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:
- 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”.)
- Most high-value buildings were warded against teleportation, except for the occasional room meant to handle teleported goods (or more rarely, people).
- Most high-value buildings were warded against sufficiently high velocities, making them resistant if not impervious to ballistics and explosives.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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 Hardcore 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.)
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:
- 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.
- Set up a detection ward to find out when someone comes into Caer Laga.
- Wait until someone teleports in.
- 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 a 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.