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 Steel and Sweat. 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 athenaeum 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.”