Look, you probably want to hear more about the sexy motorcycle mechanic or the punk gangs or the giant zombie creatures, but before we go too much further, I need to tell you about my D&D group. I know, I know, but so much of Aerb is a reflection of my scribblings while DMing, so there is a point to this. I’ll try my best to keep it to what’s important.
To start with, “D&D group” is probably a misnomer, because we played a lot more games than just D&D, and the group had a Ship of Theseus thing going on where people came and went until Arthur and I were the only constants, and then eventually it was just me. The only real point of continuity was the Collection. The Collection actually predated the group; when Arthur’s brother had gone off to college, he’d left Arthur with two dozen source books for various tabletop RPG systems, though about half of them were for D&D. We’d added to the Collection over time, keeping our names in the books and sometimes taking them home with us, but for the most part the Collection stayed at Arthur’s house, taking up first one, then two sagging bookshelves in his downstairs den.
Arthur was the backbone of our group. Even when he wasn’t playing a leader, he would take point and ensure that the plot kept moving forward. He was a total geek, but he knew that he was a geek, and didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought about him. When we played, he was usually the only one to put on a voice and stay in character. I was the one making the worlds, but Arthur was the one that really made them come to life, because he had this ability to just instantly invest himself in whatever was presented to him.
More than that, he could read me really well. It was my habit to get an idea in my head and start up a campaign with reckless enthusiasm, then get bored of it after a few weeks and keep chugging on without really feeling that spark of inspiration anymore. Arthur was always the one to bail me out, to say “How about we try something new next week?” without ever calling attention to the fact that I had lost the thread. The first few times he did it, I just breathed a sigh of relief, not noticing that he had been acting in my interest. He was a great guy, super busy with basically every non-athletic activity that our school offered (academic decathlon, mathletes, mock trial, yearbook, etc.), but always there for me despite that.
In the summer of our junior year, Arthur was taking his station wagon through an uncontrolled intersection when he got T-boned by a truck going twenty miles over the speed limit. He spent eleven days in a coma, then died from complications.
There were times, months later, when I would be eating lunch in the school cafeteria and turn to tell him something, only to realize my brain had been running on auto-pilot and he wasn’t there, and would never be there, and whatever dumb thing I had wanted to tell him was just going to get added to the stack of things that he was never going to experience. I’d used to think when people talked about death leaving a hole, they were talking about roles and responsibilities, but after Arthur died I started seeing it in a different light. It was more that he had become a part of me, a person so important to my life that my interactions with him were on the level of instinct. With his death, a long stretch of wiring in my brain became faulty.
Anyway. The Collection moved to my house. His parents offered to let us keep using their den, but my mom told me that it wouldn’t be good for them to have their dead son’s friends coming over twice a week (and yes, those were pretty much her exact words). We kept on playing, though it obviously wasn’t the same. Arthur had been the group’s de facto leader, but now that duty fell on my shoulders, and not only was I the one making things up and running the game, I wasn’t in the best mental state.
I’m telling you this because Aerb had features that were stolen from my D&D games, and all the stuff I was most scared of came from the post-Arthur era. Fel Seed, Nightsmoke, the borogoves, the mimsies … I sent the party into the thresher because I was angry at the world. It was more than just making the encounters too hard and the world unfair, it was beyond the fact that everything I made was grimdark, it was the hopeless despair that infused everything. I introduced villains whose evil couldn’t be undone, where their murder would just be a matter of futile revenge and the world would never be set right.
And now, I was worried I was going to have to face them.
Having collected the souls from the men I had killed, I stopped to take another look at my character sheet. Again there were two points to spend as I pleased. I looked through the other pages but saw nothing, except that the “Companions” page listed “Amaryllis” with a zero next to it and a box below that was greyed out. At least that was a testable prediction, and if it turned out to be her name, then that meant there would probably be a few instances where the game would give me hints or information ahead of time.
It was tempting to put the points into WIS and POI, given that both of them were sitting at one point each and I didn’t know what would happen when they reached zero … but that would be woefully inefficient given that neither was as likely to save my life as the physical abilities were and I wouldn’t get the bonus. So instead, I sunk both my points into raising PHY by one, which raised POW, SPD, and END as well. This time I was alert and aware of my body; I felt the change go through me. It was like straightening up and giving yourself good posture, but without actually changing how I was positioned. I didn’t have much fat on me to start with, but I felt it melt away, and my muscles tightened slightly as they grew. I also felt slightly taller; I wondered whether that would keep up if I kept increasing my physical abilities.
I left the machete where it lay on the ground and hefted the sword. It was a shortsword, with about a foot and a half of blade, a curled crossguard, and a wrapped leather grip. The Fuchsia Coterie hadn’t had any weapons when they came down, at least not that I’d seen when we were all falling, and even if they had I would have found the sword to be a bit incongruous, the same as stone buildings with thatched roofs. It seemed like lazy world-building. If you had mass manufactured plasterboard, two-by-fours, and asphalt shingles, then you didn’t also see buildings that looked like they had been mortared together out of field stones and thatched roofs, not unless they were there for the tourists, and Comfort didn’t seem like it had been much of a tourist location. Similarly, no one but weeaboos and fantasy geeks had swords if there were pistols, not unless there was something like the Holtzman effect from Dune.
The sword didn’t weigh much, but while I had been able to slip the machete through my belt, I was worried that the sword was sharp enough to actually cut. I picked the pistol back up in order to feel what it would be like to hold one in each hand.
Skill unlocked: Dual Wield!
But just feeling them, I knew that it was basically idiotic to try to fight with both at once. What I needed was a sheath or a holster, preferably both, and a backpack in order to have a more convenient place to hold my jar of souls. That basically made my next decision for me; it was time to find the shire-reeve’s office.
The town of Comfort didn’t have particularly stalkable streets. There were alleys, but they were wide ones, and except for the main street, the buildings were spread from one another with narrow strips of sidewalk between them. There were cars lying abandoned in the streets, the same kind I’d seen at the gas station with convex hoods, and most of the frontages were wrecks of broken glass. There wasn’t any sign of clean-up, and no visible attempts to repair the damage to be seen. Whatever had happened here, it had been fast. I had seen ghost towns before, but most of them developed slowly as people moved away and businesses failed for lack of customers.
The building I was looking for was sitting right next to a small, two story courthouse. It only vaguely resembled the courthouses back home; the whole thing was like a pyramid with its top cut off, and instead of faux-Greek columns it had arches coming down from the top and arcing into the ground. The flagpole with a tattered bit of red still hanging to it and large bronze statue of a man were enough that I was fairly certain that it was a courthouse.
I had no idea what the governmental structure of the Risen Lands looked like, but Comfort, though small, followed a pattern I was familiar with. It was surrounded by farms and farmlands, far away from any other town. The whole point of this town existing was that the sparse population of the surrounding area needed a place to go for the essentials they couldn’t grow or make on their own. I was certain that there was a store with farming supplies somewhere, and a hardware store where someone could get some nails and a replacement hammer. But a town like Comfort wasn’t just going to be a collection of shops and the houses of the people who worked in those shops, it was going to have government services as well. Hence, a courthouse, so looking up the deed to a parcel of land or a marriage certificate didn’t take a six hour round trip to whatever the local equivalent of Wichita was. I knew based on the size of Comfort that it was bound to have one — but it wasn’t the courthouse that I was looking for, it was the shire-reeve’s office next to it, because if a farmer needs legal services to be within a half hour’s drive, then he definitely needs a lawkeeper at least that close.
(Again, 2 KNO was bullshit.)
The other reason that I thought it would be here, aside from deductive reasoning, is that I included shire-reeves in pretty much every game I ever DMed. Shire-reeve is just an archaic way of saying “sheriff”, but I thought it had a particularly fantasy feel to it, and it revealed the etymology of the word in the process, which was a personal joy of mine. The place I was looking at had a symbol of a triangle inset with a mushroom instead of the pointed star that sheriffs in America used, and the coloring of the cars out front was light blue with black stripes. There was no reason that they would necessarily be called sheriffs, let alone shire-reeves … and yet as I edged closer to the building, I was able to make out the faded lettering stuck to the window, which did indeed say “Aleister Duchy Shire Reeve’s Office”. Huh.
The glass door was broken and a corpse lay halfway out of it with shards digging into his gut. The blood was fresh, which meant that it was at least relatively recent. I stepped closer, holding my pistol in my right hand and trying to watch the windows around me. The two guys I had come across had melee weapons instead of guns, which I took as a hopeful sign. I wasn’t really interested in a gunfight unless I was the only one that had a gun. On the other hand, Cypress had said that she made the gun (with a box of scraps?) which meant that maybe other people could make them too.
I made it to the body without seeing anyone and bent down next to him. Everyone I had seen on the plane was at least as young as me, and this guy was no exception to that rule. I didn’t recognize him, but I didn’t expect to. With a grimace I raised the void tunneler and shot him in the head. Watching carefully, I could see that a hypothesis I’d had was correct; it wasn’t actually shooting bullets, just making holes by some other means. Knowing that wasn’t immediately helpful and raised more questions, but questions on top of questions were pretty much par for the course at this point. I slid the spike into his head, hoping that I would get another easy one.
Quest Progress: Seven Bells for Seven Hells, 4/7
I breathed a silent, shaky sigh of relief as I screwed the cap back on my glass jar and rearmed myself.
I had no illusions that the shire-reeve’s office would be unlooted. It was the first place that anyone who had landed in Comfort would go. Whatever weapons and body armor they had on hand would have been taken by people who had gotten there faster than me, and if the Risen Lands had been used as a dumping ground for undesirables long enough that Cypress could accurately quote one-in-one-hundred as making it out … well, that meant the chances of usable weapons being in the shire-reeve’s office was basically nil. People would have taken them, then people would have died to whatever terrors stalked the night, and the weapons would have been scattered to the winds.
That still left the other stuff though. I wasn’t confident that I’d be able to find a holster to fit the boxy gun Cypress had (apparently) made, but I was a little more hopeful about finding other things on the long list of things that I’d prefer to have before we left Comfort.
I also had grimmer business here. I still had more souls to collect before I could return to Cypress and have her fuel the soulcycle, and if I wanted to avoid conflict (which I really, desperately did) then that meant finding people who had recently died. As evidenced by the corpse through the door, any place that multiple people had the bright idea to go to was bound to be somewhere I could find work as a vulture.
I swept into the front office, dual wielding even though it felt ridiculous. There was a reception area with a desk that was covered in papers. A corpse sat at the chair there, but it was so old that the skin was shrink-wrapped to the skull and the wispy strands of remaining hair had gone white. I gave it a thwip with the void gun just to be sure, but it wasn’t so much as twitching. A calendar behind it showed a picture of a tall white spire sticking up out of an island that was barely larger than its base; I recognized that almost immediately as one of the White Spires from my Drowned Valleys campaign setting, but didn’t stop to take it in. The name of the month was, apparently, ‘Halig’.
I kept on going, keeping my eye out for people, bodies, and zombies. One of the offices had a long-dead man in it with a visible wound where his heart had been pierced, but at his hip was one of the things I had been looking for: he was wearing a sheath for a short sword. I took it off him as carefully as I could, but he slumped to the side and his head fell off in the process. It was the work of a few minutes, but I was happy (and slightly surprised) that my sword actually fit the sheath. I tied it so that it hung from my hip and practiced the draw a few times.
I moved slowly through the shire-reeve’s office, keeping an eye out for the safe that would probably hold their guns and other equipment. I was trying to keep quiet, in case there was someone here (since, after all, the corpse out front had been less than thirty minutes old) —
Skill increased: Deception lvl 2!
I froze as soon as the message came up. I had initially unlocked the skill when moving through the mechanic’s shop, and gained a level in it when I’d lied (poorly) to Cypress. Seeing the skill up meant one of two things. The first option was that trying to sneak across Comfort slowly incremented some hidden variable that had only now rolled over. The second option was that my skills only increased when they were actively used for something … and Deception had gone up because someone was close enough that the skill was actually being applied.
I backed up into the corner of the empty room I was in and hid behind some filing cabinets, trying to keep my breathing shallow enough that I wouldn’t make any noise. The sword and gun together felt incredibly awkward and after a brief moment of deliberation I slipped the sword in its sheath, very conscious of the sound the metal made against the leather.
Skill increased: Deception lvl 3!
I was listening closely, straining my ears to hear something. If the skill up was dependent on someone being close by, that made me wonder what the range on it was. Half a block? Less? The lack of sound either meant that they were far away, or that they themselves were sneaking —
I saw the rifle poke into the room before I saw the person holding it. The barrel swept from side to side and once that was done, another of the Fuchsia Coterie entered into my room. I was mostly hidden by the filing cabinet, but the further he moved into the room, the more exposed I would be. I leveled my pistol, aimed at his head, and fired. He saw the motion and turned but a hole was punched in his head, right through his nose. I got three notifications in rapid succession, each with their own chimes, which almost covered up the sound of crunching glass and a creaking floorboard from outside the room.
I ducked down but stayed behind the cabinets. The guy laying on the floor had long pink hair done up in a bun; he was shaking as he bled from the hole in his head, like he was having a seizure. His rifle lay on the ground next to him; it was much more traditional looking than the pistol I held, with the exception of the curved magazine that came out from the top rather than the bottom and a faintly glowing red symbol on the side.
The situation wasn’t great for me. Someone was outside the room, maybe multiple people, and I had roughly three minutes until the guy on the floor rose up as a zombie. So far as I could tell, there wasn’t much of a risk to them of simply waiting me out. The room did have a grimy, half-broken window to the outside, but that wasn’t going to help me since I’d get a knife to my back as soon as they heard me trying to open the window. Baiting them out seemed like my only option, but before I could do that, someone threw a small purple crystal into the room.
It was connected to a small, dime-sized battery with some wires and what looked like chewing gum. It landed right next to the body. I ducked behind the filing cabinet on instinct, before the thought grenade even had the time to go through my head, I think processing it more by the way it had been thrown than what it looked like.
The explosion was small and subdued, but the effects were immediate as things started falling down around me. The carpet and floorboards were missing near the center of the room, and a quick glance at the body showed only a thin wet strip of it left. The far wall of the office was mostly gone, not blown away but simply vanished with no debris. Without giving myself time to think, I darted forward out of the hole the grenade had made, feeling a cold wet sting on my shoulder as I did so, looking around wildly to see whether there were any threats in sight. When I was covered by the wall I turned around toward the hole I’d left out of and raised my pistol, just in time to shoot the guy coming through in the chest. He grunted at that but raised his own gun toward me after I’d thrown my pistol to the ground, just as I was trying to draw my sword.
Skill unlocked: Parry!
Skill increased: Parry lvl 1!
I got the messages in time with the explosive sound of gunfire, a painful jerking of the sword in my hand, and the clanging sound of a bullet hitting metal. I lunged forward with my sword and stabbed the guy in front of me in his arm at an awkward angle (especially because I had been aiming for his chest). Blood was pumping out of his chest, soaking his shirt, and his breaths had a raspy gurgle. I sliced at his arm with my sword again as his pistol came back toward me and felt it hit bone. When he tried to scream, blood came out of his mouth, and he fell backward.
I grabbed my pistol back up off the ground and aimed it toward the hole in the wall, but no one came through it. I was breathing hard and my back was getting increasingly wet, presumably with blood if the stinging pain and exposure to the open air I could feel on my shoulder blade were anything to go by. I risked a glance back and saw that a palm sized piece of my shirt was gone, along with all the skin underneath it.
I crept forward to the hole and peeked inside, gun leading the way. The office was a wreck. The fronts of the filing cabinets had been removed, as well as most of the files in them save for a few papers at the back. I could see where I’d been standing, how the filing cabinet had been instantly eaten away there, making a hole that was almost exactly the size as the stinging wound on my shoulder.
I took a moment to go back to the guy outside and shoot him in the heart, not wanting to risk a zombie creeping up behind me, and while I was at it I stuck the spike in as well. There was very little left of the corpse inside the office; I tried sticking the spike against part of his skull, but there was no glow and eventually I gave up. When I moved into the hallway though, I found a surprise: there was a third pink-haired member of the Coterie, holding a sword and quite dead. Most of the wall around him had been destroyed by the grenade, save for a few places where there were something approximating shadows. I guessed that electrical wiring or plumbing must have blocked some of it, but not enough to save this guy, who had at least an inch of flesh removed from him in a number of places, including his skull. I shot him in the heart to prevent him from rising and collected his soul as well.
Quest Progress: Seven Bells for Seven Hells, 6/7
That meant one more to go before I could return to Cypress. I did wonder why it had to be seven instead of six or eight; she hadn’t told me and I had stupidly not asked. If the souls were fuel, did that mean we needed seven to get to wherever we were going? She was too pretty, that had been my problem. That, or not enough clear-headedness on my part. It had been distinctly hard to think around her.
I swept through the remainder of the shire-reeve’s station I hadn’t covered. The only weapons I found were those that belonged to the Fuchsia Coterie; the rifle had been almost completely destroyed by what I was pretty sure had been a void grenade, while the pistols fired conventional bullets and seemed worse than what I had. I changed my mind on that score once I found an empty holster attached to the corpse of a decaying husk. It was too narrow for the void tunneler, but I didn’t mind carrying around the extra weight of another gun, so long as it was on my hip.
Most of what the station held were papers. I didn’t have time to give them much more than a glance, even though I was burning with curiosity about this world, not just because it would have an impact on my chances for survival, but because of what Cypress had called narcissism. There were so many elements of it that I recognized as mine. I was afraid of the things I had dreamed up, true, but I wanted to see them all the same, to see the fingerprint of my mind impressed on this place. Annoyingly, the only newspaper I found covered only the goings-on of Aleister Duchy, and while there were hints to other things, mentions of the Cradle King and the Barber’s Edict (both of which I recognized), it was written for people who would already know the basics.
The stripped-off skin on my back didn’t quite crust over, but it at least dried into a sticky patch of blood on top of the raw meat of my shoulder. It hurt more as time went on and I knew that the next fight I got in would be worse for it, because every quick movement on my part would send a shock of searing pain through it. The game layer didn’t seem to indicate any sort of health point, only sufficiently bad afflictions, and apparently this one didn’t rate an entry. The back of my shirt was clinging to me where I had bled.
I walked out of the shire-reeve’s feeling exhausted, in part because the adrenaline of the fight had faded and in part because of blood loss. I hadn’t eaten since … well, since I had eaten a hamburger and fries in the cafeteria of Bumblefuck High School, and I wasn’t sure that counted. I hadn’t had any water in nearly as long.
So when the thing made of thirty corpses came around a building and almost instantly snapped its faux-head around to look at me with burning red pits framed by dismembered arms and legs, I was terrified, certainly, but a part of me thought that I wasn’t going to have enough energy to escape. I turned and ran, back into the shire-reeve’s office, hoping that I would figure something out.