forward and grabbed her plate of food and some silverware, to eat on the bed, still without putting clothes on.

Where 0 is not at all in love, and 9 is eternally devoted, heart and soul …

“Are you actually thinking about the answer?” asked Fenn, her mouth half full of food.

“Do you have to undercut absolutely everything?” I asked. “Can’t we just have a serious conversation for once instead of making a joke out of everything?” I was unaccountably annoyed by her just then. I had enough insight now that I knew at least part of the answer, which was that if things were a joke, then they didn’t have to be serious. Her biography had said as much.

“Joon, we have had so, so many serious conversations,” she replied. “Even on the first day we met, when I told you that Quills and company were going to kill us all, do you remember that? I didn’t try to make a joke of it.” She was eating while she talked, speaking around the food in her cheeks.

“Yeah, but,” I started, then stopped, then, “Death shouldn’t have to be on the line for us to have a serious conversation.”

“About this?” asked Fenn. “Even if you’d started to form some pitiable attachment to me, and you could get over the elements of me that are more elf than human --”

I turned back to face her. She was still naked, with a blanket covering her lap and her meal sitting on top of it. She was holding a spoon in one hand, halfway to her mouth, and the fingers of her other hand had soup on them, so she was holding them slightly away from her to keep them from getting on anything. It was kind of ridiculous, and took the wind out of my sails. She watched me for a bit, then continued moving the soup to her mouth and slurped it loudly.

“I’ve explained that we have elves on Earth,” I said. “I’ve told you, elves are, as Tolkien conceived them, basically perfect beings, timeless, practically immortal, just a step removed from angels. Maybe everyone here hates the elves, because of war crimes or just the typical elvish snootiness taken up to 11, or they’re dicks here, but on Earth people like elves, they want to be elves, it’s so common for people to be attracted to elven features that there are whole groups of other people who take it upon themselves to argue that elves represent unrealistic beauty standards, and sure, all that is taking place on the internet … the, uh, global internet of connected electronic computers, sorry, I lost the thread.”

“You were saying that in your culture, being attracted to a half-elf would be a very natural thing, not a perversion,” said Fenn.

“Was that your problem in the past?” I asked. “People who chased after you because you were a half-elf, rather than who you were as a person?” That I could see some Earthian parallels to.

Fenn shrugged. “Maybe at loyalty level seven I’ll tell you,” she said. “And we’ve been ignoring the elephant who’s not in the room, who we’re still thinking we’ll rescue. That’s the real kicker there, the one that would make a true, serious conversation about ‘feelings’ painful for me and awkward for you, if we just laid everything out there like dwarves.”

“Is that a thing that dwarves do?” I asked, partly from curiosity and partly to change the subject. I couldn’t remember how the conversation had started, exactly, but I had lost my footing pretty badly somewhere along the way, and was feeling lucky that her loyalty to me hadn’t gone down.

“Oh yes,” said Fenn. “Dwarves are notoriously blunt about how they see the world.” She slurped some more soup. “I’m willing to make you a deal. I’ll try to respect the culture you come from and its standards of modesty, so long as it’s not too much trouble for me, which it shouldn’t be during the course of us trying to figure out how to help Amaryllis. I know, by now, what gets those particular gears turning in your head, so I will be a gentlewoman and avoid intentionally turning them. In return, I want a light and airy time from you, or as much of one as we can have when plotting against a gold mage and trying to rescue an ally who may or may not be under threat of unspecified tortures.” She paused. “Also you owe me a favor.”

“You just tacked that favor on at the end,” I replied.

“Well the deal seemed a bit too sweet otherwise,” replied Fenn. “I’m giving you one thing that you want and another that you should want.”

“You already owe me a favor,” I said.

“So?” asked Fenn. “We owe each other favors then, that’s fine, do favors cancel out in human culture?”

“No idea,” I said. “Okay, deal.” I stuck out my hand and she shook it, using her soup covered fingers and smiling, then with a pleasant smile lifted her blanket up to cover herself more completely.

None of that actually settled anything, but it did shelve it, at least for a bit.

Let’s talk comic books for a bit, shall we?

Superman created the flying brick archetype of superhero: fast, strong, nigh-invulnerable, and capable of flight. This was all well and good, but it wasn’t at all thematic, and Superman, as well as his successors, routinely defied physics in ways that their powers shouldn’t have allowed. There were geeks who shook their heads in frustration at Superman catching a woman falling from the sky, because obviously her back should have snapped from the force of stopping either way. Or Superman would catch a plane whose engines had catastrophically failed, and these geeks would make long comments about how the chassis of a plane was not at all capable of supporting the entire plane at a single point in its midsection.

The solution to both the thematic problems and the physics problems was to boil Superman and his ilk down to a single, unified power: tactile telekinesis. Superman wasn’t actually invulnerable, he just had a telekinetic force field that projected a few millimeters from his skin, which counteracted forces against him. Superman wasn’t actually powerful, he just subconsciously leveraged his extremely short-range telekinetic power to put force behind his punches. He flew by using telekinesis on himself. He could extend his telekinesis to cover people, applying force to their entire body in order to prevent their death by acceleration, and he could cover a plane to ensure its structural integrity.

Gold mages had tactile telekinesis, and when I’d heard that, Superman had been the first thing that I thought of. (It was Superboy, not Superman, who actually had tactile telekinesis, and there were lots of problems trying to apply it to Superman specifically, simply because of his other powers like laser eyes or cold breath, and the need for him to instinctively use it in certain ways without actually knowing what it was he was doing.)

The reason they were called gold mages is that this power of theirs was tied directly to the amount of gold they owned, where ownership was defined by a magical ritual performed on the gold once per month. Gold mages almost always had vaults that they could securely store their gold within, which they could return to on a monthly basis to re-up their claim of ownership.

This had all been explained to me by Amaryllis back during my weeklong crash course on Aerb.

“So what do we need for me to learn gold magic?” I’d asked.

“At minimum, you’d need a pound of gold,” Amaryllis had said. “The ritual to claim the gold isn’t exactly secret, but it would take some time, effort, and money in order to find a copy. After that, twenty minutes of your time to go through the motions, which would give you some small amount of power. But even if we had the amount of money necessary to induct you into the ranks of the gold mages, there’s a catch, which is that gold magic expects much from you, first and foremost that you maintain some level of gold within your vault, but with some other demands that you’d have to meet.”

“And if I can’t or won’t?” I’d asked.

“You can get locked out of the magic forever,” Amaryllis had replied. “At this time, I don’t think pursuing that type of magic is a viable option, nor are we likely to tangle with one. Let’s move on to flower magic.”

“So, let’s say that I want to kill a gold mage,” I said to Fenn the next morning, after both of us got some much-needed sleep (in the same bed, but (somewhat) thankfully without contact). We had ordered room service again, and I’d managed to get a very normal-looking breakfast of bacon and eggs, even if the bacon was sliced half an inch thick.

“Hold onto your horses,” said Fenn. “Why do you want to kill a gold mage?”

“I … Amaryllis is being held by one,” I began, but I stopped when I saw her point. “You think that we should go in, get her, and then get out.”

“I think we need to listen to the word on the street,” said Fenn. “Killing that gold mage is not our end goal. I know that’s probably the best path you to get another level up, and gods help us that might be necessary, but the thing we are actually trying to accomplish is getting Amaryllis back to us. Mostly to make sure that our shiny toys keep on working.”

“Hypothetically,” I said slowly. “If our goal were to kill Aumann, how would we do it? Enough bullets or arrows to overwhelm his power? Forcing water down his throat to choke him out? Poison? Something else?”

“Forcing water down his throat doesn’t work when he can just force it right back up,” said Fenn. “Hitting him hard enough would work, but we’ll have to get some measure of his power, which again, is the value of getting the word on the street. As for poison, he’d probably have found some solution to that.”

“Blood or bone magic?” I asked. Both seemed likely candidates.

“I can’t say for sure,” shrugged Fenn. “Most likely he’s got a few heirlooms at auction.”

“Shit,” I said slowly. “So it’s possible that he’s not only got a version of Superman’s powers, but he also has other magic that we don’t know about, some of which he would have bought specifically to counter plans intended to kill him, and which we wouldn’t necessarily know about until after we actually tried those plans.” I thought back to Count Gardner, my NPC who had failed to kill the party for a very similar reason.

“And, naturally, we don’t have to or particularly want to kill him,” said Fenn. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind it, and I’m sure that you want your points, but he’s probably going to be a bitch to kill, which means why risk it?”

“Levels are how I get better,” I replied. “Even with that aside … in a game, I wouldn’t expect to go in for a rescue mission and not face the named antagonist.”

“In a game, would Amaryllis have been taken from you?” asked Fenn.

“Maybe,” I replied. “It depends on the game. I’m not saying that we have to kill him, just that when we’re asking questions, it might be good to keep in mind that we might be forced to at some point. I would rather fight him on my own terms than see him show up right after we’ve unlocked her cell door, or whatever.” I rubbed my chin. “Void weapons hurt him?”

Fenn sighed. “Yes. Anything that’s not directly counteracted by force. Or we could cut off his connection to his gold, though I’d think that’s the first thing anyone would try, so it’s what he’s most prepared for, especially if he’s got a pet warder of some skill to make his vault secure. And I hate to belabor this point, but you don’t seem to be getting it. We shouldn’t fight him. There’s a reason that we didn’t do it in Caer Laga. Joon, do you remember those ball bearings he held up to us? He could have shot those at the speed of a bullet. A bullet fired at him? That would just come to a stop against his skin.”

“Okay,” I said. “Point taken.”

“Finally,” Fenn huffed. “What you and I need to do is go out into the world and gather information. The radio says that peace and order has been restored to the city after the Risen Bile were put down, so we should be able to use a little less caution when moving about.”

“So, what, we need to know whether Amaryllis is alive, where she’s being held, what kind of forces or resources Aumann has at his disposal, anything else?” I asked.

“You’re forgetting one thing,” said Fenn. “A thing that I’d like us to do first, as it happens.” She cracked her knuckles and gave me an evil smile. “There’s a tattooist who has some explaining to do.”

Chapter Text

My left hand felt slightly numb, but otherwise no worse the wear for having its bones sucked dry of their latent magic. I flexed it every now and then, still suspecting that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop on that score. Bormann would probably know, but I didn’t quite know how to start that conversation, since “actually, I picked up bone magic since I last met you” seemed like it would raise too many questions. I wasn’t sure exactly how much danger that would put me in, but I wasn’t eager to find out. Nevertheless, it seemed prudent to get some answers sooner rather than later. For now though, we had other business.

The tattooist was a skinny guy with exposed arms, each covered in tattoos. It wasn’t really a sleeve, because they were individual pieces, with thick borders of unblemished skin between them. His shirt showed more tattoos on his chest, stopping just above his shoulders. He was actually more or less what I would have expected from a tattoo shop on Earth, except that he didn’t have much in the way of piercings, and he would almost certainly have spent a few years at the Athenaeum of Ink and Ardor. I hadn’t paid him much attention the first time around, since my attention had been more on Amaryllis, and looking back, I had been more worried about the way he was looking at her than I was on him as a person.

(From what I’d learned, tattoo mages came the closest to being a traditional D&D wizard, at least in terms of mechanics. A D&D wizard prepared their spells at the beginning of the day from a set list of spells that they know, and uses them up for whatever purpose as the day goes on. The spells were all defined in the books, and did different things that didn’t always follow that much logic. There was a spell that could make an invisible hand of force, and a spell that could make spooky sounds, but you couldn’t combine the two into one effect, you had to just cast two spells. Tattoo mages were similar; a limited number of fixed spells, limited opportunity to mix and match effects, but a wide variety of spells with diverse effects. The biggest difference was that they scribed their spells on their skin instead of meditating over a spellbook; after a tattoo mage was spent, they’d still have to have a rest, just like a wizard would.)

The tattooist was in the middle of creating an elaborate piece on someone’s back when we walked in. He did a double take when he saw us.

“Busy right now,” he said. There was a slight unsteadiness in his voice. “Come back in a few hours.”

The large, bearded man turned his head toward us and frowned. His eyes were yellow and his nose had ridges on it, but he was close enough to human that I didn’t think it mattered. His ear was tattered, like part of it had been bitten off. I’m not sure it was our intrusion that he was frowning at, because his frown deepened from time to time as the needle moved across his back.

“I think every ‘naeum-trained mage here in Barren Jewel has a story,” said Fenn. Obviously we weren’t going to come back later to make things more convenient for him. “Barren Jewel is an expensive place to get to and an expensive place to leave, two hundred miles from anywhere, which means you probably had to pay into the key system, and I have to wonder why that is.”

“There are people willing to pay your way,” said the man on the table with a rumbling voice. “That’s a story all its own, I guess.”

“I said I’m busy now,” the tattoo mage said. “This takes concentration.”

“You were talking earlier,” said the man he was tattooing.

Fenn smiled. “Zeke, was it?”

“Yeah,” said the tattoo mage. He kept his focus on his work, or at least pretended to.

“Well, Zeke, you and I have a little bit of a problem, because I paid you for services rendered, and come to find out, it didn’t work,” said Fenn. “I’m a knowledgeable girl, studied in the ways of the world, and things like that aren’t supposed to happen. In fact, if I’d thought that was even a possibility, I probably wouldn’t have paid you.”

“I’d need to see the tattoo,” said Zeke. His voice trembled.

“Not an option right now, I’m afraid,” said Fenn. “Not an option specifically because you fucked us.”

“I didn’t,” said Zeke.

“If you’re gonna get the shake down, I’ll come back to have you finish this later,” said the man on the table with a glance backward. “Don’t fuck up the lines because you’re thinking too hard about covering your ass.”

Zeke breathed a frustrated sigh. “Okay, we’re done early then.”

He used a cloth to wipe down the man’s back, then put on some padding while we waited. The man threw on his shirt shortly afterward and strode to the door, stopping briefly by the window to turn the blinds, then flipping the sign on the door from Open to Closed.

“Don’t kill him,” the man said to Fenn. “Need him to finish the tiger.” Was that what that was supposed to be? Then he left us behind, alone with the tattoo mage.

“So,” said Fenn. She paused, then turned to me. “Did you want to give this a go?”

“Um,” I replied, then cleared my throat and looked at Zeke.

Intimidation was capped by INS; it was the only one of my social skills that was. I kind of understood the thought behind that; in D&D, Intimidation was Charisma based, but the game layer here divided out all the social skills in different directions. Intimidation wasn’t Charm, it was more the opposite of that, and it definitely wasn’t Poise, because it wasn’t much about keeping a straight face. There was some elements of those to intimidating a person, but mostly intimidation was about making credible threats that actually got to the heart of what a person feared.

And as Fenn pulled on her glove so black it ate all the light coming at it, reeking of magic, I realized that having me talk to Zeke was part of her intimidation strategy. She was essentially saying, “You’re such a small, insignificant piece of garbage that I’m handing this off to someone for practice.”

“You fucked us,” I said to Zeke. “You know that you fucked us. Now that we’re here, staring at you, it’s obvious to us that you fucked us.” I found myself actually getting mad at him, the more I thought about. “I almost died in the fucking desert because you decided to pull one over on us.”

Skill Increased: Intimidation lvl 7!

“Now hold on,” said Zeke. "It might be interference from --"

I moved forward and punched him square in the stomach, as hard as I could. He crumpled and coughed, gasping for air. I leaned down and gripped him by the neck. “She was my companion you little shit. She might be dead because --” I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to be beating the crap out of this guy, I was supposed to be asking him for information, “Tell me what you did, and why you did it, and I will let you live.”

Skill Increased: Intimidation lvl 8!

Zeke kept coughing, but struggled to his feet. “It’s a variant,” he said, short of breath. I hadn’t realized that I could punch people that hard now. “Keyed to -- me.”

I grabbed his finger in my hand. “You paused,” I said. “Probably because you thought that I would kill you if I didn’t have an incentive to keep you alive, right?” I squeezed his fingers hard and he tried to pull them away from me. He had tattoo magic in his skin, so he wasn't defenseless, which was part of why it was important to make him think an escalation would result in his death. “Unlike you, I stick by my word. I said that if you tell me how and why, I would let you live. You have exactly one more opportunity.”

Skill Increased: Intimidation lvl 9!

I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the skill was increasing. Level 8 was where the slowdown began, and level 10 was where it became a grind. Maybe my increased Insight was helping, or maybe it was because I wasn’t trying to subvert the system by doing roleplay exercises with a party member, but either way, it was noticeably faster.

“Please,” he said, trying once again to pull his fingers from my grasp. “It’s a variant, keyed to a word. It’s new, discovered in the last few years, the Skin and Ardor didn’t want it spreading because they thought it would weaken the trade, I wasn’t even supposed to know about it.”

“You thought that we were easy marks,” I said to Zeke, staring in his eyes. “We were young, not obviously affiliated with anyone, lightly armed, showing no magic, and we were spending a fair bit of money, so you thought … you thought that you could extort us.”

“Or he'd sell us a story about how he'd have to be paid some money to fix what went wrong,” said Fenn. "That's extortion of a different feather. Not a great strategy in the long term."

“I’ve been scraping together the money to leave,” said Zeke. He looked at his trapped fingers and winced. “You’re right that there’s a story, behind how I got here, it’s --”

“I don’t care,” I said. The last thing I wanted was for him to give me a quest. Gambling debts, a kidnapped sister, running from something … if it were me telling the story, he’d have some kind of humanizing backstory that made sense of his motivations and pointed the players toward something they could do besides just get revenge. I didn’t want to risk that though. “Tell me the word we need.”

“Azalea,” he said. I stared into his eyes, trying to figure out whether he was lying. What calculations were going on in his head? It had to be clear to him now that we outmatched him, even without him seeing the full extent of our abilities and possessions. That didn’t mean that he would tell us the truth though, not if he thought that was too big of an advantage to give up.

“Well, that’s good enough for me,” said Fenn. She moved over to his workbench and laid her gloved hand on a wooden box filled with supplies.

“What are you doing?” asked Zeke.

“I’ll be taking this,” said Fenn, as the box disappeared. “Now, I don’t want to put you out of business, because you’ve been very helpful to us.” She looked around the shop and spotted a second tattoo gun. She grabbed it, looked it over, and as she did, it disappeared into her glove. “And finally, I think we’ll take half of your, what do you call it? Book of flash?” She looked around some more until she finally pulled a book from under the shelf, which she leafed through. It was a three-ring binder with a number of pages in it.

“No, I need those!” said Zeke, as Fenn opened the rings and took roughly half the pages.

“You need them?” I asked. I punched him in the throat and let go of him so he could topple to the floor. “That must suck to need something and have it held hostage,” I spat. “We’ll bring everything back, unless you lied to us. You still have half your things until then.” I paused for a moment, hand itching to draw the Anyblade from where it was concealed in my pocket. “Tell anyone that we were here and I’ll make sure your death is creative.”

Skill Increased: Intimidation lvl 10!

Zeke was on the floor, coughing and retching, so I’m not sure that he heard my message. Fenn slipped off Sable and returned it to her pocket, then went to the door with a cursory look back at me. I followed quickly, feeling awkward about just leaving him there. That hadn’t been part of the plan in my head.

“You went a little hard on him,” said Fenn as we made our way back into the crowded streets. “You also escalated too fast. Treat a man like that and he’ll think his life is on the line, and if he thinks that his life is on the line, sometimes he’ll unleash every scrap of magic at his fingertips. Shouldn’t have to tell you that, since you did the same yesterday.”

I flushed. “Sorry,” I said. “I’ll keep it in mind for next time.”

“Mind you, my experience has much more been one of being on the opposite end of such negotiations,” continued Fenn. “The guard always want you to know that they’ll break your fingers if you don’t cooperate with them. Not that the underworld is terribly kind to wily half-breeds with smart mouths either.” She whistled a few bars. “Would you have killed him?”

The streets were still filled with sights that grabbed my attention, but there was some repetition to it now, and the sense of the familiar was creeping in. The first time I had seen a dwarf, it had been a shock, but the second time, that shock was dulled.

“It wouldn’t have been smart,” I replied.

“Oh, well I can agree with that,” said Fenn. “But was there a chance that you’d do it anyway?”

“It was unfair,” I said. “If people run into problems, it shouldn’t be because of things they had no control over.”

“That is awfully high-minded from someone who punched a man in the throat,” said Fenn.

“He had that and more coming,” I replied. Besides, that’s the sort of thing that the game seems intent on rewarding. “But I’m talking about games. If there’s stupid RNG bullshit or whatever, fine, that you can plan around, but why build a thing that just fucks you over for going in blind? And this is the second goddamned time this has happened to us. Counterplots are fine, but not if the player isn’t aware of them.”

“Someone put a hornet in your hat,” said Fenn. “Also, you know me well enough to know that I don’t understand half of what you’re saying, right?”

“I know, just venting,” I replied.

“Besides,” said Fenn. “This is my third or fourth time being in this position within the last few weeks. Do you understand how Silmar City went down from my end? It was me, getting pulled from a jail cell and told that I would be working as a guide for some very dangerous people in a very dangerous place. Once we get there, the information that was supposed to be collected concurrently never came, and other plots going on elsewhere in the world basically left us stranded, except on top of that there was also this missing girl that they wanted to get, whose very identity was a threat to my life, because they couldn’t let me live if I knew they’d killed her. Do you get how many fucking plots must have piled up on top of each other? To be expected from the Lost King’s Court, but please, don’t complain about getting blindsided by plans, not after you lucked your way through Silmar.”

“You’re being very charitable to my luck,” I said.

“I don’t think I am,” said Fenn. “Can you imagine if you ran into Fireteam Blackheart as it normally is, without me in the mix? They’d have extracted their use from you, then ground you into a fine paste. Hell, the elevator ride was elf luck, through and through.”

“What?” I asked. “Are you … that was me! Have you gone this whole time thinking that I did nothing?”

“More or less, yes,” said Fenn. “What do you mean ‘it was you’?”

“I snapped the rope,” I said. “I burnt my hand nearly through doing it.”

We were moving in the direction of Bormann, to have a conversation that I wasn’t really looking forward to. My hand hadn’t gotten better, it still felt numb, and I could feel something similar in my chest. I was also still suffering from blood loss, even if eating my way through high-class room service had done wonders for my constitution.

“Well how was I supposed to know that?” asked Fenn. “Oh, is that why you think that you saved my life twice? I guess I’ll give you that one. You still have some catching up to do.”

“You said four to one before?” I asked. I rubbed my left hand, trying to bring some feeling back into it. “What are the four?”

“Well, number one was the very first moment we met,” said Fenn. “Number two --”

“I would have outrun them, I wasn’t in any danger,” I said.

“Number two,” continued Fenn. “That was me murdering Leonold before he could use the Fool’s Choker against you. Fatal flaw of that particular tattoo is that it makes people really want to kill you to get rid of it.”

“I moved the tattoo,” I said. “And it went off, despite your best effort to kill him quickly.” I was aware that we were being somewhat indiscreet, since we were having this conversation in the middle of a busy street as we walked, but I could barely hear her, and we didn’t technically have enemies right now, since I was fairly sure that after five days Aumann would have written us off, if he hadn’t done so the moment his helicopter flew away.

“Oh?” asked Fenn. “Oh, right, the healing thing,” she said. “That saved you from having your flesh cut up?”

“Yes, it did,” I said. “No thanks to you.”

“And what exactly was the trigger for you leveling up?” asked Fenn. She was looking ahead, not at me, which made her smile all the more irritating.

“Fine, that one I’ll give you,” I said.

“And of course the other two aren’t at all in contention,” said Fenn. “I shot a porcupine and a thaum-seeker, both just for you.”

“Fine,” I said. “That makes it three to two though, I only need one more to catch up, and I’m sorry to say it, but I’m getting better faster than you are.”

“You don’t hate to say that at all,” laughed Fenn.

It felt good to have her back in a joking mood, after our conversation in the hotel room about what my brain was flagging as high school level relationship drama. Of course, if this place was a reflection of me, or my thoughts, or whatever, then high school level relationship drama was probably to be expected. The “Aerb is all me” hypothesis had more than a few kinks in it though, with the “Coward” brand being one of them.

We arrived at the Kindly Bones and found Bormann sitting behind her desk, putting away a pulp novel that she must have been reading right before we came in. She looked at us in surprise.

“More amateur archery gone awry?” she asked with a faint smile.

“We had a drunken bet that we’d like to settle,” said Fenn.

“You don’t look drunk,” said Bormann.

“Well, you have to honor your bets, even if they were lubricated with liquor,” smiled Fenn. “I’d be more than willing to pay you for your time and expertise, if you’d oblige us.”

Bormann smiled. “I don’t recall whether either of you were mages of any sort, but there are certain secrets we agree not to share when we conclude our training. Now, the law in Barren Jewel isn’t so tight as in other places, but I’ve found that keeping a closed mouth is a valuable skill in my line of occupation, and prefer to do so wherever possible.”

“We’re not looking for secrets, per se,” replied Fenn. “We’re more looking for … well, corner cases, things that a bone mage would know, but which wouldn’t come up for those of us who are only loyal customers.”

“I see,” nodded Bormann. “Well, I’d be happy to answer your questions, but I hope you understand that there are some things I cannot answer, whether because of bonds I still honor, for your safety, or for my own. And obviously discussions of previous patients would be off the table.”

Fenn nodded, then looked to me. I cleared my throat. “Alright, hypothetically, could a bone mage draw power from their own bones?” I already knew that they could, because I’d done it, but I wanted to see her reaction to that before I asked my actual question.

“It’s possible,” said Bormann. Her lips were drawn tight. “It happens, on occasion, if a bone mage is in such a dire situation that cannibalizing their own body for a brief burst of power seems wise.” She looked at Fenn and her eyes widened slightly. “No offense.”

“None taken,” said Fenn. She must have caught my look. “Elves practice ritual cannibalism, mostly on the worst of the worst. It’s the second highest insult an elf can express, the first being to make someone eat themselves.”

“Okay,” I said, blanching at that, “So what happens to the bones, if the power is sucked from them when they’re still inside the body?” Please, please don’t say that it necrotizes.

“It’s nothing you would notice much from the outside,” said Bormann. “The bones become more brittle after the fact, and the marrow within them doesn’t function as it should, which can lead to problems of the blood like anemia, fever, risk of infections, or things like that.” Fuck. “The most interesting change is within bone magic itself. The body will compensate for the loss, given a few months, and strengthen the remaining bones, and to some extent the flesh around them.” She gestured to a few of the larger bones hanging from her shop. “There are specialized farms that perform the procedure on their animals, empowering the others, which are then shipped to people like me once the animal has been brought to slaughter.”

“So,” I said slowly. “A person who had burned through the magic of their rib cage would have a weak point there?” I asked. “But it would be made up for in other ways, given time?”

“You’re speaking of the extreme end,” said Bormann. She was watching me. “It’s not just that bones have a magic to themselves, they’re steeped in, and provide for, the raw essence of a creature. I’m obviously speculating, but if it were the entire rib cage, all twenty-four bones, there would be little way for the other bones to compensate. Weakness of the lungs, heart, the entire digestive system … it would depend specifically on the person in question, their vitality in particular, but I would predict an appreciable decrease in quality of life.” Fuck, fuck. “Perhaps if I knew the nature of this bet, I could help to arbitrate?” She was humoring us, I was sure of it.

“Joon heard this story,” said Fenn. “I can’t remember the details exactly, but the guy burned through fifty-odd bones, all his ribs and every bone in his hand. I said that a bone mage couldn’t do that, and even if they could, they would die soon after that. But you’re saying that he would have been fine, just a little sick from it?”

“Sick for the rest of his life,” nodded Bormann. “The ribs in particular are vital to the production of blood. But I wouldn’t think fatal, not necessarily.”

“How would you fix it?” I asked. I was feeling weak again, not just from the blood loss but from the bad news I’d been delivered. “Are there … bone transplants?”

“You’re well beyond my level of expertise,” said Bormann. “I would imagine that there’d be some solution, in this wide world, but gaining access to it would be another issue.”

Quest Accepted: Boneitis - You used up the power in your bones and it’s not going to come back without some serious magic applied to it.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. That quest pop-up meant that this probably wasn’t going away just by waiting it out or leveling up. And not only was I probably going to have a weak spot until the issue was resolved, not only was I going to get sick, but it was also going to screw with my ability to effectively use blood magic.

Fenn clasped me on the shoulder. “Don’t look so glum, you won both halves of the bet, that’s twenty thousand tcher from my coffers to your own.” She turned to Bormann. “And for you, because I like you, and because I admire both your candor and discretion, and because we might have use of you in the next few days, amateur archery being such a dangerous but alluring sport and all, fifty thousand tcher.” Fenn reached into her robes and handed over some money.

“That’s quite generous,” said Bormann, but it wasn’t so generous that she had to refuse.

“What are we going to do?” I asked as we left the Kindly Bones.

“We’re going to find Mary,” said Fenn. “What was the count she gave, something like two hundred that might be given out? I’m sure somewhere in there a solution awaits.” She turned slightly and pointed at a tall cylindrical building, matte grey with windows placed in a miserly way. “That’s Aumann’s place. I was half-hoping that retracing our steps through Barren Jewel would turn up a message left for us, but we haven’t been so lucky thus far. So, we’ll visit our old hotel yet, but that phallic building is probably the place we’re going to try to get inside.”

Chapter Text

We sat at a small table in the back of the Impish Inn, each with our own glass of something called kefir, a thin, alcoholic yogurt that I occasionally took sips of to try acquiring the taste, a process that wasn’t moving along terribly well. That was okay though, because the Impish Inn was my first real fantasy tavern, and I was trying not to miss anything. There were supposedly around 200 “mortal species” on Aerb, but humans dominated Barren Jewel, and they were in the majority worldwide. That meant that I was still seeing new ones all the time, some of which I recognized and some I didn’t, plus the Animalia, which were the anthropomorphic animals. Their forms, like Quills, usually had the bare minimum done in order to get them upright - they were all pretty damned far from human.

The Impish Inn (probably called that for the alliteration, since as far as I could tell it didn’t have rooms for rent at all) had an actual, honest-to-god imp sitting in a cage near the front of the bar. It was a pathetic creature, with a body that came to a point at every opportunity, from his ears, to his nose, to his joints. He reached out with his little hands through the bars and pleaded with people for food or drink, and though I saw a few people indulge it, it never stopped its begging. Fenn had explained to me that creatures came up from the hells from time to time, but that it apparently “wasn’t a real problem worth thinking about”. Apparently not, if someone could keep one of those things as an attraction in a run-down tavern and not have people get up in arms about it.

People mostly stuck to their kind, I noticed. There was a table of hobbits, all of them sitting on booster seats and clustered close together as they shared miniscule drinks. Three bald women with blue hands, vitrics, shared drinks and spoke in low voices, leaning in toward one another to be heard over the din. A pair of large creatures with green-striped snouts sat in specially reinforced seats - after watching them for a moment I concluded that they were on a date, assuming that body language translated properly.

“Not all places are so accommodating as this one,” said Fenn as she watched my gaze. “It’s one of the reasons that people typically gather in ghettos. Special diets, special seats, special washrooms, special everything, it all gets to be a bit much, so most places will simply build for their most common customer, the human, and that’s that. Works for me, but I imagine it’s a bit of a pain if your tail keeps getting in the way everywhere you go. Of course, Barren Jewel is also somewhat unique, because it’s more a place where people end up, rather than a place people go. So far as I understand it, the variety here has been slowly whittled down as the years have worn on.”

I nodded at that. Fenn herself was in robes, which were pulled up like a hijab to frame her face and hide her ears. It wasn’t that I minded her ears, but I thought she looked prettier dressed that way; it drew all the attention to her facial features, her dark green eyes, the way she pursed her lips when she was scanning the crowds, and the constellations of freckles. Obviously I didn’t say any of that.

We were at the Impish Inn to covertly gather information, which we had started on by talking to the bartender and telling him to send people our way. The story we were going with was that we were from out of town and looking to go into business with Aumann, but needed to know more about him and his dealings. The bartender knew who Aumann was and not much more than that, but he’d smiled when Fenn had given him a generous tip and we’d heard him making inquiries on our behalf, not mentioning us by name. As yet, he hadn’t sent anyone over to us.

(This plan was not without its risks; the other plan that Fenn had put forth was that she would skulk outside the building, wait for someone to leave, tail them, and then strike up a conversation with them which would eventually lead back around to Aumann. I hadn’t liked that plan, mostly because it meant her going off on her own for indeterminate periods of time, and she’d relented without a fight. We still held the element of surprise, and Aumann was the only one who had seen our faces at Caer Laga, so I thought meeting people in a tavern was more or less safe.)

“So,” said Fenn, “While we wait, tell me an Earth story. I’ve never heard one before.”

I looked around us. No one was really close enough to listen in. “I’ve told you lots of stories from Earth,” I said. “Besides, you don’t believe that Earth is a real place.”

“You’ve told me about games that you and your friends played,” said Fenn. “And you’ve gone on and on about the rules for these games, and the settings, and conceits, and whatever else. But if Earth is a real place, or at least a fully-realized fiction, then it should have its own stories, shouldn’t it? Tell me one of those. A story of your people.”

I paused and thought about that for a moment, then launched into one of the stories I thought I was most likely to get correct, as well as having the least background that would need explaining. Fenn listened for awhile as we watched the people, sipping on her kefir, but when I got to a certain point she started paying more attention, furrowing her brow and frowning in concentration.

“And then,” I continued, “Standing over the pit, with his hand cut off, Luke Skywalker says, ‘You killed my father!’, and the Dark Lord Vader replies, ‘No, I am your father’.”

“Can I stop you there, for a moment?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “We’re like, two-thirds through, sorry, I should have picked something shorter.” Really, I could have stopped at the end of A New Hope, but I was having fun, and for the first time she’d seemed interested in ‘Earth stuff’.

“You haven’t read any books on Aerb?” she asked.

“Just a few paragraphs out of one,” I said. “I’d like to change that.”

“And I would guess that Amaryllis hasn’t been telling you any stories from Aerb?” asked Fenn.

“I’d like to know where you’re going with this,” I said.

“Your story,” said Fenn. “It’s cribbing from The Star War. Not just in terms of the plot, but it’s got some of the names too, and the lines, at least all the famous ones, are taken straight from the play.”

I sat back in my chair. “Huh,” I said. I drank more of my kefir and grimaced at the taste, which was slow to acquire. “Okay, so there are a few explanations for that.”

“Number one,” said Fenn. “Incomplete skewer, changed your remembering of the play into a story from the place you only think you’re from.”

“Or,” I said. “It could be an easter egg placed by the developers, something that I would notice, chuckle at, and then look by.”

“If the world entire was made for you,” said Fenn. “You understand why I’m not willing to credit that utterly narcissistic fantasy, right?”

“I do,” I said. “Wait, there are other dream-skewered, it’s a, a medical condition here, right? The story could have just come from one of them.” That didn’t seem entirely out of the question, and it could give a plausible explanation to the mechanism by which the easter egg had been hidden, so that it wasn’t just developers being cheeky and breaking the world to add in modern day references … but they hadn’t been all that concerned about that in any other way before now.

“One problem with that,” said Fenn. “The play’s author is famous, and he predates you by hundreds of years. He wrote a large number of plays, as it happens.”

“So?” I asked. “That’s all consistent with the dream-skewer hypothesis.”

“He wasn’t just a playwright,” said Fenn. “He was a ruler, a king. They called him the Warrior Poet, before his heritage was uncovered, and then they called him the Poet King.” She was watching me. I got the sense that I was being tested, but I didn’t know the question, let alone the answer. “Of course, that was before he left on some great quest and never returned. Now, he’s usually called the Lost King. The man who wrote The Star War, The Redemption of Shawkshank, and The Ozian Wizard, among dozens if not hundreds of others? That man was Uther Penndraig, great-great-great-whatever-grandfather to,” she stopped and looked around, “To the nobility of Anglecynn.”

“Holy shit,” I said with wide eyes. “He was dream-skewered.”

“What? No!” said Fenn. “How is that the conclusion that you come to? I’m telling you that the man couldn’t have just been some nut from another world, no offense, --”

“Taken,” I said. “Just for my sake, pretend that Earth is a real place, even if there’s no way to prove that.”

“Fine, I’ll do that, as a favor to you,” said Fenn.

“No,” I said. “You’ll do it because I’ve been very kind in trying not to suggest that Aerb is artifice, and we don’t want to both be pissed off about it.”

“Grumble grumble,” said Fenn, waving her hand. “Anyway. Uther Penndraig was the best swordsman who ever lived. He founded the First Empire. If you were ever to meet one of his spawn they’d be dripping in magic items, and that would be just a fraction of what he gathered in his lifetime. He founded two of the Athenaeums and was a master of eight different kinds of magic. Being dream-skewered might explain him being a poet, playwright, singer, and painter, but he was far, far more than that. Also, if our friend Mary ever asks, pretend that I don’t think he’s that great. Seems like the kind of thing that would really get her goat.”

“So what you’re saying,” I said, rubbing my chin, “Is that Uther Penndraig was the lever that moved the world?”

Fenn sighed. “Ugh. Point in your favor.” She took a swig of her kefir and winced as it went down.

I was thinking about Arthur. I hadn’t told Fenn or Amaryllis about him. When Amaryllis had first told me about Uther, I was sure that my reaction had been noticeable, but she had never asked me about it, instead electing for us to go to sleep. Had that fallen through the cracks, because that was the night I had neglected my watch to go train? Had she misjudged my reaction? Or … or more likely, more in keeping with how she moved through the world, had she made the connection herself and thought it best to leave that card unplayed?

(It maybe says something about how I thought of Amaryllis that I could picture us getting in a fight, and just as I was about to storm away angry or call it quits between us, she would blurt out that her great-great-whatever-grandfather had been a man like me. And she probably knew more about Uther than anyone else I was likely to meet, which meant that she could rebind herself to me, or use her ancestor as a way to bring context to what she had done, if it was necessary, or maybe just throw me off my balance. That imagining of Amaryllis was awfully uncharitable, but she’d left me to die twice now, and when I pictured her, it was with helmet on, armed and armored, ready to murder without remorse, if she deemed it was necessary.)

But my mind kept going to Arthur. If he had landed in this world, like I had, what would he have done? He’d have sunk into a role, like he always did at the table. He usually played a knight or a fighter, but on occasion he dipped into being a bard. D&D had always been about the worlds for me, the inner workings of the places and people, but for Arthur it had been about the stories. It would be just like him to borrow from the Western cultural canon and leave his mark on this place, to sing the songs he’d heard on the radio growing up, and while no, Katy Perry’s California Gurls would probably not resonate with anyone on Aerb, there were others that would, especially once he was a king and he had a whole court following his every whim. And what would Arthur have named himself in this new world? Why, he would have picked the name of his favorite character, Uther Penndraig.

The dizzying sense of hope was returning to me. That quest, The Lost King, Found? raced to the very top of my priorities. I would need to dig into books, to read up on his life to see what he had been like, to confirm my suspicion that he wasn’t just a king, not just dream-skewered, but a player in this game, that he was Arthur, who I had last seen in a coma, both eyes blackened, with medical wrap over him and cuts on his face. Arthur, who had been my best friend, Arthur, who died too young.

“Whatcha thinkin’ about?” asked Fenn.

“I need a library,” I croaked out. “Or a bookstore.”

“Because of Uther Penndraig?” asked Fenn.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“I already gave you a point, you don’t have to gloat over it -- but we can discuss that later, because we’ve got company,” said Fenn, switching gears smoothly. She waved a hand at a pretty young woman with two small horns on her head. I was fairly sure that she was what D&D would call a tiefling, someone who was at least partially demonblooded. The way she looked at the caged imp with pity made that all the more likely. She was wearing white robes, which were somewhat stained at the hem, and walked to us hesitantly.

“Quinten says that you’re … inquiring? Into Aumann, that is,” she said. She remained standing beside our table.

“That’s us,” said Fenn, “Don’t you worry, we’re just doing our due diligence before we try to arrange a meeting with him,” she said smoothly. “We won’t ask you anything that would risk your job, and you’d be free to leave if you felt that we were crossing a line best left uncrossed.” She pulled a note from her robes and laid it on the table, one marked as worth five thousand tcher. “Obviously we would compensate you for your time, and you’d be free to tell your employer after the fact, if you so choose, though we’d prefer a little more time to gather information before we make our pitch.”

She wavered for a second, looked me over, then took the note and sat down, folding it away. “What would you like to know?” she asked. “I’m only a maid, I don’t know how much I can help you.”

“I’m Emily,” said Fenn, “And this is Sam.”

(I had to talk Fenn out of clever anagrams, puns, or coded messages, opting instead for boring, human names that no one would look twice at. She had eventually agreed that giving away anything would be stupid. The cleverest pseudonym was the one that said absolutely nothing about the true identity behind it, not even to reveal that there was a pseudonym.)

“Vanity,” she said, doing a good job of ignoring how I looked at her.

“Trifles Tower,” said Fenn. “That’s his?”

Vanity nodded. When Fenn let the silence stretch, Vanity spoke, “He renamed it, it used to be the Clocksmen Tower, until about ten years ago when Aumann took hold of it.”

“Has he been a gold mage long then?” asked Fenn.

“No,” said Vanity. “Twelve years, or thereabouts.” More silence, which again compelled her to continue. “Before that, there were three gold mages in Barren Jewel, always fighting one another, sometimes being replaced. Aumann came in and took over their vaults, one by one. But that was before my time.”

“Any idea how he managed it?” asked Fenn.

“His friends say that he was more cunning and his enemies say that he was more treacherous,” shrugged Vanity. “I know that none of those victories were through direct combat. He seems to take some pride in that.”

Fenn winced. Right, because that means he’s probably smarter than previously thought, and at the very least, someone who studied how to defeat a gold mage. “I’m slightly hazy on ‘the call of the gold’, but it’s my understanding that there is, in some sense, a constant need for accumulation. Do you know how Aumann is handling that need?”

“I think he gets it shipped in,” said Vanity. “But I’m not entirely sure. There’s some talk of it among the staff.” She shifted in her seat. “There is worry that he can’t keep it up forever.”

“And you said that he has enemies?” asked Fenn. “People that might complicate a business arrangement?” I probably wouldn’t have thought to include that last bit.

“The Risen Bile,” said Vanity, spitting to the side. “Others, that are lesser, business rivals, politicians -- I believe the mayor is none too fond. Enemy might be putting it too harshly.”

Fenn frowned at that. “And what do you know of his business holdings?” she asked. “Just in general, we’ll get the full overview from the man himself, I’m sure.”

“He has his thumbs in many pies,” said Vanity. “Two of the cheese factories are his, I know. He won the bid on the bathhouse, so that will be his too, soon. He’s got a fair number of people, a warder of some talent among them, and he himself makes use of his power, helping out when there’s need for muscle.” She looked between the two of us. “But none of that you wouldn’t know from talking to anyone else who works for him.” And in fact, most of that we’d already known.

“The Risen Bile,” said Fenn. “It was my understanding that they were all dead.”

“Mostly dead,” shrugged Vanity.

“So there’s some cleanup still going on,” said Fenn. “And why are moral crusaders so against him? He wouldn’t have acquired the bathhouse until after that attack, right?”

“He tore into them,” said Vanity. “He offered his services to the city guard, free of charge, and made short work of them whenever another group were found.”

Fenn tapped her fingers against the table, frowning. “One last question then, I think. Have there been others, possibly like us? Newcomers from out of town, here trying to make a deal or otherwise bring themselves into his sphere of influence?”

Vanity looked between the two of us. She touched her horns, one then the other in quick succession, then tapped her chest where her heart was. “Twenty thousand tcher,” she said in a low voice. Fenn calmly pulled the money from her pocket and discreetly slipped it across to Vanity, who furtively stuck it in her robes. “He left in his helicopters, five days ago,” she said, leaning forward, voice low. “When he came back, there was a woman with him. Red hair, very pretty. I didn’t see her myself. Whoever she was, the tower started buzzing with activity and hasn’t stopped. People are being moved around, some of them going on trips.” She stood up from her chair. “That’s all I know.”

“Thank you,” said Fenn with a nod. “I think it goes without saying that this conversation won’t come up in the course of our business dealings with your employer, and as you said, it could conceivably have come from anyone in the tower.”

Vanity nodded and then left, hurrying out the door.

“So,” said Fenn. “I’m tempted to call that a whole lot of nothing.”

“She’s alive,” I said. “That’s not nothing.”

“Was alive, five days ago,” replied Fenn. “And we'd figured that she would be anyway. Though 'activity' could indicate that Aumann is going after the buried treasure, and our mutual friend probably gave him the maps, which … I guess we can count in our favor, if we really need a win that badly.”

“So what’s the plan?” I asked. “I’d still like to go to a bookstore, now that the city has settled and we have the funds for it. We can create the gems for gem magic, the only gate left should be an understanding of how to activate them, which I’m hoping that I can get from a book.” Plus, I really wanted a detailed biography of Uther Penndraig.

“We’re not just going to talk to one person and then leave,” said Fenn. “Sam, you and I are going to be staked out here all night. We’re going to use the information we just gained to pry our fingers into other cracks. We can change our story now, say something like, ‘We know that Trifles Tower has had many people coming and going of late and we would like where and why before we go to your master with a proposition.’”

“Too obvious,” I replied. “Even I could see through that.”

“You haven’t even heard my proposition,” Fenn smiled, “I was going to offer a vast reduction in travel costs.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “How, exactly?”

“I can get around the restriction on the teleportation keys,” she said. “It’s supposed to hold five, no more, but I can move dozens on a single ticket.” She mimed putting on a glove.

“Huh,” I said. “Would that actually work?”

“Well I have no idea, but it sounds like it would, doesn’t it?” asked Fenn. “We obviously can’t actually meet with Aumann, and obviously he might know about the glove, but it’s plausible to other parties, which means that it works as a story. Hopefully they just accept the money and don’t pry too deep.”

I frowned. “Wait, is that kind of thing done often?” I asked. “That glove can’t be the only magic item that uses extradimensional space.”

“What kind of life do you think I lived, Joon?” asked Fenn. “I’ve traveled by key four times in my life, you were there for one of them. It’s expensive. No, after my father was killed, I did some wandering, but I spent most of my time traveling back and forth across the Risen Lands, finding things to loot and then selling them in civilization.”

“Huh,” I said. “I guess I just assumed …”

“What, that I had been back and forth across the empire, seeing its sights?” she asked. She shook her head. “I wish that were true, for my own sake, because it might mean a better life led. Now, I was trained by the elves, who hated me but wholly believe in the value of doing a good job, and I have met my fair share of dangerous people, but no, this whole experience is quite novel. Mostly in a good way, though I could do with a few less threats to my life.”

“You and me both,” I said. I touched my chest briefly. I wasn’t feeling too bad, but I was sitting down, and worried that I might get dizzy when I stood up. It was, I was fairly sure, a symptom of blood loss, rather than fucking up my chakra or whatever it was I had done to my skeletal system. “Do you mind handling this alone for a bit?”

“And where would you be going, my young companion?” asked Fenn with a raised eyebrow. “Little boy’s room?”

“Bookstore,” I said. “No sense in both of us sitting here all night. We’re on more of a time limit than we were this morning.”

“You’ve tired of my companionship already?” asked Fenn with a smile, but it wasn’t a very funny joke, and there was an edge of sadness there so faint that I might have been imagining it.

“You’re my best friend in the world,” I said, which was the truth. “I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”

Fenn reached into her robe and withdrew a few thousand tcher, which she passed to me. “I’m not going to be your mother hen like our Mary would, but … tread carefully out there. You won’t have me to back you up.”

“I won’t get into any fights that I can’t handle by myself,” I smiled, then left before she could object. She’d have prefered I stayed, clearly, but spending our entire night waiting around for people to come in so we could have brief, coded conversations with them … that didn’t exactly sound like my idea of a good time, especially not if we were going to be drinking kefir, which I was pretty sure was made from Barren milk.

I wandered, trying to keep track of landmarks. The streets in Barren Jewel were haphazard, same as they’d been in Silmar City, following organic, branching paths instead of a nice, American grid. That marked this city as predating automobiles, or maybe just meant that its original construction predated urban planning. There were almost no cars in Barren Jewel, though I had seen a small, three-wheeled, motorized vehicle I recalled as having a ridiculous name. Tuk-tuk, maybe? There were animals as well, rideable birds and once a lizard, though those were rare too, and from what I had seen, more of a status symbol than practical transport.

I found an old, worn bookshop called Another Chapter, with a warren of books and a shopkeeper at the front with a cash box nestled beside him and his attention on a worn paperback. The books showed only faint organization, but what they lacked in order, they made up for in volume, with narrow aisles so that there could be more books. I was halfway down one of them, reading titles, when the shopkeeper realized that someone had gone past him. He called down the aisle to me.

“Can I help you?” he asked. I saw his thumb was stuck in his book.

“I have a list,” I said. “It starts with a biography on Uther Penndraig.”

An hour later, I had fourteen books piled high in my arms:

  • From Farmer to Founder - A biography of Uther Penndraig, written a few decades after he had become the Lost King, though the copy I was getting had the language updated to be “more modern”. (Fun fact, apparently Aerb had linguistic drift, which was confusing given that people were clearly speaking English.)
  • The Complete Works of Uther Penndraig - A book that collected everything that Uther had written in his life, including poetry and songs. It was about a thousand pages thick, and a quick look at the index showed that there were numerous adaptations of Earth works, as well as a few original pieces, mostly related to military, magic, or politics.
  • The Dream that Skewers - You can probably guess the subject of that one. Reading the first page was enough for me to get a sense of the book as Gladwell-style popular science, but it was the only book on the subject.
  • Portrait of the Many Hells - A book with black and white illustrations taken from infernoscopes, though most of the book was actually consumed with text descriptions.
  • Seven books from The Commoner’s Guide series, which Yasin, the shopkeeper, told me were more about demystifying magic than actually teaching magic, which was by and large only done at the athenaeums. 
  • The Book of Blood - A guide to the varied races of Aerb, their relationships between one another, and then the bulk of the book, which covered interbreeding, an apparently quite complex issue. (Sadly, it had nothing to do with blood magic.)
  • The Exclusionary Principle, Seventh Edition - Partly a catalog of the exclusion zones, including a map splayed across the inside of the front cover, and partly a (quite old) treatise on what exclusion was.
  • Fingers of the Celestial Hand - This was described to me as being five dossiers on the gods, and I checked through it to make sure that it contained relatively little in the way of biography. It was more about the five gods as forces within the world, which I was much more interested in.

 None of these were immediately useful, save perhaps for The Commoner’s Guide books, of which Warding Magic and Revision Magic seemed germane.

“Quite eclectic,” said Yasin. “No fiction in there, save for Penndraig’s works?” He clucked his tongue. “I can understand the need to study, but surely some escape from the real world would be welcome, so long as you’re in my shop?”

I laughed at that. “I have to imagine that this is already a bigger sale than you normally get,” I said.

“True, true,” smiled Yasin. “But it’s not just about the sale, it’s for your own fulfillment.” He reached over to his stool and picked the paperback up off it, adding it to my pile. “Free, for you.”

I looked down at the title, The Prince and the Handmaid. “You were still working on it,” I said.

“I know how it ends,” said Yasin with a smile.

While I counted out what I owed him, he packaged my books, wrapping them first in paper and then some clever knotwork. When I went to grab it, I saw a little card for Another Chapter sitting on top of the bundle, with a note from Yasin saying that he had been happy to help me.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I walked down the streets back to the Impish Inn. I had completed a task, by myself, without getting into trouble or taking direction from anyone. I knew enough about the world to not raise any red flags during a trip to the store. It was a small victory, but a pleasant one. I kept expecting a complication of some sort, an altercation in an alley that I would have to stop or risk another level of Cowardice, or someone recognizing me, or a thief trying to steal my books, but my paranoia was not rewarded.

When I went back into the Impish Inn, Fenn was deep in conversation with a dwarf, who was jabbing the table with a finger. I approached them slowly, not wanting to interrupt, and Fenn gave a subtle shake of her head to warn me off when she spotted me. I was more than fine with that; I unpacked the books and pulled out the biography of Uther Penndraig, which I began to read.

Chapter Text

There are many places that one might start the story of Uther Penndraig, but to understand the man he became, it is best to go through his life as he did, one year at a time.

He was born Isiah of Colm, in a farming village so small that last names were not yet in general use. His mother died in childbirth, leaving him to be raised by his father, who remarried when Isiah was two years old. His father was a farmer, and Isiah, along with his six half-brothers and two half-sisters, worked the fields every summer. There is very little written about this time in Uther Penndraig’s life, and he rarely, if ever, spoke of it.

When Isiah of Colm was sixteen years old, the Dark King’s campaign of conquest spilled into Anglecynn. The dark army, composed largely of goblins, orcs, and dwarves, passed through Colm, taking whatever food there was to take from storehouses and killing or conscripting any fighting-age men they came across. Isiah of Colm was in the woods near the family farm when the army came through and returned just in time to see the fresh carnage that had been visited against his father, step-mother, and half-siblings.

In many tellings, this is when Isiah of Colm picked up his sword and began the fight, and while the image is perfectly compelling, with a strong narrative logic to it, historical research does not bear it out. Leaving eyewitness accounts aside, there are exactly two contemporaneous sources by which to trace the arc of Uther’s life. The first are the many grave markers which still stand in Colm, relics of the dark army’s movements, each giving the year of death as 1138 (ed. 9 BE). The second is in 1142 (ed. 5 BE) when Uther Penndraig entered into Greychapel and attempted to pull Avengion from the stone it was lodged in. Aside from those two sources, and a number of eyewitness accounts made years if not decades after the fact, there is no record of Isiah of Colm or Uther Penndraig for that roughly four year period, not within the records left behind by the Dark King, nor in the contemporaneous letters sent to and from the Anglecynn resistance.

This four year gap is something of a mystery. Certainly it would take some time for a sixteen-year-old farmer’s son to properly train with a sword, but proper training would require someone with skill, and the only mentor Uther spoke of having during this time was the flower mage Vervain, who certainly would not have been able to teach him as much as he appeared to know during that first visit to Greychapel, not even with Uther’s relentless quest for excellence, his natural athletic talents, and his inborn skill with a sword.

There is a third contemporaneous record, which I am hesitant to bring up. Several years ago, a number of scripts written by an unknown playwright were unearthed in Anglecynn, all written in the same hand and performed by The Erstwhile Players, a troupe that was active during the time of the Dark King’s conquest and later occupation of Anglecynn. So long after the fact, it is nearly impossible to track the movements of the troupe, and they were hanged, to a member, in 1141 (ed. 6 BE) for subversion of the Dark King’s will, specifically for the performance of a play called The Fellowship of the Ring, of which no written copies exist. The other scripts from this troupe, however, do share a passing resemblance to the other, later works of Uther Penndraig, and the handwriting is a close approximation.

It is impossible to say with certitude whether Uther Penndraig was ever a member of The Erstwhile Players, or whether it was he who authored the scripts that have been uncovered. If he was, this paints a very different picture of his path toward taking up arms against the Dark King. A theater troupe during the era of Anglecynn’s occupation would have not been neutral toward the Dark King, they would have been actively paid by him as part of general morale improving efforts, one of the investments the Dark King made into captured territories. Perhaps Isiah of Colm was simply biding his time, spending his evenings drilling with wooden swords and plotting his revenge upon those that killed his family.

Yet in Uther’s own plays, and the commentaries he has written, he focuses on the Call to Adventure of a young hero, and often on the Refusal of the Call, both phrases always capitalized.

I set the book down to think about this. Arthur, if it was Arthur, had been dropped into the world with a family, a father and some siblings, and then the most stereotypical possible thing had happened: the Dark Lord had shown up and murdered his family. That was where the traditional, so-cliche-no-one-uses-it hero’s journey began, with some horrible thing happening that set the hero down the path to righting wrong.

And Arthur (if it was Arthur) had said “fuck that” and gone to seek his fortune in a theater troupe, using his natural affinity for acting, along with his wide knowledge of pop culture ... For three years? Maybe, if he had been smart and avoided encounters, if he’d kept his head down, if, if, if. Or maybe he had been getting stronger in the safest ways he could think of. All I really had to go on was a few lines of guesswork in a biography written long after any of it had happened. But either way, no hero can refuse the call to adventure for long, because at some point they’ll get pushed violently back onto the railroad of destiny.

In the story of Uther Penndraig, that would be the end of the first act, and in the second act he would meet his Merlin.

I looked over at Fenn to see her still deep in a protracted conversation with the dwarf. She was smiling, somewhat ferally, and I hoped that meant that she was getting something good out of him. I went back to my book, still looking for answers, something that would confirm beyond a doubt that it was actually him.

Uther Penndraig arrived in Caledwich, fully formed. Whatever had happened to him in the four years between the death of his family and his first time through the gates of the then-capital, he had become a skilled swordsman and a polished speaker with a stolid determination and a devotion to good. He had met and gained the loyalty of two of his eventual seven companions, those who would later become his Knights of the Square Table. He had Vervain, the flower mage, and Forty-Two, a changeling of ill repute and recent friend. Both of them were, by that point, already sworn to him, heart and soul.

Forty-Two was one of Reimer’s characters, a fairly forgettable shapeshifting assassin loner. His name was part of a boring, tragic, backstory that I won’t get into here. The thing was, this threw a wrench into my “Uther is Arthur” calculus. I really wanted Arthur to have come through a portal five hundred years ago and recreated one of his characters, because that would mean that he was alive. But if there were other characters from our games, then what did that mean? How many of Reimer’s characters had been in Aerb at any point? Had any of them been dream-skewered, or actual people I knew put in the shoes of their characters?

The fact that Forty-Two was a historical figure really made me start to have doubts; that was another biography I was going to have to pick up, if there wasn’t enough information about him in this one. If he was just Forty-Two, not Reimer-as-Forty-Two, then that was weak evidence against Uther being Arthur-as-Uther. It was also the case that Uther Penndraig was, on both counts, a family name predating him, not one that a maybe-Arthur had picked out for himself, which meant that the world was waiting for him with a backstory already set up.

I kept reading. It was interesting stuff, not just because of the story, but because of the small details that weren’t fully spelled out, things I was supposed to pick up from context. I kept trying to find some definitive proof that it was Arthur in there, that I wasn’t just reading about a preternaturally gifted king going on adventures, but the only threads of that were in the form of the stories and plays he had written. What I wanted to come across was a line where Uther spoke about his best friend Juniper Smith, but I never found it.

I got about a quarter of the way through the book before Fenn came over to me, partly because she was taking forever to wrap things up with the dwarf, and partly because I’m a fast reader. I can give you the Cliff Notes version:

The Penndraig line had been wiped out, down to the last child, when the Dark King had taken Caledwich. The last thing that Constantine Penndraig had done, when the invader was knocking on his door, was to have an enormous rock brought into Greychapel, which he embedded his sword in. The unique magic of the sword made both sword and rock completely invincible, for all practical purposes, and the sword could not be removed except for by the hand of someone in the Penndraig line. Constantine had intended this as a big fuck you to the Dark King, who would have had to spend time and effort removing the affront to his rule, but the Dark King turned it around and said, “Hey, the old king is dead, his line is dead, and here’s definitive proof, if anyone wants to pull the sword from the stone, be my guest, but everyone else, this is your reminder that there’s no royal line left”.

So of course Isiah of Colm was actually the son of a secret princess, and he rolled into Caledwich with a plan, which was to take the sword out of the stone, giving him both claim to Anglecynn and a sweet sword in the process, as well as signaling to everyone the start of a proper resistance movement against the Dark King. As I was reading this, I was thinking that it was pretty fricking dumb of the Dark King to not just take the rock out of Greychapel, for exactly that reason … but then I got to the part where Uther tried to pull the sword from the stone, and failed, whereupon he was ambushed and had to fight his way out with his allies in tow.

As it turns out, the Dark King was at least a little bit genre savvy, and he’d taken the impenetrable rock with Avengion out under the cover of darkness, then brought in a new, specially made, identical rock, with a replica sword stuck in it. It wasn’t just that the sword in the stone was proof that there wasn’t any living Penndraig, so long as people accepted that the sword in the stone was authentic, it served as proof against any potential claimant, as well as a honeypot for would-be heroes. So that was Uther Penndraig’s introduction to the world, which took about two chapters to tell, half of it concerning his parentage, which I wasn’t really that interested in -- all I really needed to know was that he was a secret heir to the throne.

After that, Uther spent about a year recovering from his fight, gathering more powerful allies, including two more of his Knights of the Square Table (one a skin mage, who was named after a bumbling wizard Tom used to play but didn’t seem to share all that much in common with the character, and the other a cleric, though Aerbian clerics were a lot different than in traditional D&D). After that, he went after Avengion again, which he’d discovered the location of. The Dark King had stuck the giant, invincible rock into a lake, and Uther had needed to enlist the help of a magical mermaid to retrieve it. The biographer didn’t call her the Lady of the Lakes, but I could read between the lines; whoever was writing the story, they were cribbing a bit from Arthurian legend.

At that point, Uther was twenty-one years old. The First Empire was founded in 1147 (0 FE), which was only another four years, and a quick look at the index showed that covered about another quarter of the biography. His two sons were born very shortly after the formation of the First Empire, and then he disappeared from the face of Aerb on a quest at the age of fifty-five. I was trying my best not to skip around in the book, especially because there wasn’t likely to be any answers found at the back of it, but I was already itching with questions I didn’t think would be answered. If it was Arthur, then what kind of person would he be after forty years in this place, most of it spent with him as an ultra-powerful king?

I wished that Amaryllis were sitting with me, not just so that we wouldn’t have to go on this dangerous quest to save her, not just because she was pretty, but because I thought she would indulge me in a conversation. I hadn’t asked her about Uther when we were together, and I regretted that now, but I hadn’t thought that he was Arthur, and it was all ancient history, as far away in time as Martin Luther nailing up his 95 Theses.

Fenn sauntered over while I took another break from the book, dwarf in tow. He was about four feet tall, but with a wide frame and what looked like plenty of muscle beneath his fur cloak. He had an axe by his side, which was decorated with swirls that it took me a moment to recognize as hair. His thick beard had braids that were dyed grey, his nose was crooked, and his eyes were wary, moving around to take in the tavern.

I’ll give you a brief primer on Aerb’s dwarves, but you’re probably fine if you just think of them as bog-standard fantasy dwarves. They were the second most populous species on Aerb, after humans, with there being about a billion of them in total, though you wouldn’t have known it to look at a map or take a walk through most major cities. The dwarves were a combination of farmers and miners, thanks to a doughy fungus they spread on their walls which ate away at the rock and turned it into something that was, at least for the dwarves, enough to sustain them. Being able to convert rock to food meant that they never needed to return to the surface, so many of them didn’t; there were about a thousand dwarven city-states of varying size, some of them without any entrance short of that provided by teleportation, and some warded against even that.

Oh, and one other thing about dwarves; they didn’t have women, just men. Supposedly there was a time when dwarves carved their next of kin out of stone, but a grand racial curse was bestowed upon them that forced them to become a biologically reproducing race, which they could either do with each other, or by themselves. They weren’t actually all men, because that would imply that dwarves had a gender distinction, but they did have male secondary sex characteristics, and I’ll refer to them as ‘he’ and ‘him’ from here on out.

(Incidentally, I remembered making dwarves like that. It had come from a time after Tiff had joined our group, when her own interest in the role of sex and gender in society had led me down some interesting paths in worldbuilding. The dwarves-who-sculpt-their-children and dwarves-who-have-one-gender actually came from two different campaigns, but on Aerb they were just merged together.)

“Juniper, while you have had your nose buried in a book, I have acquired a friend,” said Fenn. I looked at the dwarf, who didn’t seem like a friend. “His name is Grak, and he’s going to help us with our heist.”

The tavern had gotten noisier as it had slipped toward evening, as the tables began filling up, but it still made me wince to hear her use my real name. I also hadn’t been informed that we were even doing a heist, unless this was part of some con on this dwarf. I wasn’t entirely clear on the relationship between dwarves and elves, but didn’t figure that it would matter to Fenn much either way, not unless the dwarves were total dicks to one another.

“The name is Grakhuil Leadbraids,” Grak corrected. He sniffed, flaring his wide nostrils as he looked at me. “Your companion has already given the terms.”

“The terms,” I nodded. “Fenn … good work.”

Fenn gave me a short bow. “You are most welcome.” She stretched out. “The hour has grown late and we have other business, but we’ll meet here again early tomorrow morning,” she said to Grak. “There are preparations we’ll need to make in the meantime, over the course of the next few days. We can discuss specifics tomorrow.”

Grak nodded to both of us, then walked away.

“Care to keep me in the loop?” I asked Fenn.

“Turns out that Aumann has some enemies,” she said. “I’ll tell you more while we eat over room service.”

Fenn frowned when I ordered the same pseudo-burger I'd had before. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” she asked. “When we rescue Amaryllis and she reclaims her place on the throne of Anglecynn, she’s going to take you to all sorts of fancy society dinners where you’ll be expected to eat all manner of things. Better to expand your horizons now.”

I frowned at that. “My horizons are plenty expanded,” I said. “But fine, I’ll get the … elk strips. Are there domesticated elk?”

“Why would you need to domesticate them?” asked Fenn.

“Nevermind,” I replied. “So tell me about this dwarf.”

“Just a moment, I need to call the order in,” she said. She hopped off the bed where we were sitting together and made for the phone, which had a rotary dial and hung on the wall. The mixing of technology into Aerb still tripped me up sometimes, because it was hard for my brain to switch from ‘I am talking to an actual dwarf now, dwarves are a thing here’ to thinking about things like power lines, elevators, and radio. I wondered whether it was any different in Uther’s day, whether it would have felt like high fantasy to Arthur back then.

“Alright,” said Fenn once she was off the phone. “Our dwarven friend -- is he a companion, by the way?”

I closed my eyes for three seconds and navigated the menus, trying not to pay attention to the words that showed up when I passed by the Afflictions screen. I wasn’t feeling well, but I thought most of that was still just weakness from the blood loss. At any rate, the Companions screen still just showed Fenn and Amaryllis, both with the same descriptions they’d had before.

“Nope,” I said. “Still the same.”

“Well, shit,” said Fenn. “I’d been hoping. Our dwarven friend-but-not-companion Grak is on a mission from his homeland to steal a bunch of gold, and he can’t return until he does.”

I frowned at that. “You said that he was Aumann’s enemy,” I said.

“Do you want the long version or the short version?” asked Fenn. “Because the short version is that he wants to steal some gold.”

“I’ll take the long version then,” I said. “The bartender sent him over to you?”

“Ayup,” said Fenn. “Plus two others, though they were less helpful, mostly looking to drain our coin, I think. But Grak, he was the prize. The long version is that dwarves have a complicated cultural history with gold and gold mages. To hear Grak tell it, the dwarves understood gold as a sacred metal from early in their cultural history, something to be revered and respected. Then one day, hundreds if not thousands of years ago, they found out that the other mortal species on the surface liked gold too, and the dwarves were tempted into parting with their gold for creature comforts in those pits they like to live in. It was only later that the dwarves discovered the curse laid upon the gold, which they felt some responsibility for, and which has impacted them through a series of endless wars.”

“Hrm,” I said. “I was under the impression that dwarves had city-states, not an actual nation? Does it make sense to say ‘the dwarves’?”

“It’s complicated,” said Fenn. “Dwarves feel a racial unity more than other races, I guess. They’re not part of the Empire of Common Cause directly, they’ve got their own loose governing body which in turn deals with the empire, as a kind of buffer.” She shifted. “Really makes me wish that Amaryllis was here, because I feel like I’m going to make a hash of it.”

“So … Grak is here to reclaim some gold to prevent some curse?” I asked. Is this an Aztec gold thing? Are we doing Pirates of the Caribbean?

“Guess what the curse is,” said Fenn, smiling and biting her lip in a way that I found quite pretty on her.

“When you put it like that,” I said, “The answer has to be gold mages.”

“Got it in one,” said Fenn. “Grak, and apparently some of the other dwarves, enough that he was given funding, believe that it was dwarves who caused gold mages to come about by releasing their stockpiles of gold into the world.”

I frowned at that. “I’m not actually sure how that’s a curse, in the conventional sense of the word.”

“I think they mean the call of the gold,” said Fenn. “Gold mages are powerful, but they’re mightily constricted in what they can do with that power, because if they don’t devote themselves to the call of the gold, they’ll fall behind. It’s not just adding a pound of gold to the vault every month, it’s adding a pound the first month, then two pounds the second month, then four pounds the third month, and so on.”

“The curve can’t be that extreme,” I said. “Aumann has been a gold mage for twelve years now, if the requirements were doubling every month that would be … um, more pounds of gold than there are grains of sand in Aerb. Which is probably not the case. The exponent has to be a little more gentle than that.”

“Whatever,” said Fenn, waving her hand. “You get what I’m saying. Anyway, the gold mages start really feeling the pressure after a while, so historically, at least to hear Grak tell it, they had two main options, one of which was to go steal some gold from someone else, and the other of which was to start up or capture a gold mine. And given that dwarves had already been mining gold since time immemorial, an enterprising gold mage could kill two birds with one stone and go after one of the dwarfholds. Steal all the gold, then enslave the dwarves and make them dig up more gold for you.”

“Okay … so the dwarves think that gold magic is their fault,” I said. “They sold the other mortal species gold and were punished by the existence of gold mages.” I had no idea how plausible that actually was, but it didn’t seem, prima facie, to be very plausible.

“Well, it’s not actually all dwarves, anymore than you would say all humans,” said Fenn. “Grak’s clan was hit especially hard by a gold mage a few centuries back, until the gold veins were stripped clean. Anyway, that’s his mission, and why he’s willing to work with us.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “And what does he bring to the table?”

“You’ll like this,” said Fenn, with a twinkle in her eyes. “He’s a ward breaker.”

“Huh,” I said. “I’d guess because gold mages and warders go together, so if you had a quest to take back the gold, you’d take an interest in breaking wards. That works for me … but you kept telling me that our goal was to get Amaryllis back, not to kill or disable Aumann. That changes, with Grak in play?”

“Er,” said Fenn. “I may have indicated to Grak that I knew where Aumann’s cache of gold was, and I might have said that I had concrete information that it was in the same location where Amaryllis is being held. Which, mind, isn’t a terribly bad guess.”

“We know where Amaryllis is being held?” I asked. My heart started beating a little quicker; Schrödinger's Princess had been weighing on me, even if it was reasonable to assume that she was imprisoned but mostly fine. “We know that she’s alive?”

“Oh, right,” said Fenn. “Buried the lede there, did I? She’s a floor below the penthouse, behind some heavy wards, unhurt but unhappy, at least as far as the servants know. Aumann and his inner circle are the only ones who know her true identity, but he’s not made a secret of the fact that he’s got a guest.”

“So the plan is to use Grak to get up to the top floors of Trifles Tower, use him to break the wards on Amaryllis, and then bust out?” I asked. “And hope that he’s not really pissed off at us when he realizes that the gold isn’t actually there? Did you tell him about Amaryllis?”

“Not as such,” said Fenn. “But he knows that we’re not just after the gold, and the gold might be there after all, so it’s not like we’re hornswoggling him. Not much, anyway.”

“And if the gold isn’t there?” I asked.

“Are you going to be a moral crusader about this?” asked Fenn. “Because it was, oh, earlier this morning that you were beating up a guy for information and I was stealing his stuff.”

“He deserved it,” I said. “I’d really rather not trick people into becoming our allies.”

“Okay,” said Fenn. “Then tomorrow morning I’ll go to the Impish Inn and say to him, ‘sorry, but you have no actual incentive to help us’, shall I?”

I could feel myself getting angry. As little as a few months ago, I probably would have responded to her with righteous fury, telling her that yes, she should go tell him the truth, even if it cost us. It wasn’t even that I was particularly inclined toward being a staunchly moral person, it would have just been that we were on opposite sides. So I took a step back and tried to think things through.

Yes, it was a decent guess that Aumann would keep all his valuables, people and gold alike, in one location, because there was a limit to the number of secure locations you could realistically hold at any given time, especially if you constantly needed money to pour into your ultimate source of power. The personal repercussions for us were unlikely to be all that bad, since warding magic had very little in the way of offense and it wasn’t like we would suffer from a reputation hit. The biggest issue was that it was a crappy thing to do.

“You’re right,” I said with a sigh. “I’d rather we not do it this way, but if a resource is going to fall into our lap like this, then our actual objective is important enough that I’ll bend a little bit.” It’s what Amaryllis would do.

Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 9!

“Oh,” said Fenn.

“I mean, we can fight about it if you want to,” I said. “It certainly seemed like you wanted to fight. But I’ve been trying my best not to get into arguments with people just because I found a solidly fortified position to fight from.”

“Huh,” said Fenn. “Is that a human thing, wanting a fight with someone but not because there was anything all that important on the line?”

“Yup,” I said. “And you’re half human, so you tell me. Any particular reason that you’d be spoiling for a fight?”

Fenn frowned. “Nope, I said light and airy, so light and airy is what we’re going to do.”

“There’s part of you that’s worried about what happens if we actually get her back,” I said.

“And what makes you think that, little hooman?” asked Fenn.

“First off, I’m bigger than you,” I said. “Second, when we were ordering food you were snotty about it, talking about how ‘I’ not ‘we’ would have to go to society dinners. You told me before that you were worried about Amaryllis edging you out, it’s reasonable that you would still be worried about it now, maybe even moreso given that she’s got leverage over both of us with her heirlooms. You don’t want to be left behind.” And you were basically cast out by both sides of your family, which is why you always had more acquaintances than friends. Now that you consider me an actual friend to you, you’re worried about losing me, because you aren’t going to be able to just brush me off by pretending that you never actually cared. But those were guesses on my part, and I didn’t know how to say them so that they would come out positive and empathic rather than cuttingly clinical.

Fenn winced. “Okay, a little bit I’m worried, I guess. But pretend that I didn’t just say that.”

I looked her in the eyes. “Fenn, you’re my companion. It’s written on my character sheet. If there are fancy society dinners that either circumstance or Amaryllis forces me to go to, you’ll be coming with, dressed to the nines.”

“To the nines?” asked Fenn.

“It’s … actually I don’t know,” I replied. “And anyway, you still owe me a favor, remember?” I smiled at her. “Couldn’t let you off the hook without getting my value from that one, could I?”

Fenn opened her mouth to say something, but there was a knock on the door, and by the time she’d brought the tray of food back in, she had either gotten distracted or decided against continuing that line of conversation.

“So,” she said as she began eating some kind of noodle dish with a wide variety of colored vegetables, “Any interesting books?”

“Kind of,” I said. “Books on magic should be useful. I’m hoping that the clonal kit and The Commoner’s Guide to Gem Magic together will be enough to let me figure that stuff out. I’m about a quarter of the way through a biography of Uther, which … is less helpful than I had thought it would be, at least as far as forming a hypothesis. The others are mostly books that I can use for reference, or that I hope will let me get a better picture of the world.”

Fenn picked up The Prince and the Handmaid from the pile. “And this one?” she asked.

“A gift, for being a good customer,” I said. “You can read it if you’d like, I doubt I’ll have the time for leisure, and I’m pretty sure that you’ll be sitting around waiting for me to finish up with things.”

“Speaking of which,” said Fenn, as she slipped Sable out from her pocket and stuck it on her hand. “The time will soon come for you to learn how to make a tattoo.” She began dumping things onto the bed, first the gun, then the box of inks, then the book of illustrations. “If you ask me, we should have robbed the guy blind from the get-go.”

“Easy to say in hindsight,” I replied. “Also, not something that you put forth when it was an option.”

“Bah,” said Fenn. “Let me have my retrospective victories.”

I ate a few pieces of the elk, which was similar enough to venison, cooked rare and seasoned heavily, but I didn’t have much in the way of appetite. Instead, I set my plate aside and picked up the tattoo gun. It was time to learn some spells.

Chapter Text

Skill Unlocked: Art!

Skill Increased: Art lvl 6! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat CHA.)

Skill Increased: Skin Magic lvl 10!

New Virtue: Shifting Skin!

Skill Increased: Skin Magic lvl 12! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat KNO.)

Icy Devil: Wreaths your hand in ice, imbuing it with the ability to chill anything you touch for the next three minutes. Single use. Self only. Required size is roughly 1 square foot.

Liar’s Cup: Allows you to drain minor toxins from your body, such as boscleaf, alcohol, caffeine, terrablend, nicotine, or granchar, and stealthily deliver them by touch. Infinite use. Self only. Required size is roughly 2 square feet.

Lecher’s Vine: Produces a small, thin vine that can surround any standing entrance such as a door or window for a period of twenty-four hours. You will be alerted any time something passes through the ring of vines. Single use. Self only. Required size is roughly half a square foot.

Surface Sheath: An object pressed against the tattoo will skin into and become part of the magic of the skin, allowing it to be retrieved later by pulling at the edge of the tattoo. Object must be inserted within thirty minutes of tattoo completion. Required size depends upon the size of the object to be stored.

Snake: A non-poisonous snake comes to life and slides from your skin. It has normal intelligence for a snake and holds no particular affection for you. Single use. Self only. Tattoo size determines size of the resulting snake. Taking care of a snake is a big responsibility!

There was a hidden cap to tattoo magic, which was that it seemed to depend on my Art skill, something I hadn't known existed until I'd tried to draw something with the tattoo gun. I wasn't using my own skin, and instead spent some time mucking about with the clonal kit until it gave me a piece of fresh skin to work with (profession, "tanner"). The tattoos themselves were very tightly specified in terms of angles, arcs, inks, and relative size of individual pieces. It called to mind an assignment we'd had in art class to make a vector logo; logos needed to be scalable and consistent, so each part of them had to be defined in mathematical terms, allowing infinite, varied reproduction. A tattoo mage wasn't just drawing a devil on the skin that came to life and gripped his hand, he was drawing a very specific devil.

And as it turned out, I just didn't have the skill with a tattoo gun to complete all but the five most simple tattoos, of about thirty in the half book that Fenn had grabbed. Still, a few hours of practicing had allowed me to put a number of tattoos onto my skin, and the new virtue I'd gotten made moving them across my skin to other areas as easy as directing a thought at them, which meant that I could do all my tattooing on the relatively large expanse of skin on my thigh, moving the tattoos elsewhere when I was finished.

All thing considered, it was more or less a bust, which was why I moved on to gem magic.

According to The Commoner’s Guide to Gem Magic, gem magic didn’t have analogies at all. Instead, gem magic had three different axes of effect, and each gem could be assigned a numerical value for each of those axes on the basis of its color. The book didn’t call it the RGB color model, but it kept using the words red, green, and blue..

(It goes without saying that this made no sense. I mean first of all, the entire reason that RGB was a valid model for color at all was that human eyes only had three color-sensing cells that responded to those wavelengths. It would be entirely possible to make an organism that had different spikes at different wavelengths, or one that had another color-sensing cell. There were creatures on Earth that had four color-sensing cells, and it probably went without saying that with 200 mortal species on Aerb there were some that didn’t sense colors like humans did, a fact specifically mentioned by one of the appendices of the book. But apparently, gem magic was implemented in the world in accordance with human color definitions.)

All of the colors were offensive, all projecting force onto the world, with variance in terms of number of projectiles, spread, speed, refresh, and what seemed like a dozen other things. It wasn’t until the book laid it out in an example that I really got it (though that did make me feel like a commoner).

  • A pure red gem will fire a constant projection of force, half of which will be directed back at the user. This beam will have 0 spread.
  • A pure blue gem will fire once every eight seconds, emitting fifty projectiles at a spread of 180 degrees, which will alter course toward user-intuited targets up to 90 degrees.
  • A pure magenta gem will fire once every four seconds, emitting twenty-five projectiles at a spread of 90 degrees, which will alter course toward user-intuited targets up to 45 degrees. One-quarter of projectile force will be directed back at the user.

Skill unlocked: Gem Magic!

Achievement Unlocked: By Your Powers Combined

I was a little bit annoyed when thinking about light going through the gems allowed me to gain access to the magic within them, because that was the second thing I had tried. Sure, I understood more about gem magic now than I had then, including some knowledge about what effect the crude gems made by the clonal kit would actually do, but I’d already gotten the analogy down, hadn’t I? The gems had to be about light, if the output was light and the underpinning was RGB values. Maybe the analogy didn’t matter, in this case, and it was the knowledge that counted, but it really did seem like the sort of thing that I should have been able to get on my own.

I got another little bar, which popped up right beside the bar measuring blood. This one was a cerulean blue and throbbed with a faint light. A quick look showed its label as “Mental Exhaustion”. It had a value of 9/12, which was equal to three times any of my mental stats aside from MEN itself. If I could knock over four end tables before draining myself of mental energy, ho boy, look out world, here I come. (Yes, I was disappointed in the ability to shoot magic lasers out of my hands, because I had become spoiled.)

The hotel room wasn’t actually a great place to practice gem magic, which I learned with the first blast of red light, which knocked over the end table. Fenn had applauded that, but she was making her way through The Prince and the Handmaid, and returned to her book after it was clear that I wasn’t going to start knocking other things over.

I set up a target area with a few pillows from our bed and a thick-skinned citrus fruit we’d gotten with dinner, then started using the red gem to knock it over. The gem wasn’t quite pure, and it became clear to me that it was really, really important for gems to be, if not of a pure color, then at least with a favorable combination of effects. It reminded me a lot of finding a randomly generated gun in Borderlands and hoping that it was more than the sum of its parts.

And it wasn’t just that I had to worry about color, because there were so many aspects to the gems which altered their behaviors in different ways, ways which depended on each other. A larger gem had more power than a smaller gem, but a lack of clarity increased the mental exhaustion of using a gem in relation to its size. Facets could have different types and levels of symmetry, which changed the metrics involved, some flatly negative, a few flatly positive, and most with some tradeoffs involved.

And all that was fucking useless because the clonal kit refused to provide me with any more than the eight gems it had provided for me the first time I’d tried, no matter how many permutations I tried on the basic premise. From what the book had said, gem mages all carried unique loadouts, so maybe the clonal kit was confused by trying to create what “a gem mage” would carry, which was why it kept creating the same thing.

I fired off a few blasts of red at the fruit, going over to set it back up each time. I was relieved to see that the gem wasn’t actually costing me three mental exhaustion each time, but that meant that mental exhaustion in the game sense was a numerical representation of my actual mental exhaustion, and that was what gem magic was draining. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, especially because I was pretty sure that I would need my mental acuity tomorrow, and as was typical, the game wasn’t giving me any hints on how quickly I would recover from mental exhaustion.

Firing off enough red blasts to get Gem Magic up to level 5 took me down to 6/12, which was low enough that I decided to stop there. I tried all eight of the gems, which had their different (but more similar than unique) effects. It was only black and clear that I couldn’t get to work; going on the basis of RGB, white would be all values set to 255 and black would be all values set to 0, but apparently those two were “special”, and beyond my ability; the black one was countermagic for gems, capable of negating an assault to within limits defined by the gem’s characteristics. Diamond had no offensive capabilities at all, and was instead used to boost gem magic, though The Commoner’s Guide to Gem Magic was silent on exactly how that was supposed to work, given that you could only use one gem at a time. Working in pairs, maybe?

It would suffice to say that gem magic was also kind of a bust. I was glad to have it, rather than not have it, but it seemed like a pistol would clearly outmatch it, at least given the gems and ability I had. And worse, the gems were quite expensive, probably beyond our ability to pay with the clonal kit’s high prices, which meant that if I was going to have them on hand, I was going to have to forgo the use of the clonal kit.

“You didn’t eat all your elk,” said Fenn, when she noticed me staring at the gems in my hand.

“Yeah, not that hungry,” I said. I’d had one of the three thick strips, then set it down.

“You had some street food during your sojourn to the bookstore?” asked Fenn.

“No,” I replied.

“Well, you’ve got to eat,” said Fenn. “Especially if you’re sick. You fucked up your bones and you’re low on blood, elk is good for you, it’s got iron.”

“Yeah,” I said. I’d lost fifteen pounds after Arthur had died, but then the lack of appetite was caused by depression, not whatever was going on with my guts as a result of not having a magically functional rib cage, or whatever it was. I’d had similar talks, about how I had to eat, from my mom, my dad, and Tiff. Eventually I was just shoveling food into my mouth, trying to ignore the fact that it didn’t really have a taste. So I decided that Fenn was probably right, and cut up four room temperature pieces of elk, chewing them quickly and swallowing them down.

“You okay?” asked Fenn.

“Sooner is probably better than later, when it comes to the rescue plan,” I said. I rubbed my hand. It did feel a bit weaker than before, but it was hard to tell, because it was my left hand, and I’d only had a short time of experiencing ambidexterity.

“Grak is ready to jump the gun too,” said Fenn. “He’s been in town a month trying to crack this thing. I’ve given him some hints as to our resources, which has made him quite eager.” She watched me eating the cold elk. “I can get different food for you, if you’d like,” she said.

“No, it’s fine,” I replied. I glanced at the book she’d been reading. “Anything good in there? Or … plot relevant?”

“Bad guy wins,” Fenn replied with a shrug. She paused. “Plot relevant in the sense of?”

“In the sense of … I don’t know, was there a clue? Or something like that?” I asked.

“How did you get this book?” asked Fenn with a raised eyebrow.

“The shopkeep was reading it when I came to the store,” I said. “When I left, he said something about me needing leisure reading too, and then added it to the pile, free of charge.”

“And you think that it has some … relevance?” asked Fenn. “You think that the shopkeeper was reading that specific book because the universe meant for you to have it, because it has a cosmic connection to some unspecified thing?”

“It might,” I said. “I mean, it’s not out of the question. That’s the kind of thing that elf luck would do, isn’t it?”

“Not really,” said Fenn. “It’s more a feeling of going with the flow, moving along a certain path, weal and woe kind of thing. Not random guys giving you books that turn out to have hints. You’re saying that’s how games work?”

“It’s how narratives work,” I replied. “Anton Chekhov was this playwright in the 1800’s who posited that, basically, every element in a play needs to be there for a reason. If you have a gun placed on the mantle in the first act, it has to be fired by the end of the third act, because otherwise you screwed up by putting a gun there in the first place. Ernest Hemingway was the same way, I think.” I flexed the fingers in my left hand, which didn’t feel quite right, and which flexing didn’t quite fix.

“Games are different though, because you can’t guarantee that the setups are going to have payoffs unless you take away all elements of player choice, or plan multiple payoffs for each setup. I mean, in a tabletop game, you place a gun on the mantle at the start of the session and then maybe the action moves somewhere else without the GM being able to do anything about it. My own personal strategy was to just lay down as many details as possible and then wrap them back in whenever I could.”

Fenn sat patiently through all that. “You really like your games, don’t you?” she asked. “We should play sometime.”

“Seriously?” I asked. “I mean yeah, I would probably like that, if we ever got a decent stretch of time where we weren’t running out of food or money, or where people weren’t trying to kill or torture us, or … you know, the kind of garbage we’ve been dealing with.” And then I can get sent from Aerb to a different fantasy world I made for the game-within-a-game. Yay! “But what I’m trying to get to, at least a little, is that some amount of game logic might apply, because of my own particular brand of something like luck, so if The Prince and the Handmaid is a clue, what kind of clue is it?”

Fenn picked up the book and flipped through the pages until she reached the very end. “What’s your last name?” she asked.

“Do you honestly not know it?” I asked. “I can’t tell whether you’re joking or not.”

“Alright,” said Fenn. “You tell me your last name, and I’ll tell you whether or not I was joking.”

“Fenn, we’ve been together for almost three weeks now, how is it possible that you don’t know my last name?” I asked.

“It never came up!” said Fenn. “Do you know my last name?”

“Greenglass,” I replied almost immediately.

“You’re a filthy cheater, that’s written on your eyes,” replied Fenn, nearly as quickly. She laughed at that. “But seriously, what is it?”

“Smith,” I said.

Fenn nodded, then sat next to me and pointed out a line in the book.

The wedding took place in the gardens of Castel Chernwith, one of the old holdings of Uther Penndraig with plants yet living that were planted by his firm hand. The largest of these was a juniper tree, which had grown to shade a large bronze statue of the great smith Merschen Edel. It was here that Uther was said to come from time to time, and so in the same shade his magnificent ancestor had stood under, steeped in the ancient history of Anglecynn and promising himself and his bride to its legacy, did the Prince and his Handmaid finally marry, sealing their vows with a kiss.

“Like I said, bad guy wins, the prince is a total dick that poisons the guy the handmaid is in love with, and she’s a bit of a cunt because as soon as that guy gets weak from the poison she loses interest and goes back to the prince.” Fenn pointed to the line again. “But there, juniper and smith, seems like the kind of thing that might be a clue.”

“It’s proof,” I said slowly. “Proof that he knew me.”

“Uther Penndraig knew you?” asked Fenn. I could hear the skepticism in her voice, but she wasn’t being dismissive, like I thought she would be, like she normally was when the topic of Earth came up.

I hadn’t told her about Arthur. I hadn’t said his name out loud yet, not since I’d arrived here. I didn’t like saying his name, because it brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. And maybe there was a part of me that thought it was sacred, and that any hope I’d had about him still being alive somewhere in this fantasy world would be washed away as soon as I admitted he had ever existed at all. But that was all stupid stuff my brain was doing that didn’t make sense, I could see that, and now it was at the point where it needed to be said, because I was going to need help, if I was going to find the Lost King.

So I told her about Arthur.

Fenn was a good listener. I mean, she wasn’t a good listener in general, she was actually kind of terrible at it, even setting aside that some of that was an act or her sense of humor, but while I was telling her about Arthur, she sat beside me and listened to what I said, nodding along when I needed encouragement and then slipping her hand into mine when my voice went hollow.

“I’m sorry,” said Fenn.

“Yeah,” I replied. I was silent for a bit. “Anyway, that was him. Uther was his character, the Best King Ever. I have a quest to find the Lost King. And he … he planted a juniper tree beside a statue of a smith, and that was where he went when he wanted to think about me. I know that’s all just my version of things, that it might just be the dream-skewer talking --”

“No,” said Fenn. “I believe you.”

“You do?” I asked. “All of it?”

Fenn had been holding my hand, but now she unlaced our fingers. “All is a strong word,” she said. “I think there’s a place called Earth, and your soul, with all its experiences, is from there. Maybe that’s what the dream that skewers is, one personality writing itself over the other like a palimpsest.” She hesitated. “But there are so many things that you say are from your games, or taken from your world in some way, and … I don’t see how that makes sense, because it would mean that this entire world is about you and only you. That would mean that not only am I your actual, factual companion, I only exist to be your companion.” She clenched a fist. “Sorry, really don’t want to be talking about existential stuff right now, but … it’s kind of doing my head in.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “The whole thing has been kind of a head trip for me too.”

“Yeah,” said Fenn, “I guess so.” She looked down at the copy of The Prince and the Handmaid, which was sitting on the floor. “So that was the book’s purpose? To spur on this conversation? Or … to give you some concrete detail about Uther?”

“I’ll need to follow up on it,” I said. “Maybe it’s just me trying to connect the dots.”

“Well, fuck,” said Fenn. “It’s not like I was planning on doing anything better with the rest of my life. When we find the Lost King, he better have some well-oiled, muscular men waiting for me.”

Chapter Text

Grakhuil Leadbraids was at the Impish Inn before us, and when we arrived he led us into a back room with a nod to the barkeep and a grimace at the caged imp that served as the tavern mascot.

“I sold my profession for this room,” said Grak with a sniff as he sat down in one of three chairs arranged around a table. I noticed, but didn’t comment on, the booster seat that gave him an extra few inches. There wasn’t much room to move inside the room, but it was enough for us. Grak had papers spread out on the table, most of them with drawings on them. “We should be safe here, as safe as a warder can make any place on short notice. No sound will leave these walls.”

I had stayed up late reading A Commoner’s Guide to Warding Magic, enough to get some sense of the boundaries a warder had to work with. There were lots of different types of magic in Aerb, and since warding was countermagic at its heart, warding against “latent magic” meant that wards could extend into other areas that didn’t seem, on the face of it, to be magical. There were velocity mages, water mages, wind mages, vibrational mages, steel mages, flower mages, revision mages, the list ran on and on, and on top of that, there were individual “spells” that were independent of any school, plus magic inherent to exclusion zones, plus magic only available to monsters, plus unique magics inherent in magic items. The block against sound was, I figured, some kind of barrier against latent vibrational magic.

“I have seen as much of Trifles Tower as I could from the outside,” said Grak. Warders had warder monocles, which let them physically see the wards. “Sheriot placed strong wards on all entrances. There is a way for servants to get in which has weaker, sloppy wards I have already probed and can easily subvert. We are going to use the servants’ entrance without breaking the wards there. I will deal with any wards as we go up the tower. The two of you will kill anyone who gets in our way.”

Fenn cast me a look at the word kill. I’m sure the words ‘moral crusader’ were going through her head, but I wasn’t about to say anything that would get Grak in a huff. We needed him, and if he asked us to do something utterly immoral, like murder a maid who saw us, we could just refuse. Guards were a more morally grey issue; they wouldn’t even necessarily know that Aumann had Amaryllis, they might just be men doing their jobs … and I was pretty sure that I would hesitate before striking them down, but I would strike them down, non-lethally if at all possible. Even as the thought crossed my mind, ‘non-lethally’ seemed like a pipe dream.

“What about Aumann?” asked Fenn.

“We will wait until he’s away,” said Grak. “He always travels with his revision mage to cover for gaps in his gold magic. His warder will not be a problem if she is there.”

“And the others?” asked Fenn. “Word on the street is that he’s got a few other heavy hitters under his employ, still mage and velocity mage among them. The velocity mage, if he exists, would be quick to respond if they know we’re there. And I have to say I don’t like the idea that we’re just waiting for Aumann to leave.”

“Echert is his still mage,” said Grak. “He spends his days at the cheese factory. Lida is his velocity mage. She never goes inside Trifles Tower because of the existing wards against velocity there.”

Fenn grumbled in acknowledgement of Grak’s superior intelligence gathering.

“We should still get Aumann away ourselves,” I said. “I think we have the resources to set up a diversion for him, something that will pull him from the tower for a set amount of time. Gold mages love gold, right?”

Grak raised a thick eyebrow. “You have gold?” he asked. He looked to Fenn. “You have gold?”

Fenn sighed, making it sound more like a hiss of pain. “We’ve got three pounds,” she said. “For emergencies only.”

Grak ground his big, flat teeth, tensing. “He will sense it,” he finally said. “He will be drawn to it, if it’s close enough, long enough. Forced to it. Where is the gold now?”

Fenn dipped her hand down her shirt and pulled up the black glove, which she laid on the table. “There, for me to call out as needed. This is the item I told you about.”

Grak relaxed marginally, from high alert to just looking like he had a stick up his butt. “Can I test it?” he asked.

I wanted to give him a flat no, because Sable was not just a very useful magic item but contained the bulk of our current party loot, but Fenn tossed the glove over to him. Grak pulled a wand from beneath his furs and drew a single line across the table, then waved the glove back and forth across it.

(The wand was of a very elaborate make, and a staple of the warders; from what I had gathered, it was equivalent to a Jedi building their own lightsaber, except that warders were functionally useless without theirs, at least until they engaged in a complicated, months-long process to build a new one that was uniquely keyed to their soul. The other bit of warder kit was a monocle, which was a similarly involved process to build and let the warder see wards.)

When Grak was finished, he tapped the place in the table where he’d drawn the line, then tossed Sable back to Fenn, who slipped it on. “And?” she asked.

“The glove blocks the gold,” said Grak. Meaning that line was a weak ward against latent gold magic. Neat. “You’re right. We can set a trap to lure Aumann.”

“That’s like sixty thousand obols worth of gold that we’re basically giving away to the enemy,” said Fenn. “Am I the only one that has a problem with that?”

“We’re dead if this plan fails,” I said. Grak nodded.

“No,” replied Fenn. “You’re not thinking about failure the right way, there are lots of ways that the plan could end without us so much as having exposed ourselves. If we were to set up a distraction using our literally sixty thousand obols worth of gold, then we’re fully committed before we even get through the doors, which means that we can’t back out, not without blowing our funds.”

“You’re right,” I said with a frown. I looked to Grak. “It’s something about the call of the gold that will tell him where the gold is, right?” I asked. “Can you block that?”

Grak looked between the two of us and sniffed, then tugged on one of the braids of his beard. “You want to collapse the ward at a distance,” he said. “Clever.”

Loyalty Increased: Grak lvl -1!

I blinked at that. I needed a discreet way to close my eyes for a few seconds and check my character sheet. If Grak was a companion now -- wait, if Grak had negative loyalty, then -- I wasn’t actually sure what negative loyalty meant, but it didn’t seem like it was good. In the end, I decided that Fenn would just cover for me.

“Is he well?” asked Grak.

“He’s thinking,” replied Fenn. “He trained with the Elon Gar, but only for a fortnight before he was kicked out. The only real trick he learned was to think a little bit better by shutting out the world for a moment. No doubt when he opens his eyes back up, he’ll have something clever for us.”

Grakhuil Leadbraids was, indeed, listed under “Companions”, with a greyed out box where his biography should have been, and a -1 for loyalty. That was the first time that the game had given me a negative number, so hooray for firsts, except that Grak was actively disloyal to us, if I was reading the negative right. (Or he was so loyal that it had caused an integer overflow, but that didn’t seem likely.)

“We have three pounds,” I said. “We can set up three different locations around the city to distract Aumann with. Depending on how much he’s drawn to the gold, how well he can sense it, we should do some work beforehand, pulling gold in and out of the glove for brief periods of time and then moving on so that he gets used to the idea.” I turned to Fenn. “Have we pulled the gold out yet since … our arrival?”

“No,” said Fenn, rubbing her chin. “I’d imagine that there was a ward against gold in the place we picked it up then, to hide it from his senses?”

“You stole this gold,” said Grak with a nod. “Most would hide it so, if they had the resources.”

Neither Fenn or I particularly wanted to discuss our time at Caer Laga with the dwarf, for obvious reasons. I decided that I was going to pick up warding as soon as I had a month to devote to making the relevant equipment, because tripping over mostly invisible wards or dealing with ones that I had never seen before was not my idea of a good time. Of course, if Grak was a companion, then the rules I set down as DM long ago meant that he would have to have some way of actually having his character work with the party, instead of being doomed to a role as adversary.

“So we go around Barren Jewel, pulling gold out for long enough that he senses blood in the water, then putting it back,” said Fenn. “Then on the day of, Grak sets up wards around as many distinct piles of gold as possible, wards that will need a gold mage to break, and we send him on a scavenger hunt across the city while we climb the tower and go for the prize.”

“How much can the glove carry?” asked Grak.

“It has no known upper limit,” said Fenn with a satisfied smile.

“We’ll put all of the gold into it,” said Grak. “He will either degenerate or lose power completely. We can leave without ever having seen him.”

“He’ll know,” said Fenn. “First bar that leaves his vault, he’ll know, and that’s assuming his warder doesn’t trip you up and get the message that we’re in there, taking his stuff.”

“We could leave out a window,” I replied. “I know travel by glove is no one’s favorite, but … it’s doable. We could just flutter down to the ground and pop back out, no need for gas masks.”

“We don’t know who is going to be in the tower,” said Fenn, “Even if the big guy himself is out in the world, away from us, and his most powerful minions are gone, we don’t know what we’re going to find.”

“What do you suggest?” asked Grak.

“More time,” said Fenn. “Time to talk to people, time to get some intel, maybe, I don’t know, go to city hall and get some old permits that show the floor plans or something.”

“This is Barren Jewel,” said Grak. “Such things are not done here.”

Fenn deflated somewhat. “Why are people always suggesting that I come up with alternate plans?” she asked. “Doesn’t seem fair to me. I mean, I would suggest that we apply for jobs at Trifles Tower, but Aumann has already seen our faces, which means that we’d be banking on him either not recognizing us or just not showing up to vet a low level position, and odds are that wouldn’t even get us into the upper levels.” She looked at Grak. “And I doubt that he would allow a dwarf in his employ at all.”

Grak nodded. “Where exactly is the vault?”

“We lied,” I said.

“Joon, for the love of --” Fenn began.

“He’s flagged as companion,” I replied.

“You lied,” said Grak, prompting me to go on.

“Aumann is holding our friend, Princess Amaryllis Penndraig of Anglecynn, hostage,” I said. “He’s going to use his resources and her information to collect more money and more gold. We know where she is and we assume that his stash of gold will be near where she’s kept, and besides that, the top of his tower is the most likely place.” I was banking a lot on the fact that dwarves valued being forthright. “We need your help because we can’t do this without you. I think you need our help too, if you’ve been here for a month.”

Grak grumbled at that, thinking, while Fenn looked daggers at me. But it wasn’t exactly like I could duck out of our conversation with him in order to talk about whether or not we should bring him in, not just because it would be awkward but because having a private conversation would undermine the trust I was placing in him. What I really wanted, more than anything, was to get his loyalty up.

Loyalty increased: Grak lvl 0!

“I was right not to trust you,” he said, which was basically the opposite of what the game was saying. I kept waiting for a ‘but’, and it never came, because that was apparently all Grak had to say, except …

“Yet you’re still sitting at this table,” said Fenn.

“Your quest was to bring gold back?” I asked. “Was it any gold, or Aumann’s gold in particular?”

Grak shifted in his seat. “One thousand pounds is my penance to the clan,” he replied.

“Or about twenty million obols,” I said. “Alright, if you help us to rescue Amaryllis, we can provide that, if it turns out that there isn’t any gold in the upper levels of the tower. Obviously if the gold is there, you’ll break down the wards and we’ll rob him blind, but if it’s not, then Amaryllis Penndraig will have the ability to pay for your services.”

Fenn was still glaring at me, but Grak was looking a little more relaxed now. “You intended to deceive me,” he said. “We can work with each other, so long as we’re working in the same direction.”

Fenn raised an eyebrow at him. “Water over the bridge, just like that?”

Grak shifted in his seat. “It’s different, in dwarven culture,” he said. “Most of the other mortal species allow bad blood to perpetuate through retribution and mistrust.” He looked me in the eyes. “It marks us as naive to others.”

“Because it doesn’t scale well,” I said. I remembered that cultural trait; I’d given it to hobbits, not dwarves. “It works in smaller settings, where it’s important that you not have constant feuds and escalations, but in a city of a million people, you run into too many people that you can only ever expect to see once. The counterpoint to forgiving first offenses is that you judge second offenses harshly, but in the city that’s just not an option, because there’s no second offense for you to levy against.”

“Are you a student of dwarven culture?” asked Grak.

“No,” I replied. “Just a student of cultures generally.”

Loyalty increased: Grak lvl 1!

And I would like to be a student of dwarf culture, especially to understand how they resolve the inherent contradiction in a tit-for-tat-with-forgiveness strategy with sending people out to steal gold. “Dwarves have always interested me though.” I turned to Fenn. “I’m sorry I didn’t consult you first, but you have to understand how it would have looked if I had tried to have a private conversation with you before telling him the truth, right? It would have seemed like we were getting our stories straight.”

Fenn pinched the bridge of her nose. “All’s well that ends well. Are we still going ahead with the plan of hiking our way up the tower and spending our gold on distractions?”

“I’m open to better offers,” I replied. “We still have some time. We’ll want to watch Aumann to see how quickly he responds to the presence of gold in the city, do a few dry runs mapping out his movements.”

Fenn was pissed at me, as might have been expected. She didn’t bring it up when we finally left the back room at the Impish Inn, and I was content to let her stew about it while I tried to think about how the fight would go. She would call me a traitor, maybe, or say that I was naive, or … something like that, maybe, given what she’d said before. She hadn’t brought up the fact that Grak might be only pretending to work with us in order to sell us out, but I’d seen his loyalty go up twice, and that seemed proof enough against nefarious intent. His loyalty meter wouldn’t be rising while he was plotting against us, would it? (Would it?)

We moved through the city together, passing by people, shops, ugly buildings, and haphazard wires. We didn’t say anything to each other as we walked through the hotel lobby, and the only thing Fenn said in the elevator was our floor number. I sat in one of the room’s chairs while Fenn flopped out onto the bed, and I waited for her to raise her objections, which I was sure were going to be personal rather than professional. It was about the fact that I hadn’t consulted her, that was the source of her anger, this feeling of being unappreciated, certainly not the outcomes of the meeting, and only maybe some piece of ‘the ends were good but the risk was unacceptable’.

“How many companions are you going to have?” Fenn asked the ceiling.

“Uh,” I replied, because that wasn’t where I saw the conversation going at all. “Uther Penndraig had seven, so that’s not a bad guess.”

“So there are, maybe, four others left to find,” Fenn said to the ceiling. “Crap, I’m going to have to read that biography of Uther Penndraig, aren’t I? I’m going to have to figure out how they dealt with it.”

“With what?” I asked.

“With being caught up in your wake,” said Fenn. She sat up and looked at me. “You turned on a dime, because the game said so, and that means that we turned on a dime.” She sighed. “I’ve got whiplash, that’s all.”

“You wanted him to be a companion,” I replied. “You said that, when you first introduced him to me.”

“Sure,” said Fenn. “But I thought it would be us bringing him into the fold, not … this. Not you making a unilateral decision, and yes, I understand why you made that choice, why you thought it was important not to loop me in, and I have a good enough read on Grak that I think he’s actually pretty happy, but … I feel like I’m a side character.”

“You’re … worried about your place in the narrative?” I asked.

“Does loyalty ever go down?” asked Fenn.

“I haven’t seen it happen, no,” I replied. “Generally speaking … it depends, but generally speaking most games like to satisfy the need to see numbers get bigger, so no, generally loyalty goes up and not down.”

“Do you understand why, if I accept your version of reality, that might be terrifying?” asked Fenn.

“Because it’s not how people work,” I replied. “Yeah, I get it.”

“I think I should be more angry with you than I am,” said Fenn. “We talked about what our story was going to be with Grak and then you decided, in the moment, that you were going to tell him anyway, despite us having a whole conversation about how we weren’t going to do that. I was upset by that, but I could feel that anger fade, and by the time we left the tavern I was over it.”

I stared at her. “Wait, you’re mad at me because you’re not mad at me?”

“Ugh, it sounds so dumb when you put it like that,” said Fenn. She flopped back down on the bed.

“I get it,” I replied. “You know that there are changes in how I’m thinking, right? I put points into the mental stats and now I’m left second-guessing myself about what’s me and what’s been modified by the game. When I was putting that rocket together in the desert, I was trying my hardest not to think about how I knew how to do all these things, how much was pulled in from my experiences on Earth and how much was just inserted as-needed by the game itself. I doubled my insight and now when I think things about people, there’s always this temptation for me to think, oh, that’s the game feeding me information, screwing with my head. And if it’s not, then I was fundamentally, irreversibly changed on a core level.”

“And how do you deal with it?” asked Fenn, looking at the ceiling again.

“Mostly I don’t,” I shrugged. “I push forward, try not to think about it, focus on other things, do what needs doing. I don’t think it’s a question that has an answer, so … ignore it, I guess.”

From the angle I was looking at her, I could just barely see her smile at that. “It’s brilliant,” she said. “Ignore the problems, make jokes about them … a task I was purpose-built for.” Her smile faded. “I really hope that I wasn’t purpose-built for it.”

“Yeah, me too,” I replied.

Loyalty increased: Fenn lvl 10!

Companion Passive Unlocked: Twinned Souls (Fenn)!

I resisted the urge to say “fuck” and instead closed my eyes to look through the screens to figure out what that actually did. It was listed under “Companions”, just below Fenn’s biography.

Twinned Souls: Fenn is a loyal companion, now formally part of your kharass, and will never lag behind you in relative power, so long as she is a member of your party.

Huh. That … was actually pretty good. I was a generalist, with a generalist’s build, but so long as I kept gaining levels (which I fully intended to do) it had seemed like I was destined to make Fenn largely irrelevant, at least in terms of combat ability, since I was already a better swordfighter than her, and the last few levels of Dodge and Parry had been difficult because there wasn’t actually that much challenge in it. That left the question of whether to tell her, which was hardly a question at all.

“You just hit loyalty level 10,” I said. “The game says you have a thing where you’ll match power with me as I level up.”

Fenn was quiet for a moment. “Neat!” she finally said. She sat up again and then closed her eyes. It took me a moment to realize what she was doing. “Aw, no stats screen for the half-elf,” she said as she opened her eyes and looked at me. “So if you’re on the path to becoming the next Uther Penndraig, then I’m on the path to becoming, what, the greatest archer the world has ever known? The most charming half-elf in the land? The word power is a bit ambiguous, tell your game that I’d like more, please.”

And with that the tension was broken, at least a little bit, which I was happy for. I had suggestions about how to gauge power, which mostly revolved around doing simple, repetitive tasks that had a chance of failure we could assign a metric to, but Fenn thought that was the most boring thing in the world. We descended into other topics from there, stories of Earth and Aerb, tales from Fenn of stalking the Risen Lands for treasure, and for the most part, we went back to normal.

Chapter Text

We went into Trifles Tower through the service entrance two days later, with only minor deterioration to my condition, after Grak spent ten tense minutes with his wand against the wards, subverting or changing them somehow. We’d watched the outside for long enough to get a sense of what people wore; the bottom two thirds of Trifles Tower was an eclectic mix of residences, office spaces, and stores, which meant that there wasn’t much need for us to wear disguises as we made our way up the stairs. Most of the traffic in the building would be through the central elevator, meaning that we’d have the stairs to ourselves anyway, if luck was on our side. After we were in the stairwell we’d taken out the equipment it wasn’t wise to show off on the street, like the bandoliers of dead fairies and a second bandolier of bones.

When we got up to the seventh floor, Grak stopped us. “Ward,” he said. He squinted against his monocle, looking at something that was invisible to us. He crept closer and stuck out his wand, prodding at something. He grinned and sheathed his wand. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Basic detection ward against a variety of magics, intended as warning if any of the big guns come knocking. We’re the wrong kind of big guns.”

I winced at that. Grak had not been appraised of my unique situation. “Do you have specifics?” I asked. “Would it tell her about skin magic? Gem magic?”

“Are you curious or cautious?” he asked.

“I have tricks up my sleeve,” I said. I shifted one of the snake tattoos down my arm until the head poked down from my long sleeves. When Grak had seen it, I lifted my hand and lit the tip of my finger on fire with a pulse of my blood. “Nothing earthshaking.”

Grak looked me over. “This ward will alert her to high velocities consistent with either gunfire or a velocity mage,” he said. He moved his wand marginally, though neither of us could see what it was pointing at because his monocle was at his side. “It will detect against the latent magic in any gems, gold, carapaces, flowers, fires, crystals, pustules, devils, or demons, as well as the passive or active magic of a blood, bone, skin, wood, or gold mage. Which of those apply?”

I hesitated. “Is it just at the barrier here, or will it apply throughout the building?”

“Which, of those, apply?” said Grak with gritted teeth.

“We have gems in the glove,” I said. “I have a single tattoo that’s passive in nature,” which I don’t actually know how to remove, come to think of it “but I’d like to know whether we can get around that by me entering the glove, having Fenn cross through the ward, and then me exiting the glove.”

Grak sniffed, which I’d come to think of as one of his nervous tics, like he thought that he could learn more about a situation by smelling. “Should work,” he said. “The glove can make a fool of many wards. You should have told me.”

He was right, but I’d been trusting The Commoner’s Guide to Warding Magic when it had said that skin wards were used almost exclusively to prevent physical intrusion.

“You’re more well-trained than I gave you credit for,” said Grak.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Usually keeping that under wraps works to my advantage.”

“You’re more well-trained than should be possible, given your age,” said Grak, still watching me.

“We don’t have time for this conversation,” I replied. “I give you my word that after we’ve finished getting Amaryllis back, I’ll tell you everything.” I tried not to put too much stress on the word ‘my’ there; Grak liked me more than he liked Fenn, and he certainly trusted me more than her, for obvious reasons.

“Fine,” said Grak. “You heard what I said about demons and devils?”

I nodded. “Not a warlock,” I replied. “Never met one.”

Grak grunted, which he sometimes did by way of assent. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and saw pitch black in my peripheral vision, and started on the controlled breathing that I’d been practicing, mixed in with all of the reading and other practice, plus scoping out Trifles Towers, plus finding locations for our distractions and helping to set them up, plus the bouts of feeling sick. (I would probably have listened to Fenn about us going too fast with this plan, but I’d broken two fingers in my left hand the day before while trying to open a jar. I murdered and ate some fairies to fix them, but it was a grim reminder that I was getting less useful as the days went on.)

I spent no more than ten seconds in the void of Sable before being spat back out onto the stairs. We went a little more slowly up the stairs now, with Grak being even more cautious than he had been before. The stairway wasn’t quite an institutional fire escape, but it had some similarities, mostly in the sparsity of furnishings and bare bulbs that provided illumination. I was still well enough to not feel winded from the climb, but it was a strain nonetheless, and I could tell that Grak was feeling it. Some of his stops with his monocle out were, I was pretty sure, because he wanted to catch his breath a bit.

“Contact, site A,” said Grak when we reached the thirteenth floor.

That meant that active gold magic had passed through a ward he’d placed in a room we’d rented on the north side of the city. Once Aumann was there, it would take him an estimated fifteen to twenty minutes to use physical force to break the wards around the gold, maybe a bit more, and then he’d either be heading back to the tower or off to one of the other sites.

The problem was, the plan had been for us to spend some time waiting at the top of the stairs until he got to one of the sites; he had moved a lot faster than we’d thought he would, or maybe we had moved a lot slower. We had another seven floors to the top.

We booked it up the stairs, straining hard, Grak more than me or Fenn. We hadn’t seen anyone using the stairs yet, nor had we heard anyone using them, which meant that the stealth aspect of the plan was going fairly well, and we could use that in order to make up for the timing aspect going decidedly poorly.

We reached the top of the stairs and took a moment to catch our breath.

“Shit,” whispered Fenn. “This is the nineteenth floor. Trifles is supposed to have twenty floors, right?”

Of course we all knew that it was, because we’d been over the details, such as we had them, backward and forward. Supposedly, Aumann’s guest was being held in the top floor, next to where Aumann himself slept, but the full layout of the building wasn’t known to us. Being short a floor meant trouble for us.

“Wards on the door,” said Grak in a low voice, looking through his monocle. He winced. “Three varieties of vaporization, none affecting us, but it says unpleasant things about Sheriot’s skill. She’s better than I thought she was.”

“Any detection?” asked Fenn. “Or are we good to breach?”

Grak hesitated, then unhooked his axe and pulled back the leather sheath that covered the head. Warders were, as a general rule, useless in any combat scenario where they couldn’t dictate the terrain ahead of time. I wasn’t quite sure what Grak was capable of, but I was hopeful that since he was my companion he’d be capable of something.

“We’re going in hot then,” I said. “Assume that we’re compromised from the word go.” I hesitated and looked at the door. It swung outward, toward the stairwell landing,  “Just a sec.” The Anyblade was a small dagger in a hidden sheath beneath my shirt, but when I pulled it out I made it into a thin, hard knife with a blunted point, thin enough that I was able to use it to pop up the pins that held the hinges in place. With those gone, there was nothing holding the door in place by the pressure of the hinge pieces against each other. “Fenn?” I asked.

She held Sable forward and pressed the glove against the door. Ten seconds passed by, and I tried not to hold my breath, because there was a good chance I was going to need all available oxygen to deal with whatever was on the other side of that door.

When the door disappeared, we were greeted by two people in a small, unadorned hallway. The woman was leaning up against the wall, facing us, one leg propped up and her hand on the man’s shoulder, beside his breastplate. He was leaning into her, away from us, with very little room between their faces. There was just enough time for the smile on the woman’s face to fall before Grak’s axe flew through the air at them, cleaving straight through the woman’s skull. The man turned to look at us in shock and horror, blood covering his face, and an arrow caught him point-blank in the eye, driving him back against the wall.

Collateral damage. My dad had always hated that word, the way it shirked responsibility from the people killed for no goddamned reason except that they were in the way of the objective. I’d known that it might come to this, but I hadn’t thought it would be so soon. This had been the sort of morally grey situation that I always forced my players into, it shouldn’t have been surprising to find one here.

“That’s the warder down,” said Grak in his low voice. He held his hand out and the axe flew backward, spinning dangerously fast, to land in his grasp. I stared at him. “Sheriot,” he said, pointing his axe at the woman whose face had been nearly cleaved in half. And he was right, of course, if I had only been focused on the words the game had written.

Sheriot Trosty defeated!

Trifles Tower guard defeated!

“No one coming,” said Fenn at a whisper. She pulled a metal nail with runes on it from Sable and briefly placed it first in Sheriot’s brain, and then in the guard’s, pulling both their souls out and putting them into a small glass bottle. As a seeming afterthought, she touched both bodies for the required ten seconds and put them into Sable. “We should move.”

I kept my objections to myself as I tried to work through the wave of dissonance. No, that hadn’t been some random maid or receptionist flirting with a guard in a back hallway, it had been the woman that had helped Aumann kidnap Amaryllis, and wasn’t that just fucking convenient, enough that I felt my anger growing at the way the game was jerking me around. It wasn’t just that happenstance that led us to an unreasonably good ambush, but the moral convenience of killing someone who deserved it.

We moved down the hallway with Grak in the lead, his monocle occasionally going up to his eye to look for more wards. There were occasional rooms that we looked in on, Fenn with her bow at the ready, and me with the void rifle behind her, but they were bedrooms or sitting rooms, and one was a kitchen. This floor, then, was the place probably where Aumann kept his closest staff, most of them either gone to oversee his businesses or temporarily teleported away from Barren Jewel to seek out whatever buried treasures Amaryllis had told him about. I was pretty sure Aumann being stretched thin was one of the reasons that Fenn hadn’t pressed too hard about the speed we were putting this into place; it was another way in which time was not on our side.

The hallway we’d been following eventually turned a corner and opened up into a large room with a wide staircase leading up. It was beautiful and detailed in a way that I hadn’t expected; the call of the gold was supposed to be a constant pressure on a gold mage, something that pressed on them, which I had thought would lead to miserly behavior. Here, instead of that, there was a tastefulness and delicacy that spoke to incredible amounts of money, the kind of money that allowed you to have things be simple because you knew that they were perfect.

There was a single guard standing next to the staircase, idly reading a paperback book and turned slightly away from us. Fenn raised her bow, popped an arrow out of Sable, and silently nocked it. The arrow punctured a hole in his head before he could react to the sound of the bowstring. This kill wasn’t quite so clean; he turned around, dazed, and when he spotted us something like a word came out of his mouth. He was clutching at where the arrow had gone through his head when Fenn followed it up with a second one, and this one made him crumple to the ground.

Trifles Tower guard defeated!

We hesitated, waiting for someone to come running, or some kind of reaction, but there was none. I had a bad feeling about this, not just the revulsion at the fact that we were killing guards who were just collecting a paycheck, but this was seeming entirely too easy. In the real world, sometimes things were easy, but in a game, ‘too easy’ meant that the tone was just being set for a major fight.

We had a brief, quiet conversation about what our plan was. The grand staircase leading up was the logical path to take, but there was another hallway on this level. The elevator that most people would have taken up to get to the nineteenth floor was opposite the stairs, and I was just thinking that I should deploy my Lecher’s Vine around the elevator door to warn against intruders when we heard the ding of an arriving elevator.

Fenn was the first to react; she sprinted toward the stairs, then turned around and loosed an arrow just as the doors opened up. The arrow split itself, so there were more than two hundred by the time they reached the elevator itself. The elevator operator, a boy with a wolf’s ears who looked to be in his early teens, was partially shielded by where he was standing, and he twirled to the side as he was hit by a few of them in his arm and leg. The elevator’s other occupant was a man in a business suit and spectacles, and he was hit by at least a hundred of them. Where the points of the arrows hit him, they stopped completely, and for just a second he was standing there looking like a pin cushion, arrows touching him but not actually piercing him or his clothing.

Then the arrows all fell to the ground, and him without a scratch to show for it. That was when he pulled out a handgun and started firing on us.

We scrambled for cover. The still mage, Echert, was shooting at Fenn, since she was the clear and present threat, his shots deafening, but she was either lucky or fast enough that three shots managed to miss her before she was hidden behind a couch. Grak pushed over a table for cover and began using his wand to create a ward, but I couldn’t fathom what that would be given how long wards took to make.

I raised up the void rifle and took my shot with a loud thunk, which opened up a hole in his left arm that was mostly visible by the blood that pooled from it. That unfortunately got his attention focused on me. I got three fairies out of my belt and stuffed them in my mouth just as the first bullet hit me in the chest. Maybe I was imagining things, but I had the distinct sensation of blood being pushed through my veins the wrong way. I definitely wasn’t imagining the pain of a broken rib. I chewed and swallowed the fairies, trying to move enough that his next shot wouldn’t also hit me, but we weren’t far enough away from each other, and the void rifle had a four second cooldown. I put the pulse of my blood into a Sanguine Surge that allowed me to dodge another shot and begin moving toward cover, but the still mage was moving on his own now, trying to close the distance between us.

Grak's axe came sailing through the air and struck the still mage in the neck. I thought it was more for a distraction than anything else, because still magic’s whole deal was bringing things to a halt, but though the axe was stopped, it still had an effect; Echert suddenly had an extra foot of hair getting in his eyes.

I shot him again, this time hitting him in the stomach, which was not at all where I’d intended to put the hole. He grunted in pain and raced toward me, heedless of the wound, trying to get me within reach. I wasn’t sure how many bullets he had left in his gun, but I knew he was trying to get a grip on me so he could stop me in place and then kill me at his leisure. I threw the void rifle to the side, because I knew I wasn’t going to get another shot with it, and then raced toward him, which gave him pause. When I grabbed him around the neck he stared at me in confusion. I was stopped in place, naturally, that was the nature of his magic, it was practically instinctive on his part. That didn’t stop me from using my tattoo, the Icy Devil, which sheathed my hand in ice.

He got the brain freeze a moment later and released his stilling grip on me, but that did nothing for the fact that I was still clutching him tightly. He tried to bring his gun up, and I moved my other hand to block him; he shot me just above the hip, and that hurt, like being smacked by a baseball bat that left a burning pain inside me, but it didn’t actually help his situation any. He stopped me in place again, fighting against the cold going straight to his brain, and lifted his gun higher, trying to get it pointed at my head. I could feel something else, a killing intent from him that was striking at my chest. One of the ways that a still mage could kill was to stop your heart for long enough, but some people could shrug it off, and so far it seemed like I was passing that Save or Die check.

Echart Halderson defeated!

The grip of stillness was lifted with a thunk that came to my right. I grabbed all the remaining fairies from my bandolier and stuffed them in my mouth as I sank to the ground. I really, really needed to stop getting shot, and I hadn’t had a level up in what felt like far too long. The fairy magic went about magically healing my wounds, and I looked around for the others, only to find that they were both by the elevator; Fenn had taken a fairy from its storage space within Sable and shoved it into the kid’s mouth, but he was limp and breathing shallowly. She was trying to get him to chew, trying to work his jaw around the marzipan, but it wasn’t working. I limped my way over as my wounds started closing, keeping an eye on the bar that showed my hit points, which had dipped down to 5/36 but was now steadily rising.

I took bones from my bandolier and applied healing, but he was badly injured and I was mediocre at bone magic, which meant that the work I was doing wasn’t enough. I hadn’t brought them with for the healing, that was what we had fairies for, I’d brought them for a burst of speed or power. It wasn’t long before I’d emptied all ten bones, casting them aside one by one as I’d drained them.

“Give me a corpse,” I said.

Fenn gestured toward me with Sable and the body of the warder, Sheriot, materialized in thin air and fell to the floor. I grimaced and stuck my fingers in her brutalized face, feeling the ragged ridge where her skull had split, then reached out to the boy with the furry ears and rested my hand on his. Grak cottoned on to what I was doing fast enough and started hacking at Sheriot with his ax, biting down to the bone so I could leech END from her and put it into the kid. Each time he hit her corpse, her hair grew out a foot, until it was a tangled mass on the ground.

“Contact, site B,” said Grak, right as I was finishing up the final touches. I’d drained eight of the bones from Sheriot’s corpse, one after the other, and the bleeding had mostly stopped. Fenn looked pallid, maybe because she hadn’t wanted to kill this kid, or maybe because of the copious amounts of blood.

“Let’s fuck off out of here then,” said Fenn. “He’s stable?”

“Yeah,” I said, though I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t just giving her a polite lie. The game had not informed me that we’d defeated a random teenaged elevator operator, at least, and he was still breathing with a weak pulse.

As we went up the stairs to the twentieth level, I was pretty confident that at the very least, there probably weren’t more people coming for us. The handgun had been loud enough to be heard on the floors below, and if someone was coming, then they would have probably come by now. I had refilled my bandolier just in case, but Aumann was at the second lure, presumably with his revision mage in tow, and that only left the velocity mage, who supposedly never went into Trifles Tower. Of course, if she were to get a phone call, she could arrive in a flash ...

The top floor of Trifles Tower was a single wide, open room with a large bed, doors leading to a porch, a kitchen area, shelving, and various curios lining the walls, which went up nearly thirty feet before coming to a sharp point where they converged. I didn’t really have time to look at any of that though, because Amaryllis was standing at the doorway of a small room that seemed to have been partitioned off from the rest of the place.

The intervening days since we’d last seen each other had not been kind to her. Her right arm was too skinny and horribly yellow, withered like it had aged a hundred years. The nails on that hand were no longer there, leaving only red divots at the end of her fingers. She had dark bags under her eyes and her hair was stringy. She was wearing only a plain shift that left her looking shapeless.

Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 8!

Her mouth moved, but we could hear no words.

“Wards,” said Grak as he moved forward with his monocle up. He turned to look at us. “Look for the gold. Sheriot on her own wouldn’t be enough to put up vaporization wards against blood, bone, or skin, you won’t run straight into death without me.” He tapped his wand against the wards around the doorway and frowned.

“We’re getting out of here,” said Fenn. She slipped Sable partly off so her fingers were holding onto the edge of it, and swung the empty parts across the ward, where Amaryllis caught them. Ten seconds later, Amaryllis had disappeared, and a second after that she was standing on the other side of the ward.

“He has the key,” said Amaryllis, without so much as a thank you, a glance in Grak’s direction, or any acknowledgment of the absurdity of us being there with her. “The tattoo is still sealed, but it’s on his body. He doesn’t know what’s inside it.”

Chapter Text

“Nice to see you too,” said Fenn. “You’re welcome.”

Grak dropped to one knee. “Princess Amaryllis, I am honored to make your acquaintance.”

“We need to go,” I said. “No telling how long until he gets back.” I turned to Fenn. “I’m a fan of glove-out-the-window.”

“My things are in his vault,” said Amaryllis. “It’s down on the floor below. Ten seconds each for the blade and the armor, once we break past the wards.”

“Forgive me, princess,” said Grak as he rose to his feet, “But I don’t think that it will be so easy as with the ones that caged you. An absolute ward against velocity would prevent that trick from working.”

“Then we’ll figure something out,” said Amaryllis.

“Here,” said Fenn, taking out a fairy from Sable and handing it to Amaryllis. “You’re not looking too hot.”

“If we have limited time, we should go down to his vault now while we can,” said Amaryllis. She bit the head off the fairy and swallowed it without stopping to chew.

“No, we should leave,” said Fenn. “We can’t beat him and having your stuff won’t help you if you’re dead.”

“Agreed,” I said. “I have a quest to save you, it’s not complete yet, that means that it’s not a foregone conclusion that we can leave.” Grak gave me a funny look at that, but he’d have to have been an idiot to see everything I’d done and not have his questions. I was more focused on getting all of us out of there, because if I were running this game, I would be sorely tempted to force a final confrontation with the primary antagonist if it was at all plausible for that to happen.

“Contact, site C,” said Grak. “He was a lot faster the second time.”

Fenn held out Sable and grabbed an oxygen tank (with a mask) that materialized out of it. “Now.”

“His gold is in that vault,” said Amaryllis. “We can end him.”

I could see by Grak’s face set, and Fenn’s eyes roll. We weren’t exactly set up as a democracy in this party, and we didn’t have the conflict-resolution channels that it would have been nice to have, which meant that this was either going to be solved by debate or by seeing who could dig their heels in furthest, and we didn’t have time for either of those.

“We’ll go to the vault,” I said. Better that we do something than nothing.

Loyalty increased: Grak lvl 2!

I could see by the set of Fenn’s teeth that she was pissed off, but she started toward the stairs all the same, and the breathing apparatus vanished back into the glove as we moved.

We went down the other wing this time, past more rooms until we got to a solid iron door. Grak immediately ran his wand across the ground back the way we came and spent a valuable minute of our time on erecting a ward against high velocities before turning back to the door we’d been staring at. With his monocle out, he looked at the door and grimaced.

“Wards are heavy, absolute velocity, blood and bone to stop us, but all three breakable in five minutes. A few more are there too, which don’t matter. The physical door is a problem.” Grak reached forward and touched the heavy lock, which looked like it was going to require a key, the kind that Aumann was sure to keep on him at all times.

I stepped forward and drew the Anyblade, shifting the hilt around until it was roughly key-shaped, then stuck it in the keyhole. The Anyblade wasn’t meant for this work, I knew it, but I also knew that this was something that Reimer had done time and time again, until I started having every villain in the land use two-factor. It wasn’t terribly much work to feel the resistance of the springs and wiggle the blade-hilt around, though it probably would have gone a lot faster if that had been one of the things that I had practiced. Eventually I got it, turned the blade, and opened up the vault.

Inside were three suits of armor, five weapons, a handful of other things I assumed had to be magical if they were sitting there waiting for us (among them a pile of rope and an armchair), and there, right in the middle, a pile of gold. I was pretty sure that the entire thing could fit into a few cubic feet, maybe even a single cubic foot. It was far from being a dragon’s hoard (though those were always far too big to make any sense), but it was definitely worth millions of dollars. Call of the gold aside, it made it almost tempting to become a gold mage, if you could get so much power from such a (visually) small amount. There were a few gold coins and pieces of jewelry, but most of it was just in the form of stamped gold bars.

Grak began work on breaking the wards, while Fenn began probing at the wards using her fingers. I wasn’t quite sure why she was doing that, because she knew as well as I did that an absolute ward against velocity meant that you couldn’t do things like poke the finger of a glove across, because it would stop any and all movement at its border. A void rifle could get past it, because the void went through things without any velocity (bullshit, if you asked me, but the void was also “not magic”), and light was apparently not included as a thing that had velocity (because otherwise the room would have been completely dark), but there was very little else that would get past it.

Amaryllis had taken the void rifle and was sitting prone on the hallway floor sighting down it, applying pressure to the trigger with the index finger of her withered yellow arm. The red pit where her fingernail had been was weeping a clear fluid.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “When this is over we’re going to need to seek out some very expensive healing. ‘Rat rot’ is progressive.”

“I meant more … whatever you went through,” I said.

“Not the time, Joon,” said Amaryllis. She hesitated, as if remembering how to be a person. There was no way she had missed the copious amounts of blood on the floor by the elevator. “Thank you.”

Fenn laughed at that. “I’d say don’t mention it, but you almost didn’t.”

I wanted to say something then, to express how much trouble we’d gone through, or how much I’d been thinking about her, or even to ask her whether she had known or suspected that Uther Penndraig was dream-skewered, but Grak finished his work.

“Wards are down, spoofed my way past them,” he said with a feral smile that didn’t look quite right on a dwarf’s flat, wide teeth.

Fenn moved in at once, going straight for the armor, which I thought was weird until I realized that they were probably going to be the hardest things to move. As Sable started sucking them up one by one, I pulled out a folded up sack out of a tattoo on my arm and started loading the gold into it, one bar at a time. The gold bars were incredibly heavy, even with me knowing beforehand that gold is very dense and hard to move. A solid cubic foot of gold weighed something like 1200 pounds. Grak began helping me and we’d moved over about half of it, one twenty-pound bar at a time, when Fenn came over and grabbed the sack with her black glove. Sable took about ten seconds to suck up something, and it couldn’t do multiple things at once, but ‘thing’ was a loose definition as shown by the fact that it didn’t strip us of clothing when we went inside it. That was one of the reasons that I’d used a few applications of the Surface Sheath to put folded up sacks on my skin. While our sack of gold was counting down to vanish into the glove, I pulled out a second one, which Grak and I kept filling.


At the sound of the void rifle I abandoned my task and ran out of the vault to the hallway, drawing the AnyBlade and extending it to dagger length. I was just in time to see Aumann fall over with a hole in the middle of his forehead, his bracelet and necklace of ball bearings falling apart and scattering to the floor, the muscles under his red and white mottled skin going slack.

And then I was treated to the sight of those ball bearings reversing their motion and coming back to him as he rose up from the ground, with movements that made no sense unless physics were running in reverse. I dashed forward, sword drawn, none too hopeful about my chances, and brought the Anyblade down in the form of a two-handed greatsword that nearly clipped the ceiling, right as I saw the hole in Aumann’s forehead fill in with flesh.

The Anyblade hit him in the head and clanged off him, twisting in my hands. Aumann stared at me in confusion for just a second, then brushed the Anyblade with the back of his hand, sending it flying from my grip and through the wall, breaking several bones in my hand. Then he touched me and the world lurched sideways.

Affliction: Cowardice Removed!

When I came to I was in abject pain. My left arm wasn’t broken, so I used that to reach into my bandolier with a shaking, bloody hand and pull out more fairies, which I shoved into my thankfully also-unbroken jaw. Chewing was still a pain though, and swallowing was downright excruciating, because I had only a single hit point left, and the state of my body reflected that. Reimer had always said that health didn’t matter until you lost your last point, and that was manifestly not true in my case, but at the very least, everything else was recoverable.

I got to my feet with a gob of too-sweet marzipan in my mouth, grunting at the feeling of pressure on my newly healed legs. I was in an office of some kind, with books and papers scattered all around and a hole in the wall that was just about my size. I had no idea how much time had passed during my blackout, but it couldn’t have been that long, since my blood was still wet and not at all crusted. I limped forward as I kept on swallowing down fairies, running through my entire bandolier for the second time that day.

I was nearly to the hole in the wall when I saw metal balls zip past, fast as bullets, then a man’s voice, Aumann’s, say “There are wards”.

That was the first thing to give me hope. Aumann was powerful, powerful enough to flick metal balls away from him as fast as bullets, powerful enough that his telekinesis hit me as hard as a car, and he had a revision mage who was presumably going to stay close to him, but he couldn’t see wards, and a warder was at their most dangerous when they’d had time to prepare the battlefield. Of course, Grak hadn’t prepared the battlefield, but Aumann didn’t know that, and he would have seen his bullets slow down to non-lethal speeds.

Barrier wards were the easiest, most common type of ward, but there were area wards too, like the ones that they used to stop teleportation, and if I were Aumann, I would be extremely worried about gold magic denial that would keep me from being Superman, or something that would stop revision magic from healing me up from another void rifle shot. And if I were Grak, I would be putting up those wards as quickly as possible at the border of the vault they were all presumably hiding in.

Sable wasn’t cutting Aumann’s ‘connection’ to the gold, but I was pretty sure that our side would win any war of attrition, because even if Sable didn’t count as taking the gold out of his control, then surely directly destroying the gold would. And Aumann knew that we had the void rifle, and he had to be able to model us well enough to know that we were willing to give up a little bit of gold in order to depower him, which meant that he knew he was on a time limit.

Which left me, standing in a ruined office, with no weapons to speak of save for the tattoos that laced my skin, and no real plan. The Anyblade had been flung somewhere, I assumed that Amaryllis, Fenn, and Grak were hiding in the vault, maybe even with the door closed, and Aumann … if it were a game I were running, and anyone even moderately cautious was playing Aumann, this was right around the time that they would bust out the 11-foot pole.

Another metal ball went zipping by, but a few moments later I saw it flying back through the air the other direction. Revision magic, testing for invisible wards, which meant that the revision mage now had line of sight down the corridor. So long as the revision mage was there, Aumann could be more bold in moving forward, and he could test for wards against gold magic, and when he found none there was pretty much nothing stopping him from tearing his way into the vault and killing everyone inside it.

I looked around for a weapon and found a heavy metal paperweight on the desk, which I picked up and hefted. Against the gold mage, it would be useless, but against the revision mage … well, they had the truly absurd ability to revise themselves in the event of their death, injury, or incapacitation, which meant that he was basically unkillable (with a few asterisks, but not ones that applied to a guy holding a paperweight).

So I sat there, positioning myself next to the hole in the wall, trying to get as good a view toward the vault as I could, hiding so that if (when) Aumann walked by I wouldn’t be in his direct line of sight. I had the paperweight hoisted like I thought it would do something.

My breath caught in my throat as I saw Aumann walking closer. He held a cane in his outstretched hand, which he was swinging from side to side like a blind man. As I looked closer I saw that he wasn’t actually holding the cane, it was telekinetically stuck to his palm. If my guess was right, he was wrapping the cane in his tactile telekinetic field, which meant that as soon as he hit a ward against gold magic he’d be able to feel it and stop there.

Through the hole in the wall I saw the revision mage follow behind. He was a slightly overweight man with a ponytail, wearing a brown, buttoned-up jacket and khakis. We had staked out Trifles Tower a few times when testing how fast Aumann’s response to gold was, and I had seen the revision mage, Colwin, a few times, flying away with Aumann. I could just barely see everything from my position, Colwin following Aumann, and the vault door that was only partially closed.

When I saw a small hint of pure black come out from behind the vault door, I sprang into action, and a number of things seemed to happen all at once, some of which I would only learn about later.

Amaryllis popped out of Sable, materializing from the extradimensional space with her void rifle up at her shoulder and a fair amount of pressure already on the trigger. She fired off her shot a fraction of a second after appearing, putting a hole into Aumann’s head for the second time that day. Colwin put out a hand to start reversing that the moment it happened, but that was just about the time I came out through the hole in the wall and bashed him in the side of the head with a blood-magic-assisted paperweight.

It cracked his skull and left him falling to the ground, but then the both of us were moving backward in time, erasing my memories of any of that happening, and the second time around he ducked beneath my wild swing. I came at him a second time, reversing my swing to hit him with a backhand, once against fueled by my blood, and hit him full on in the base of his neck, and then we were going back through time again, erasing my memory again, and the thing was I knew this was happening, I had read all about it in the Commoner’s Guide, I knew that single combat with a revision mage was essentially pointless, I knew that I must have been landing those hits because there was no way that he was dodging from blows he couldn’t even see coming.

But I also saw Amaryllis, who to my fractured perception was teleporting down the hallway towards us, holding a sword hilt in her hand, and after the third time I hit Colwin, I stopped just shy, because Amaryllis was right next to him and he had a sword sticking straight through his head. I saw him move back and forth along it,

Isaac Aumann defeated!

Level Up!

Colwin Hearst defeated!

Quest Complete: Your Princess is in Another Castle - Amaryllis is safe from harm for now, and you with a big pile of gold to show for it you lucky dog.

Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 9!

Level Up!

Achievement Unlocked: Tenth

I was wrapped in a golden glow, tinged with red this time, and it was like a goddess had taken my brain out of my skull, trailing every yellow-white nerve from it, then stuck it into her mouth and ran her warm, sucking tongue along the tip of every nerve ending. It was bliss, pure and yet still unrefined, and once it was done I was left looking at my fingers in wonder, like someone had put me back together wrong. I still floated in the air and sent out a gust of wind, but I wasn’t even aware of it until afterward, as I was coming to.

And yet the bones of my ribs and my left hand were still devoid of their energy, and the quest to fix them hadn’t gone away, because no, the game hated me, it had the capacity to give me limitless pleasure and locked it away behind the all-too-brief moments when it decided that I had done a good job, it had the ability to heal me completely but for whatever bullshit reason it had decided that me doing the clever thing and using my own bones as fuel was too clever and had to be cured because life couldn’t ever be fucking fair, it was a constant march of brutality and pain with --

“Stop,” said Fenn. She was standing beside me with a hand on my shoulder, looking me in the eyes. My foot stopped whatever it had been doing, which, when I looked down, was apparently kicking the revision mage’s face into a bloody pulp. I looked back to Fenn, who was staring at me with wet, worried eyes. She stepped closer and shifted her hand, so she was grabbing my neck, then gave me a quick kiss on the lips. “I thought you were dead,” she said as she backed away from me. “If you do something that dumb again I am going to kill and eat you, do you understand?”

I wasn’t sure whether she was referring to me fighting the gold mage or me fighting the revision mage, but either way she was probably right. I looked over to Aumann’s corpse, which Amaryllis was squatted over. She had stripped off his clothing and was bringing a knife to bear against his rib cage, making a careful cut to his still-warm skin right next to a tattoo.

“Wait,” I said, moving forward. “Azalea.” The tattoo glowed for a second, giving off light blue sparks around the outline of the wrapped package, and when I stepped down to grab it, it came off the skin easily, the two-dimensional image expanding to three dimensions in my fingertips. I pulled off the twine and unwrapped the cloth, then looked down at the teleportation key.

“Why that word?” asked Amaryllis. She had looked exhausted from the moment we first rescued her, but now there was no longer a fire in her; whatever thoughts had been sustaining her, they were gone, leaving her vacant.

“Tattooist picked it,” said Fenn. “He probably saw the family resemblance.”

Amaryllis closed her eyes and nodded at some piece of cultural knowledge that had apparently passed me by. Vervain the flower mage had been Uther Penndraig’s equivalent to Merlin, and flower names were common among the Penndraig lines, but I had no idea who Azalea was and it seemed like the furthest thing from important at the moment.

“We should clear the rest of this,” said Grak from beside the vault door. “I see we’ve got a teleportation key, that should make the getaway a mite easier.”

The rest was cleanup, the kind of thing that you never want to deal with when you’re in the middle of coming down from having finished something hard. Fenn took the corpses of first Colwin, then Aumann, and after that we stole everything else that was left in the vault, putting it all into the glove, and even then we weren’t done, because there were, predictably, wards against teleportation within Trifles Tower, which Grak finally identified a gap in back on the top floor patio.

We left, with Amaryllis again operating the teleportation key, and after a painful moment -- a pain that caught me by surprise, because I had forgotten -- we were standing in a forest of trees so tall they would give redwoods a run for their money, standing at least a mile from a large house in a clearing, with a roof of grass and wildflowers.

“Check for wards,” said Amaryllis after she spent a moment looking around. Grak paused for a moment, and I didn’t know him well enough to make an accurate prediction about what he was thinking, but my best guess was that he was wondering whether this was his life now, going around with clearly insane people with mysterious powers who had stolen millions of dollars worth of gold and magic items and casually used a billion dollar piece of magic to move across the world. But he didn’t say anything about any of that, and instead pulled out his monocle to look around.

“Some around the house,” he said. “Built into the stones, at a guess, but we’ll know more when we get there.”

Amaryllis nodded, then just stood there for a moment, swaying, and I managed to catch her as she collapsed.


Chapter Text


6 POW 18 Unarmed Combat 18 One-handed Weapons 15 Two-handed Weapons 15 Improvised Weapons
6 SPD 15 Thrown Weapons 15 Dual Wield 12 Pistols 12 Bows
6 END 12 Rifles 0 Shotguns 18 Parry 18 Athletics

4 CUN 18 Dodge 12 Engineering 0 Alchemy 0 Smithing
4 KNO 0 Woodworking 0 Horticulture 0 Livestock 0 Music
4 WIS 6 Art 12 Blood Magic 12 Bone Magic 6 Gem Magic

2 CHA 0 Gold Magic 0 Water Magic 0 Steel Magic 0 Velocity Magic
4 INS 0 Revision Magic 12 Skin Magic 0 Essentialism 0 Library Magic
2 POI 0 Wards 0 Language 6 Flattery 6 Comedy
  0 LUK 6 Romance 10 Intimidation 8 Deception 0 Spirit

“So, we have a teleportation key,” said Grak in a conversational tone as we walked across the forest floor with trees towering above us and blocking a fair amount of the light. The dwarf tugged on the dyed-grey braids of his beard as we walked and occasionally moved his warder’s monocle to his eye to peer at the house we were walking toward.

I was carrying Amaryllis, who was out cold, cradling her in my arms. Her yellow, withered arm and the red marks where her nails had once been were painful to look at, so I mostly kept my eyes forward instead of looking down at her. She tensed in my arms occasionally, fluttering her eyes open for long enough to make sure that I was still carrying her and then falling back into something like sleep.

“The first thing I learned when I joined this crew,” said Fenn, “Is that you can’t expect to get answers to your questions right away, and you can’t expect that people will tell you things that it might have been good to know.” She held up a finger. “For example, it was only three days ago that I learned our pal Juniper was friends with Uther Penndraig.”

Grak sniffed. “I don’t like elf jokes,” he said.

“They’re half-elf jokes,” said Fenn, twitching her pointed ears. “And I do have to say that they’re an acquired taste. So far Juniper is the only one to have acquired them, and it took him quite a while.”

“Nah,” I replied. “I liked you from the start.” Carrying Amaryllis was less of a strain than I thought it would be, but then again, I was fresh off a level up and she had lost weight while she’d been locked up in the castle. I didn’t like seeing her so frail.

“Aw, I liked you too, little hooman,” said Fenn.

Grak coughed into his fist. “It isn’t in dwarf nature to be roundabout,” he said. “I was trying to do you the courtesy of allowing you to give an explanation for the teleportation key of your own accord. Tell me where it came from.”

“It belonged to Anglecynn,” I replied. “They were using it to … violate imperial laws regarding exclusion zones, I guess, or something like that, and they were trying to keep the fact that they’d lost it quiet. We grabbed it out of the Risen Lands exclusion zone.” I was skipping a few bits in there, not because they weren’t important, and not because I was actively trying to keep anything from Grak, but because it seemed like it was going to take forever to explain. That was the same reason that I said ‘nevermind’ when Fenn asked me what a Rickroll was.

“And what is this warded place we’re going to?” asked Grak.

I looked down at Amaryllis sleeping in my arms. “Fenn?” I asked.

“No clue,” she replied cheerfully. “When we left the lands of the undead, the place Amaryllis chose to take us was Barren Jewel, where we had a delightful misadventure in the desert.”

“In the desert?” asked Grak with a raised eyebrow.

“She picked Barren Jewel because it was a place where we could acquire a safe spot to use the teleportation key, where we could get some healing, where no one would be looking for us, and close by to a supposedly-secure location where we could acquire lots of valuables,” I said. “So working from that, I would guess that she chose this place under similar criteria, though,” I looked around, trying to see some hint of what lay beyond the forest but finding only trees, “I don’t think we’re terribly close to civilization here, unless I’m missing something obvious, and my guess is that we’re probably short on some other relevant criteria as well.”

“Hence checking for wards,” nodded Fenn. “Might be this was one of the places that Princess Amaryllis was expected to go, one that they’d have sent people to once they figure out she was alive, or at least once they knew that she wasn’t dead, if they do know that. I guess all they know is that they don’t have a confirmed kill.”

“How long was she captured?” asked Grak, who was taking all this in remarkable stride.

“Seven days total,” I replied.

“Aumann would have interrogated her,” he said. “He would have broken her bones and peeled off her skin until she told him everything that she knew. He had a revision mage to undo the damage and wipe her memories. He was sending people out to locations that she named.”

“And he’s dead now, so that’s,” I stopped. “Moot. Except it’s not, because if he was sending out people, he might have sent them here, except … the keys only go to touchstones or places you’ve been before, which means that they would have had to set down wherever the closest one of those is and would be making their way here right now.” I cursed under my breath. “And unless Aumann was running really tight infosec, which we know he wasn’t, then information about Amaryllis might have leaked back to her so-called family.”

“That’s if Aumann didn’t tell them directly,” said Fenn. “I mean if you’ve got a belligerent princess you know would gut you at a moment’s notice, are you really going to keep her around like a caged tiger waiting to attack? I wouldn’t, but that’s partly because I know her. She’d figure out a way to slip poison into my cup halfway through the first day.”

“He was sending people out to hit all the supply caches,” I replied. “He wouldn’t do that if he was planning to sell her to the highest bidder.”

“Of course he would,” said Fenn. “You remember what he said to us, the value of a thing is in what people will pay, it wouldn’t be enough for him to sell Amaryllis to the people that want to kill her, he would do that and then go to the next-closest descendant of Uther Penndraig and say, ‘Hey, how much you want to give me for this magic rope I stole?’”

I grimaced at that, because she was right, that was exactly what he would do.

Up close, it looked like someone had built an estate house and then picked up the grassland like a blanket to tuck the house in for the night. I wasn’t entirely sure whether the house had been built on flat land and then earth had been filled in after it with new grass put down, or if the house had been carved into an existing hill. The terrain around us was mostly flat though, so I thought it was probably the former. Either way, it was a pretty, picturesque place in a clearing, with wildflowers all around it and a shaft of sunlight coming down that couldn’t have been more perfect if it had tried. There was furniture outside the house, most of it looking like highly polished driftwood, a long table with eight chairs arranged around it, a pair of benches set beside a fire pit, a swirling garden, and rocks placed in a decorative ways that made them seem as though they’d been found there.

“We get it,” said Fenn, “You’re rich.”

And yeah, this place was like a giant finger to the proletariat, not just because it must have cost an enormous amount to build and maintain, not just because there were no roads that I could see which meant that goods and people would have to be teleported in at outrageous expense, but because the place was cozy, Hobbiton cozy, rich-people rustic, and we were in the middle of an immense forest, but the word ‘gentrification’ did enter my mind.

“Nothing suspicious about the wards,” said Grak when he finished lifting the monocle to his eye. “No detection wards that I can find at a distance, and only the usual wards you’d find on a high-value building, proof against teleportation magics and unreasonably high velocities. Expensive wards, the work of multiple warders, a few of them ornamental.” He pointed to the rocks, then just above the large table. “Wards against water, so a dinner party doesn’t get rained out.”

“You think we’re safe to go inside?” I asked. Amaryllis had started getting heavy a quarter mile ago and though it wasn’t at all chivalrous, I really did want to put her down.

Grak nodded. “That means that anyone else would be too.”

We made our way slowly and carefully, looking at the windows. Fenn offered to slip a mask and tank on Amaryllis and put her in the glove so I could walk easier, but I vetoed that idea for obvious reasons. I was hoping that it wouldn’t come to that; there was a reason that Amaryllis had taken us to this place, and I was hoping that it was because she thought it would be safe but useless, a place for us to recuperate and plan our next move.

The front door wasn’t just unlocked, it didn’t have a lock. We moved inside to see a place that was much like the outside, making pretenses towards an organic, rustic feeling. An enormous fireplace dominated the living room, surrounded by plush furniture trimmed with polished branches. Based on the size of the hill the house was nestled in, the twenty-foot ceiling made this the largest room in the house, with doors leading in all sorts of different directions.

I set Amaryllis down on the couch and lightly touched her face, brushing aside stringy hair.

“We’re here,” I whispered.

She opened her eyes and looked at me. “Safe?” she asked, shivering somewhat.

“Probably,” I replied. “Get some rest. We’ll have some questions when you wake up.”

The three of us moved through the house one room at a time, looking in on each of them, Grak doing so with his monocle to search for any wards. Most of what we found wouldn’t have been too out of place back on Earth; they were bedrooms, bathrooms, a large kitchen and a dining table there, a small library with a desk that I was definitely going to check out later, but certainly nothing that seemed all that Aerbian to me. Sure, the construction was obviously not drywall and two-by-fours, and the pictures on the walls were of fantastical scenes and mysterious beasts, but there was nothing that screamed magic or parallel universe, at least not until we went down into the basement and found the souls.

There was a big glass barrel half-full of those little balls of light, jostling gently against each other on the bottom. Beside this was an engine of some kind, which was putting out a faint hum that had been blocked by the heavy door to the basement. It took my mind a moment to realize that what I was looking at; it was a generator, the reason that this place had power was because on Aerb they just casually used some kind of mad science process to make embryos bud off and create more souls, whose decay was used as a power source, and they kept it right next to the hot water heater like it was nothing.

Fenn went over to the barrel, pulled a glass plug from the top, and then pulled her own glass bottle from Sable, her magical glove. She emptied six souls into the barrel with hundreds of others, then put the plug back in place.

“That’s my good deed for the day,” said Fenn. “Takes a special kind of shitty person to send someone to the hells, no matter how much of an ass they are.” I agreed with that, I suppose, but there was a probably-not-morally-justified part of me that thought Aumann deserved worse than he got.

The only other room of note was a storage area in the basement, a huge place where the aesthetic of the above rooms had been mostly forgotten. Instead of wood floors, there was concrete, scuffed with use and with an open area that had careful marks painted onto the floor. I had seen something similar when we had gone to Caer Laga. This was where anything they were in dire need of could be teleported in, something that was usually done in bulk. What this place had, which Caer Laga didn’t, was a stockpile of dried foods and a walk-in freezer, ensuring that we wouldn’t have to resort to magic in order to stay fed. A cistern beside that was full of fresh, clean water as well.

When we went back into the main room, Amaryllis was up and had just finished starting a fire in the fireplace.

“This place is Weik Handum,” she said as she poked at a log. “It’s known to many. We might have to leave in a hurry.” She turned toward us, finally locking eyes with Grak. “I’m sorry for my curtness earlier.”

“It’s fine,” said Grak. “A dwarf understands.” He stepped forward and held out his hand. “Grakhuil Leadbraids, of the clan Ligoda.”

Amaryllis gave him a curtsy, using her withered yellow hand to pull her shift slightly to the side. “Amaryllis Penndraig, tenth of her name, of the Kingdom of Anglecynn, long may it stand.”

I could practically hear Fenn rolling her eyes. “We need to get you healed up,” said Fenn. “The boy too.”

“What’s wrong with Joon?” asked Amaryllis, snapping her attention to me. “He leveled up just before we came here.”

“Bone magic,” I said. I rubbed the back of my neck. “Apparently it’s a bad idea to drain your own bones for their magic.” I could feel Grak and Amaryllis looking at me. “It wasn’t really like I had a choice, I was running for my life and needed the burst of speed, I’m pretty sure that I would have died otherwise.”

“And fairies don’t help,” said Amaryllis, more as a statement than a question, because she didn’t think so little of Fenn and I that she thought we wouldn’t think of doing the obvious thing. “Symptoms?”

“Um,” I said. “Loss of appetite, anemia, and I’ve been breaking the bones a little too easily.” I had gained ambidexterity by raising my Dual Wield skill high enough, but now I hardly used my left hand for anything if there was any way that I could help it. There were other changes, I was sure, but it was hard to tell what they were, because I knew that paranoia was overtaking me. Was that twinge in my stomach the first sign of major organ failure? Was the hitch in my breathing coming on too fast because my lungs had been thrown out of balance? That was impossible to say without a doctor, and probably even then it would take a specialist.

“Okay,” said Amaryllis, rubbing her forehead. I noticed that she was favoring her left hand, even though she was right-handed. “Then we need a plan.”

“We’ve got nearly a thousand pounds of gold,” said Fenn. “I’m pretty sure that this is the kind of problem that you can just throw money at.”

“You have five hundred pounds of gold,” said Grak. “Half of what was in the vault is mine. Those were the terms.”

“Fine,” said Fenn. “But then we still have nearly five hundred pounds of gold, which means that we have a ridiculous sum of money to spend on getting the both of you healed.”

Amaryllis turned to Grak. “I assume that when the key is ready again, you’d like to be dropped off somewhere?” she asked. “Our options in that regard will be limited, obviously, but I’m sure we can reach an accommodation.”

Grak shifted. “Juniper offered me a share of your personal wealth, in exchange for my aid in the rescue.”

Amaryllis stared at him. “Everything I have is stored in that glove,” she said, pointing a yellowed finger at Fenn. “I do not have vast riches any longer. Every day that passes, more of what was once mine is claimed by the other members of the Lost King’s Court. There are places, such as this one, and there are secret caches left behind by my ancestors for times of need, but there’s no bank I can draw on.”

Grak shrugged. “It seems to me that staying with the three of you is the most direct path to paying the penance to my clan, if there are some terms we can find amenable.”

“Look, my character’s entire motivation is the loot,” said Tom. “He doesn’t really care that much about the cult of Epsilon, and he doesn’t believe that the gods would allow them to reincarnate a demon, so why should he accept an offer for a ‘fair share’ of the loot?”

Arthur frowned. “You’re right, actually,” he said. “I’m doing it because I think it’s the right thing to do, to appease my god, because I think that the gods won’t allow it but I’m their instrument for not allowing it, for the praise and adoration that provide the crux of my character flaw, because it needs to be done … I would go after them even if there was no loot, so why should I advocate for an equal share?”

Craig looked to Tom. “Doesn’t that just reduce us to being sellswords?” he asked. “I’m not sure that works from a keep-the-team-together standpoint once the adventure is over.”

“Here,” said Reimer, having finally found his place in the book that was open in front of him, “DMG, page 135, there’s a table for character wealth by level.” He turned the book around, offering for someone to look at it and confirm, which no one did. “The game’s assumptions about player power level rests on us getting equal amounts of treasure in line with our experience gain, it’s what makes the math on combat encounters mostly work out. If I’m following my alignment and backstory then yeah, sure, I would give up a share of the treasure if really pressed on it, but that screws up the game balance.”

“Yeah, but if you don’t screw up the game balance then you screw up the characters,” said Arthur.

“I can fix it,” I said. “You can hammer out an in-character agreement about how to distribute the loot, then I can wiggle things around on the backend so that you get less loot from the adventure and are individually compensated by your paladin’s order and druid circle respectively.”

“Does that work?” asked Craig. “I was under the impression that we were going to get thousands of gold for this adventure, if the church has thousands of gold to spend, why aren’t they spending it on us right now, it doesn’t make sense that they would wait around until after the quest is complete, if they think the quest is so critical.”

I sighed and rubbed my face. “Okay, fine, it’s an iterative thing,” I said. “It’s important for Uther and Zackum to defeat the cult for their own, personal, moral social reasons, but if they just give in on loot negotiations then they’re going to be constantly starved for resources, especially when it comes to the next time, and they know that the risk/reward proposition is already favorable enough with an equal split. And from a keep-the-team-together aspect, the sellswords know that they’ve got a good thing going by being able to pair up with two half-healers that will keep them alive and raise them from the dead.”

“Okay,” said Arthur. “Now let’s do all that in character.”

We took some time to draw up terms. Grak would be paid a pound of gold for every two weeks he spent with us, but it would all be kept within the glove until such time as he wanted to cash out, mostly because it would be impossible for him to carry that much gold around. He would get a third share of any treasure that we found or stole, and temporary access to whatever heirlooms Amaryllis saw fit, with the understanding that it was in her best interests to keep our warder armored up. Other than that, he didn’t really care what it was we did. (A pound of gold every two weeks came out to a yearly salary of just under $2 million dollars, which seemed like a ridiculous sum to me, especially since I wasn’t getting paid at all.)

“Alright,” said Fenn, once we had a simple, written (completely unenforceable) contract. “Now for my terms.”

“There are things we need to do,” said Amaryllis. She’d taken a seat in a large chair by the fire, and was looking like she was running low on energy.

“Looking over our haul is one of those things,” said Fenn. “And I’d rather work things out before that.”

“Fine,” said Amaryllis, waving her hand.

“First, I get to keep Sable,” said Fenn, holding up the glove, which was so black it was impossible to see the contours of her fingers. “Not just for the duration of our quest to loot Lady Penndraig’s holdings and kill her enemies, but forever. If Sable turns out to need regular investiture, then Amaryllis, I’ll come to you whenever the time is about to run up.”

Amaryllis hesitated at that. Clearly Sable was more powerful than she’d thought it was from the outset. “Fine,” she said.

“Second, I don’t really have any interest in getting you back in a position of power,” said Fenn. “No offense, but the politics stuff is um, pretty boring, especially in the Lost King’s Court, from what I know of it. Instead, I want to pour our efforts into making Juniper stronger, which means fighting things and completing his quests. Not just for his own sake, but we're inextricably linked to him.”

“What do you mean by inextricably linked?” asked Grak.

“We don’t actually know,” said Fenn. “Probably soulfuckery, or maybe Juniper is a god. Anyway, I don’t object to visiting the no-doubt hundreds of homes like this one you have and looting them blind, or using the information you have courtesy of your former position in the labyrinthine political bodies of Anglecynn, but it’s Juniper first from here on out. Deal?”

“Deal,” said Amaryllis, a little too quickly for my tastes. Juniper was a lever that could move the world, and Amaryllis wanted to be that lever.

“Third,” began Fenn.

“How much longer is this going to go on?” asked Amaryllis. “I need to lay down.” She was already laying back in the chair, resting her head against it.

“Last one,” said Fenn. “Third, I want us to go to the Isle of Eversummer and avenge my father.”

Quest Accepted: Summer’s End - Return to the place where Fenn received her scars and bring justice to the elves. (Companion Quest)

“I just got a quest for that,” I said.

“It worked!” cried Fenn with a small clap. “Okay, we’re going to try more of that later on, get Joon all the quests his little game brain can handle.”

“What magic possesses Juniper?” asked Grak. “I’ve already gathered that he’s five hundred years old.”

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “Going to sleep now.” She rested her head and closed her eyes.

To my surprise, Fenn picked up a blanket laying across the couch and threw it over her. “Juniper, it might be time you made with the explanation.”

I sighed. “Alright, so I come from a place called Earth, which is a lot like Aerb in some respects and very unlike Aerb in others …”

I have to admit, I had been working on the pitch for quite some time, since before we’d even met Grak. Starting with Earth seemed sensible, say that it’s another world that has some overlap with this one, play up the nature of coincidences and the mystery of how some things resemble each other, pretend that the melange of things that I’d seen in Aerb weren’t just my own creation (which was sort of true, because I had seen a few references to Earth things, albeit ones that I had put in my games), and only then, once all that was laid out, would I say:

“So, part of what’s special about me is that I see numbers in my head that correspond to my skills and abilities, which I can increase whenever I finish the quests that appear in my field of vision.” I said this very patiently and calmly, as though it was the most rational thing in the world. “There does seem to be some correspondence between these numbers and well-studied magics, as related to me by a bone mage.”

“And Juniper’s own special brand of magic marks you as a companion,” said Fenn, which I didn’t really appreciate because it would only complicate matters.

“I see,” said Grak. He looked to Fenn. “Do you have reason to believe that any of this is actually true?”

“Sure,” Fenn smiled, “Juniper is a great guy.”

I slapped my forehead at that. “I’ve done at least six impossible things,” I said. “I mean … didn’t you see me level up?”

“What is that?” asked Grak.

“There was a bunch of glowing light, I healed completely, it happened in the hallway?” I asked.

“When I came from the vault you were kicking a corpse in the head,” said Grak.

“Okay, well … then I can’t prove it,” I said. “Fenn can tell you all of the neat stuff I’ve done, how I’m basically a savant at learning new types of magic, which you’ve seen firsthand for yourself --”

“No,” said Grak. “I’ve seen faculty, but if you’re five hundred years old that’s no surprise, it was only your apparent age that confused me.”

“I’m seventeen,” I said. I think. This body may or may not be seventeen, because it probably belonged to someone else when I slipped into it, assuming that this world wasn’t just created ex nihilo the moment right before I arrived, which it probably wasn’t.

“Fenn said that you knew Uther Penndraig,” said Grak.

“That’s … Fenn, we’re going to have to talk about what jokes it is and is not appropriate to make in front of people,” I said. “But yes, I’m operating under the assumption that Uther Penndraig was originally from Earth. I would have known him nine months ago. Ten now, I guess.” I looked over to Amaryllis, who had resumed sleeping. I hoped that this was just a symptom of her stressful time with Aumann, rather than the rat rot, because if this was the way she was going to be, then I probably wasn’t going to be able to press her for details.

“It doesn’t actually matter to me,” said Grak. “Whether you’re fooling these two or whether it’s the truth, the deal we struck is one that accommodates me. The moment you ask me to act on this strange magic that only you can see, that’s where we have a problem.”

“One sec,” I said. I closed my eyes for three seconds and brought up the character sheet, then stopped for a moment on the screen with my skills and abilities. I had leveled up twice, which meant that I should have seen a ‘+4’ floating in the upper right corner, just outside the character sheet proper. Instead, it said ‘+9’. I’d gotten five extra points from somewhere. Hitting tenth level? That seemed likely, but the game was as always stubborn with giving me information, and there was still no game log to look through.

“What’s he doing?” I heard Grak ask.

“Accessing the mystical secrets behind his eyelids,” replied Fenn.

I flicked my eyes to the side and switched screens, casually looking for any other surprises, until I got to the one labeled companions. To my delight, Grakhuil’s biography was no longer greyed out, which meant that it was probably loyalty level 2 when those were unlocked.


Grakhuil Leadbraids, Loyalty lvl 2

Grakhuil comes from the largely parthenogenetic clan of dwarves in Darili Irid (loosely, Gold Hole). Due to da nad skill in the game of Ranks and overall empathic nature relative to da nad kin, Grak was selected to leave Darili Irid for the Athenaeum of Barriers with the plan that da would return and become the next master warder of the clanhome. Upon returning home, da was entered into a rare arranged pair-bond with another dwarf, and fled from Darili Irid after refusing the Kiss on da nad bond night. Da has spent da nad time looking to make amends for the damage da nad absence caused to da nad clan.

I opened my eyes and looked at Grak. “Okay, first things first, what do ‘da’ and ‘da nad’ mean?”

“They’re part of the dwarven dialect used by my clan,” said Grak. “‘Da’ would be the equivalent of ‘he’ and ‘da nad’ would be the equivalent of ‘his’. It’s nothing that you couldn’t have known by other means.”

“Okay,” I said. “But the meaning is different, because you’re just assumed male for the sake of everyone’s convenience?”

Grak nodded. “Knowing that does not constitute proof.”

“Just curious,” I said. I took a breath. “Your clan comes from Darili Irid, which translates to something like Gold Hole. You were chosen to go to the Athenaeum of Barriers because you were skilled in the game of Ranks, and you came back to an arranged marriage that you ran away from with a refusal of something called the Kiss.”

Grak stared me in the eyes and I hoped that I hadn’t just made some extreme faux pas, or at least not one that was any bigger than reading from someone’s biography. “What else?” he asked.

“Nothing, that’s all I have,” I said. “Hopefully that’s enough.”

“It is,” nodded Grak.

“Alright!” said Fenn. “Then let’s get to looking at loot.” She held her hand out to the side and began dropping things onto the floor.

Chapter Text

We had to wake Amaryllis back up for a look at the loot, because the heirlooms were keyed to her, which meant that she was the one that could activate them or, alternately, use investiture to give them over to us.

“Rope first,” I said. “I want to see whether that’s Ropey.”

Fenn picked up the rope and dutifully handed it to Amaryllis, who handled it for a moment before it sprang to life in her hands. It dropped down and slithered over to the fireplace, where it rose up and contorted itself into different shapes. If I hadn’t been ready for it, I would have probably missed the first few, but this was Ropey, and so I knew the shapes would be letters. H-E-L-L-O.

“It says ‘hello’,” I said. “Come here Ropey, do you want to be friends?” The rope dropped down to the floor in a heap and then slithered toward me, wrapping itself around my leg and then pulling itself up to chest level so I could pat it on the raised end that served as its head. “It’s a sentient length of rope,” I explained.

“The Eternal Golden Braid,” muttered Amaryllis from the couch. Apparently getting that fire going had been a poor choice, because she was very low on energy.

“Yeah,” I said, chuckling, “That was the name I gave it, but they called it Ropey. If I remember right it fell in love with a sentient magic sword shortly before that campaign was put on the shelf.”

“And what does it do, exactly?” asked Fenn.

“Oh, lots of stuff,” I said. “Reconnaissance, traps, climbing, all sorts of things. Whatever you would want to do with prehensile rope. I won’t have to boost you up over walls anymore, we can just throw Ropey up and have him tie himself into knots to give us something to grip onto.” I was really happy to see him, mostly because he was the most wholesome, loyal thing I had ever made. He was, if I’m being honest, mostly outclassed by what we already had, but he was still good to see.

Two more of the items were known, not to me, but to Amaryllis, at least well enough that she could give us a concrete description of what they did.

One was a throwing dagger, which had two distinct powers. The first was the ability to fly backward to the hand, similar to what Grak’s axe appeared to have, but fast enough that it stung the palm of my hand. The second ability was that if you hid it on your person, it would teleport around in order to stay hidden, so long as there was a place it could move to. This spoke to a level of intelligence and sensory capability that might have shocked me if we didn’t, you know, have 50 ft. of sentient rope. (The dagger was mine to keep, because I had a Thrown Weapons skill and was lacking for an off-hand weapon, not that I was going to attempt to Dual Wield with my bad hand.)

The second was leather armor, which had the effect of slowing and speeding the movements of the wearer, trading one for the other in short bursts. Fenn offered that she would take that one if I would agree to wear the other (still a mystery to us), and I decided that I was willing to roll the dice, mostly because I knew I had enough different combat abilities that I didn’t want yet another to think about while we were in the middle of a fight.

A third, which was a sickle with a rich oak handle, was Amaryllis’ alone, uninvestable, which seemed patently unfair because she already had a fancy sword. We had no idea what the sickle did, but she was only barely staying awake, so that would have to be tested later.

(A part of me was starting to see a self-destructive pattern with her, the other side of the coin from her being an indomitable, indestructible hellfire woman teenage girl who would cut down anything in her path to get to her goal. It wasn’t just that she was strong, though she was, it was that she also had a need to be seen as strong. The house had been mildly chilly, in a way that was somewhat pleasant. No one had asked her to move a bunch of logs around and build a fire, she had done that because she had woken up and either consciously or subconsciously thought that she was being a useless burden and needed to either prove herself or provide forward momentum. Or maybe my 4 INS wasn’t all that amazing at tearing apart a person’s motivations and it was a random fluctuation of the rat rot rather than being a deeply character-driven moment for her.)

That left a suit of armor, a bow, and a shortsword from the vault, plus everything we’d found on the corpses we’d collected from Trifles Tower, which amounted to a bracelet Aumann had been wearing, the necklace he wore under his suit, his pocketwatch, and a pair of glasses from the still mage.

I have to say, testing magic items was one of the highlights of my time in Aerb. There wasn’t any equivalent to the identify spell, but Grak could tell whether something had latent or passive magic just by looking at it with his warder’s monocle for a few minutes, and the study of magic was a natural outgrowth of specializing in countermagic. That was how we found the three magic items that Aumann had on his body. I made sure to have Fenn drop his body from the glove outside the house, so his blood would wash away in the rain.

There were, naturally, some things that we couldn’t test. We went outside with the weapons, but I was adamant that we not actually try to hit each other with them, not even with blows that weren’t supposed to hurt, because I wasn’t confident that a vorpal sword wouldn’t accidentally cut off someone’s head, or more realistically, that we’d find out the hard way that a sword left bleeding wounds that magical healing didn’t work on, or something ridiculous like that. It wasn’t entirely clear what the bounds of possibility were, as far as magic items went; six of the exclusion zones were caused by a magic item of one kind or another. The ones we were testing were either owned by Aumann and his people or recently acquired from one of the places known to Amaryllis, so they wouldn’t be that powerful, at least in the scheme of things … but that didn’t help us all that much, because the possibilities were still massive.

Still, the end result was some good, silly fun.

“Okay,” said Fenn. “The bow currently does nothing.” The bow in question had a grip that seemed to be made of sandstone, which let off a dusting of sand whenever it was fired but never actually got any slimmer. The wood that made up its limbs was light and honey-colored, but pretty wasn’t really the criteria we were looking for. “So here’s what I’m thinking, it’s probably keyed to a word of power.” She held up the bow and aimed across the grass toward where she’d set up targets on top of a dresser. The dresser had come from her glove, and I was fairly sure that she had stolen it from our hotel room. “Gambagulon!” she said, and fired an arrow from the bow.

“Does that mean anything?” I asked with a laugh. “Were you hoping that elf luck would let you randomly pick the right word out of every possible word in the world?”

“Wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to happen to me in the last week,” said Fenn with a cheery smile. “Okay, give me some Earth words.”

“We share the same language,” I replied. “The only differences are in terms of references, idioms, and things like that, and more than half those just have a different origin on Aerb instead of being incomprehensible.”

“Fine,” said Fenn, “Just give me your most stereotypical word of power in Earth English, ours would be something like shouting ‘Abracadabra!’”

“That … is the same as on Earth,” I said.

“Bullshit,” said Fenn. “You have the same story?”

“No,” I said, “It’s just something that people say when they do magic. But we don’t have magic, so it’s something that they say when they pretend to do magic, I guess.” I paused. “What does it mean here?”

“Classical play,” said Fenn. “Supposedly based on real life, but it would have been centuries ago, before the Lost King’s time, if that’s what you’re thinking. There’s a king and his wizardly advisor, who is secretly a traitor, but the king secretly knows that his advisor is traitor, and the wizard is a bit incompetent, so most of what makes it funny is that the wizard is doing all these underhanded things that the king has perfectly predicted. Anyway, it builds up to a climax as the wizard finds this word of power in a book somewhere that will surely destroy the king. One guess as to what the word is, which is revealed when he finally says it to the king’s face. And of course the king already knew about this book, he was the one who had planted it in the first place, so the audience is laughing hard at the fact that the wizard is always playing a level below his opponent. ‘Abracadabra’ is therefore nonsense.”

“Huh,” I said. Sounds like a clue.

“You know,” said Fenn, “Not everything is a clue.”

“I didn’t say it was a clue,” I replied. “You just inferred that from my expression.”

“Well, not everything is a clue,” said Fenn. “I know you’ve got your magical powers and everything, but we’re going to go crazy if we start down that road. More specifically, I am going to go crazy.”

“The glasses shroud people in an aura,” said Grak, who had been sitting at the large table outside the house looking over the other items. “You’re both tinted purple. The entad goes from latent to passive with a tap at the sides. It’s unclear, as yet, what the color signifies.”

“Hrm,” I said. “Is it blocked by line of sight?”

“Yes,” said Grak. He looked at the bow in Fenn’s hand. “Any luck with your own?”

I had put on the armor, a metallic-blue outfit that seemed to display as much variety of craftsmanship as possible, with a large, solid breastplate, scaled armor on the sides and upper arms, then chainmail at the extremities, with leather and cloth underneath. It fit me perfectly, which wasn’t terribly much of a surprise, since that was a standard rule we’d always used. Though I hadn’t been watching her change into it, I was fairly sure that the same on-the-sly magical resizing had happened when Amaryllis had donned the immobility plate, because the thought of that vault having plate specifically sized to a small teenage girl beggared belief (at the time, I hadn’t even questioned it).

I’d moved around in it and tried to get a hint of what magic it might have, turning a somersault and sprinting across the grass, then doing a few drills with the Anyblade, but I’d gone over to see what Fenn was doing fairly quickly.

I knew from Grak’s question that what he was really asking was, ‘Are you two done fucking around?’, which, from an outsider’s perspective, was fair. But it still seemed unfair to me, because it hadn’t been more than a few hours since we’d killed six people, and if I wanted to take my mind off that by having fun with Fenn, then that seemed like a worthwhile use of my time. I didn’t want to think about the adrenaline thrill of moving to kill someone, the copper taste of blood in the air, the messy way that blood had poured from Aumann when he had a hole punched through his head, the way I felt like I was pushing myself to have remorse and regret that I didn’t actually feel -- I didn’t want to think about any of that, and this was a way for me to do that, so in one sense Grak was justified in not-so-subtly telling us that we were off focus, but in another sense, I was upset with him.

“Nothing yet,” I said. “You thought this armor had both passive and latent abilities?”

Grak nodded, and part of his frown softened. “That says nothing concrete. Resizing is latent, unless it’s in the process of happening. If the armor is lighter, or more breathable, that accounts for its passive magic. It’s common on entads and heirloom entads, part of the way the forge frenzy usually takes shape.”

“But it’s not likely to just be a really good suit of armor,” I said.

“No,” replied Grak. He turned to Fenn. “And you?”

“Look, you’re not our taskmaster,” said Fenn. “If anyone is the taskmaster, it’s Mary, and then only because she’s got seniority. We haven’t arranged for whom the backup taskmaster is, in event of illness or absence, but I personally was eyeing that position --”

“Elf humor,” said Grak, dismissively. “This is important. If we want to succeed at our joint goals, we need unanimity of purpose.”

“Sure, sure,” said Fenn. “Doesn’t mean that we can’t have a little bit of fun from time to time. I’ll have you know that I am our team comic relief, Joon tried out for the position but couldn’t hold a candle to me.”

“If there’s a method of physical activation, it will likely be in the grip,” said Grak. He pointed to the sandstone. “The material is a special one, not normally used in a bow, and it provides a magical effect when touched.”

“Well I’ve tried that,” said Fenn. “I tried rubbing it, licking it, eating some of the sand, blowing the sand out of the palm of my hand, touching an arrowhead to the sand, a number of different ways of holding it, and nothing that I tried worked.” I wasn’t entirely sure how serious she was about having eaten sand.

“Did you try twisting it?” I asked.

Fenn glared at me. “Of course I did,” she replied. She held the sandstone grip in her hand and twisted her hand, which rotated the bow.

“No, I meant,” I paused, thinking of how to phrase it. “Use both hands, like you’re trying to hold the limbs still and rotate the central part of it.”

Fenn did, and that worked, which only deepened her glare. “Stupid bullshit game powers,” she said.

“Sometimes things work like I think they should work,” I said to Grak. He didn’t seem to know how to take that, but his attention was turned back to Fenn a moment later, as she fired the bow.

The arrow hung in the air, a foot away from the bow.

“Huh,” said Fenn. “And now, we wait.”

So we waited. I had a count going in my head, using the mississippi method, and around ‘fifteen mississippi’ my attention was starting to wane. I began wondering what word they used on Aerb to count off seconds, and whether their second was exactly the same as an Earth second or just close enough that it didn’t make a difference in casual conversation, and it wasn’t exactly like I had a way to check.

“You may need to do something to get it moving again,” Grak began, but then we hit thirty mississippi and the arrow zipped through the air, striking the bar of soap that had been set up on the dresser.

“Thirty seconds,” Fenn and I both said in tandem.

“It needs a name,” said Fenn. “But I’m going to have to work on tactics some, and, oh, wait,” she pulled an arrow out of Sable and fired it, lodging it in place in mid-air, then another, then another, until a full ten of them were hung there, side by side. By the time she’d fired the last one, the first one began moving again, flying toward the air to its target. “Okay, good, no limits on that. Should be able to set up an ambush or distraction with it. That will have to play into the naming decision.”

“You should conserve your arrows,” said Grak.

Fenn held up her glove. “Do you want to guess, perchance, how many arrows are contained within easy reach?” Grak frowned. “I’ll save you the suspense, it’s two thousand. If I run out of arrows, we are probably entirely fucked.” She turned to me. “You’ve still got work to do on figuring out that armor, yes? I was going to check in on our princess.”

“Sure,” I said. Probably good to give those two a break from each other anyway.

As Fenn stalked off, I watched the sway of her hips, which I was pretty sure she was exaggerating for my benefit. She’d said she would stop flirting with me and respect my cultural norms, which she had mostly done, but there were occasional times, as now, when it seemed like she was prodding at the boundaries we’d set.

I realized with a start that Grak was standing next to me. He was examining my armor. “When I left my clan to learn at the Athenaeum of Barriers, it was like being put into another world. It was strange and unsettling.”

“I can see the parallels,” I said cautiously.

“I made two friends in the first week. The three of us were inseparable.” Grak took off the magical glasses, folded them and put them in a pocket, then took out his monocle to inspect my armor. “There is a feature shared by most of the mortal species called propinquity. We bond because we spend time with one another. It’s the same for dwarves, elves, and humans. If we all spend time together I expect that we will become friends, despite our differences in species, outlook, personality, and humor. We start to like people for no other reason than because we’re around them.”

I had the sense that Grak was building to something, but I couldn’t tell exactly what. This was the longest he’d spoken to me in the time we’d known each other. There was something I couldn’t place about the way he talked, not just a noticeable accent with what I thought was a more than usual emphasis on some of the vowel sounds, but in his cadence, which gave the end of every sentence a sense of finality. But for all that, he kept looking at my armor and stayed silent for long enough that it seemed like he was over.

“Well, I hope that we become friends,” I ventured.

Grak sniffed and put his monocle away, then looked me in the eye, which was somewhat awkward given our height difference. “I made the mistake of having experimental coitus with one of them,” he said. “Neither remained a friend for long after that.”

“Ah,” I said. “I see.” Though the phrase ‘experimental coitus’ was extremely confusing and unsettling, and I vowed to go grab my copy of The Book of Blood from Fenn as soon as possible to check in on some anatomical facts.

Grak breathed a sigh and some tension drained from him. “Thank you,” he said. “This is the sort of conversation I avoid if I can. I didn’t mean to be rude.” He gave the armor a poke, hard enough to almost knock me off balance, but the armor stubbornly refused to do anything noteworthy.

“No,” I said, “You were right that we need to get moving sooner rather than later, and as far as the, uh, interpersonal stuff goes, that’s … a reasonable caution.”

Grak held his hand out to the side and his axe came sailing over from where it had been sitting on the table to land in his hand. “I’m going to hit you now,” he said.

I braced for the impact of his axe, and listened to the sound of it swinging through the air, but it failed to connect. I was pretty sure that I needed more than 18 Dodge to completely avoid a hit while standing still. I looked down at my armor, which was now sporting a white line of discoloration across the bottom of its metallic-blue breastplate.

“It passed through,” said Grak. “It wasn’t a hard enough strike to seriously hurt you either way.” He popped