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 his monocle back in and took a few moments to look at the armor. “That should fade,” he said finally, giving the white mark a poke. “My guess is that the armor allows a strike to pass through you but not in the same place twice. We should wait to see how slow the line fades.”
I looked down at my armor and traced a finger over the white line. That seemed like an amazing increase to my survivability, especially since it meant that shooting me was no longer as much of an option, at least if the protection extended down to where the chainmail covered my calves and forearms. The suit hadn’t come with a helmet, boots, or gloves, so I was standing there in a pair of sneakers that clonal kit had made me. I was pretty sure that I looked like a dork, but that didn’t matter, because I was giddy at the thought of actually wearing magic armor.
“She wants us to kill a unicorn,” said Fenn as soon as we came back into the main room. Her hands were folded over her chest. Amaryllis was sitting up again, no longer asleep.
Quest Accepted: Unihorn – Travel to the Aon Adharc Glen and kill a unicorn, then allow Amaryllis to drink from its healing blood.
Amaryllis gave a wet cough. “Remind me never to talk to you in confidence,” she said.
“There are unicorns,” I said flatly, “Because of course there are. And killing one is unimaginably evil, I assume?”
“Why would you assume that?” asked Fenn. “Unicorns are fucking dicks. Are there opposite unicorns on Airth, ones that don’t steal little girls and gore people in the chest?”
“Oh, those unicorns,” I said, “At first I thought you were talking about a different kind of unicorn.” And though I was saying that a bit sarcastically, it actually was true, because I remembered exactly the unicorns that she was talking about; I had made them for Tiff.
“I’m not saying that D&D is sexist,” said Tiff with a roll of her eyes. “I mean, the core rulebooks from third edition on aren’t any more sexist than your average Hollywood action movie, it’s just stuff like women in sexy armor and men in functional plate, or the way the portraits are posed, but it’s mostly genderless and it is making an effort on that front. The problem is that the default assumption D&D uses is of this mostly Middle Ages world that draws on the actual Middle Ages, and both the books and the players are usually going to whitewash that by pretending that the Middle Ages were a time of racial and sexual equality, except that there’s still all this other stuff leftover from the Middle Ages and mythology that will always keep creeping in.”
Tiff was a voracious reader, which wasn’t unusual among our group, but her tastes turned more to non-fiction than was the norm, and she once told me that she read about three words of analysis and commentary to every one word of actual fiction. She said reading what other people thought about the things she’d read or watched was her version of girly gossip, and I took that at face value for quite a while before I realized that she was being a bit impish.
“So there are some monsters that you don’t want to be fighting?” I asked.
“No, no,” said Tiff. Her ponytail had a way of swishing side to side when she shook her head that brought a smile to my face. “I’m saying that, like, the Monster Manual has hags and succubi, right? And I just don’t want them dropped into the game as that, as these unexamined representations of the fucked up way that the Middle Ages thought about women. If we’re going to face them, then I want them to be considered representations.”
“Ugh, Jesus, please no,” said Reimer. “Please don’t ask Juniper to get fancy. You weren’t here for when we played Long Stairs, it was supposed to be this neat little dungeon crawl thing where we were army guys going into an endless fantasy dungeon in Oregon, but we just got constantly bogged down in these moral dilemmas and parallels to American imperial jingoism in the Middle East, or something.”
“It was great,” said Arthur. “Third best campaign we ever played.”
Tiff looked to me. “I wouldn’t mind trying that out sometime,” she said. “Sounds neat.”
“It ran its course,” I replied. And maybe it wouldn’t have, if I had gone with the simpler version of marines using machine guns against fantasy creatures, but there was only so much that you could do with the ‘are we the baddies’ schtick. “Sorry you weren’t around for it.”
“Don’t feel bad,” said Craig. “They talk about the Cranberry Guilds constantly, eventually we’ll just drown out the old campaigns with new ones.”
“Yeah,” said Tiff. “I’m down with that.”
Tiff was still pretty new to the group at that point, and while she’d been enjoying herself, that was the first time she really seemed like she was going to be a permanent fixture. So of course I made a unicorn just for her, a majestic, terrifying beast that was obsessed with virginal purity in the way I suspected a medieval man might be.
“Is there a place you would expect to find a unicorn?” asked Grak. “Is there one we can access from a discreet teleportation?”
“Aon Adharc Glen,” I said. Everyone looked at me. “Got a quest for it just now. Sorry, spoilers. Amaryllis, can you give us the pitch?” She looked tired, and I immediately regretted putting that onus on her. “I’m in, by the way, since I’ve got a quest for it.”
“Can I say that unicorns are fucking dangerous?” asked Fenn. She had her arms crossed over her chest. “We just fought and killed a gold mage, something we only managed to do because we had,” she glanced at me, “A very lucky combination of circumstance and coincidence, one which I don’t really want to rely on again. We had basically no way to hurt Aumann beside the void rifle, and we had no way to permanently kill his revision mage besides Mary’s sword.”
“So logically, the handful of items we just got will be exactly those that will allow us to kill the unicorn,” I said with a cheerful smile. “Or we’ll pick up the requisite ones along the way, or something.”
“If that’s the plan then I will vote against it,” said Grak.
“I’m halfway kidding,” I said.
“My right arm is almost useless for anything besides using a rifle,” said Amaryllis. “The spread of the disease has quickened. I would guess that at best, we have another ten days until it reaches my brain and does damage that will be much harder to reverse, if it hasn’t already. When I was under Aumann’s care, I convinced him that whatever else his intentions with me, I was worth more alive than dead. Some avenues of healing have already been tried, blood and bone magic among them. It’s an obscure disease with a remote origin, and it’s entirely possible that it’s magical in nature, given how it was contracted. The name ‘rat rot’ doesn’t appear in any book. Some of this information I have by way of Aumann, so it’s suspect, but I do think that he would have healed me if he could have, purely for his own self-interest.”
Fenn nodded along, twirling her fingers in the universal sign for ‘hurry it up’.
“We do have other options,” said Amaryllis. “They will cost us time, but might be worth trying. And here I’d go on about those options for a bit, but you already know what my conclusion is. Unicorns provide an absolute cure to disease, which makes them almost unique in that regard.” She glanced at me. And I got out of rat rot with a level up. “When I was eight years old, I met a unicorn at Aon Adharc Glen, far in the northern reaches of Parasteur, while my mother was on a mission of diplomacy. It killed my handmaid and my two guards before taking me for its own. Three days later, I, along with four other girls it had taken, was rescued in an operation that killed three of the ten men that were sent after me.”
“So what you’re saying is that it’s really, really dangerous,” said Fenn with a nod.
“The team was hastily assembled and without critical information,” said Amaryllis. “There were a few scholarly books written based on interviews with the survivors. That information is one of our two advantages. The other advantage is that we have me. I was taken by it, and it should want me back.”
Fenn cast a critical eye over Amaryllis. “No offense,” she started, “But I’m not sure what the unicorn would see in you.”
“I’m a virginal girl before her eighteenth birthday,” said Amaryllis. “Not only that, but it has known me before, which should make me more attractive to it.” She looked down at her arm. “I am well aware of the state I’m in, thank you.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” said Fenn. “I said no offense!”
“I’m still in, but I want go information gathering first, to see if there’s an easier way,” I said. “I think we can afford to spend a day on that.”
“I don’t know what doors Aumann knocked on,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t know whether he was in contact with my family, though I wouldn’t be surprised. I was interrogated, I know that much, but there were a few things that I decided beforehand I would put my effort into keeping quiet, things like this place, like Juniper, and the disease was not one of them. One of the benefits of luring and killing the Aon Adharc unicorn is that it doesn’t require us to go down any avenues that might have been poisoned against us.”
“I have my own condition to think about,” I said. “That’s going to take research anyway, and we might as well kill two birds with one stone. Aside from you, we’re all complete unknowns, there shouldn’t be much risk in asking questions.”
“You don’t know my family,” said Amaryllis.
“Well, that’s my condition, information first, unicorn murder second,” said Fenn. She uncrossed her arms and stretched out, moving around in her still-unfamiliar armor. “Actually, scratch that, I have lots of conditions. If Juniper just leveled up that means that we need to get him training, sooner rather than later, so he can reach his caps before we get to this unicorn business.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” I said. I almost told them that I had nine points to spend, not just the two that they would naturally assume, but held back, mostly because I didn’t want their advice (and already knew what it would be). “Training up is getting more time intensive as we go on. Getting any individual skill to twenty is going to take at least a day, I think, and there are lots of skills to worry about.”
“Then at least get started,” said Fenn. “But I’ve said that I’m grudgingly in, so long as we can talk to some people first. Teleporting in anywhere is dangerous, I get that, we can’t let anyone see us appear from thin air holding a teleportation key, and then we’re stuck for two hours before we can leave again, but it’s a unicorn, killing one is a feat reserved for elven elders, and I’m going to look for my outs.” She turned to Grak. “Does Grak get a vote? Are we a democracy?”
“I vote in favor,” said Grak, “I agree with your assessment of Aumann and his incentives, you would have been a windfall to him. He would have spent a considerable sum to make you well. I also agree with Fenn, we should try to see whether there is a way to solve this problem with only our funds.”
And I hadn’t really had any doubt about how that was going to go, because I had a quest all lined up for it.