Worth the Candle, Ch 6: Cold Comfort

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

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

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

“Them?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow.

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

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

“Poulus Cambria,” he said.

“Background?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” replied Poul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have six of the seven,” I said.

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

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

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

“My lady,” Poul began.

“Silence,” said Amaryllis.

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

Thunk.

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

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

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

“The jar, please,” she said.

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

“We could have let him go,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hadn’t thought of that at all.

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

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

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

“It’s not?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quest Accepted: Out of the Frying Pan!

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

“What’s in Silmar City?” I asked.

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

“Yes,” I answered.

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

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

“Ah,” said Amaryllis.

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

PHY

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

3
2 CUN 1 Dodge 0 Engineering 0 Alchemy 0 Smithing
2 KNO 0 Woodworking 0 Horticulture 0 Livestock 0 Music
2 WIS 0 Art 0 Blood Magic 0 Bone Magic 0 Gem Magic
SOC

3
2 CHA 0 Gold Magic 0 Water Magic 0 Steel Magic 0 Velocity Magic
2 INS 0 Revision Magic 0 Skin Magic 0 Essentialism 0 Library Magic
2 POI 0 Wards 0 Language 0 Flattery 0 Comedy
0 LUK 0 Romance 0 Intimidation 4 Deception 0 Spirit

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

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

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

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

Quest Accepted: God Botherer!

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

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

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

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

Quest Accepted: Comfort Zone!

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

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


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

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

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

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

Skill increased: Comedy lvl 1!

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

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

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

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

Skill unlocked: Thrown weapons!

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

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

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

I picked up the rifle —

Skill unlocked: Rifles!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Punch through Comfort,” I said.

“If they have ballistics there?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

Thunk.

Critical hit!

Skill increased: Rifles lvl 1!

Fuchsia Coterie sniper defeated!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now, behind that car!” shouted Amaryllis.

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

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

“No,” I said. “Another?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greater Umbral Zombie defeated!

Quest Complete: Comfort Zone!

Level Up!

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

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

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Worth the Candle, Ch 6: Cold Comfort

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