Worth the Candle, Ch 11: A Winding Course

I don’t think I can overstate how great it was to have all my blood back. It made me almost empathize with vampires a little bit, because if it felt this good to have all my blood back in my body, how great would it be to add in even more blood? Of course, that feeling was nothing that I was going to share with anyone on Aerb, because vampires probably did exist here given how often they’d shown up in my games. I guess I could only hope that they were the ones I’d used in Contratto, with a single point of failure for every vampire clan.

Blood magic felt almost natural now. I barely had to think about the heat of my blood to get a flame on my fingertips. I was dead certain that there were other applications to blood magic, given what I had seen of it so far, but I wasn’t sure whether I was going to be able to learn them without outside help, or given Amaryllis’ warnings, whether I would want to learn them without outside help.

Before I went too far from the water treatment facility, I stopped to assess my character screen and dump more points into MEN, mostly because I now knew that there were physical combat skills like Rifles that depended on it, and partly because being a human torch in the sewers had capped me on Blood Magic (which was, apparently, governed primarily by WIS). There was no noticeable effect from putting those points in, unlike the instant feedback of getting stronger and faster, which was disappointing.

With that done, I had some decisions ahead of me. Obviously step one was to find Amaryllis. It might have been different if she didn’t have a vital connecting hose to the soulcycle around her neck and all seven souls needed to start it in a glass bottle in her purse, but she had both those things. That meant escape from the city was going to be much more complicated than just tracing my way back through the sewers and hoping I didn’t run into rats we’d missed the first time.

(It did occur to me to do that, maybe after foraging for some food, or maybe depending on leveling up at a fast enough rate to combat the hunger affliction, but it seemed perverse, in a way that I’m not sure I can articulate. As a DM, I had always felt a cold chill run through me when the party decided they were going to take up raising dire goats instead of going down into the Castrato Caverns like the dwarven matron wanted them to, partly because I was prepared for the castrated dwarven criminals storyline but knew next to nothing about raising goats. So maybe my feeling was that there was a contract between players and game, and I had a quest to get the key and find Amaryllis. To deny that quest and fuck off to do something else was to spit in the face of the game, and I respected games too much to do that.

And I won’t deny that there were some sunk costs involved in pursuing this quest, in the sense that I had already incurred the costs involved in getting into Silmar City, and maybe there was a tiny bit of sunk cost fallacy going on.

And … well, I hesitate to say this, because it makes me seem no better than a preteen girl mooning over One Direction, but Amaryllis was really pretty and there was something about coldly practical princesses that I apparently found really appealing.

I guess my point, if I have one, is that maybe there was a more sensible thing that a perfectly rational actor could have done, but I had my own reasons.)

The problem with finding Amaryllis was that stupid Verisim mode was on, which meant there were no quest markers showing up on my HUD or painted lines on my minimap, or however that would have worked if I had been able to enable it. All I had to go on was “the twenty-first floor of Sorian’s castle”. I wasn’t even sure whether going there was my best option, because I wasn’t sure that Amaryllis would try to make her way directly there. She was capable of making void bombs out of … well, something that she had apparently been able to get from somewhere in Comfort. I had no idea what she had ripped the void crystals out of, except that Poul had said something about an imperial ban. That wasn’t very helpful.

So instead of bumbling toward the local equivalent of downtown, I decided to do some good old fashioned looting, and I made myself a shopping list in my head as I went, including things like a map, new clothes that weren’t ripped and bloody, new shoes that weren’t soaked through with sewer water, and a backpack so that I could have some actual possessions.

One of the weird things about what had happened to the Risen Lands was that it had left pretty much everything intact. Buildings were still subject to the elements and the zombies, as well as whatever people got dropped in from planes, but the zombies didn’t really seem to be in the business of mindlessly destroying things unless there were people in the way, and buildings were built to withstand normal weather conditions. I wasn’t sure exactly how many years had passed since this place had become known as the Risen Lands, but at times it was easy to imagine that it had been yesterday, or that it wasn’t abandoned at all and the people had stepped out.

Back on Earth, my dad had been big into helping people out, and a few times I went with him when he would bring his truck and tools across Kansas to help people who had suffered through tornado strikes. Back in 2011 I remember going to Reading and helping pick through piles of merchandise at a yarn store to see what was salvageable after the roof had been torn off and let the rain in. As tornados went, that had been a bad one, an EF3 hitting the town almost perfectly … and yet we’d gone through Reading only a few years later, and even though half the town had been destroyed it was almost all back in place, all except the trees.

So as I wandered through Silmar City, I was looking for places that I thought I’d be able to loot, but I was also thinking about this city and what had happened to it, and what that said about the world. Something like a half a million people had died all throughout the Risen Lands, and the place was made into an exclusion zone, never to be touched again, leaving what had to be trillions of dollars of infrastructure laying around to rot. It wasn’t just the sheer amount of stuff laying around, but the farmlands themselves, farmlands which seemed to still be fertile. All of it had been bundled up into an exclusion zone where no one ever went. For what reason?

I lost my train of thought when the tall buildings I assumed were factories or office buildings gave way to places with shopfronts. The streets of Comfort had been in a nice, ordered grid like I was used to, but Silmar City took what I thought of as the Paris approach, where blocks were arranged in awkward wedges and streets were a spider’s web. For someone used to streets that extended on until they hit flat farmland that stretched to the horizon, it was pretty claustrophobic. When I saw a shop with clothing, I took that as a welcome respite from the abandoned streets.

The door was locked, but it was nothing that a quick thwip of the void tunneler couldn’t fix. I was really growing to love that thing. I moved slowly, trying my best to make sure the place was clear before I did something dangerous like trying on a pair of pants, and just for good measure I spent about ten minutes trying to hide in and around the store, just to see whether I would get a notification about my Deception increasing.

I was apparently still in a more industrial part of the city, because the clothes in the shop were geared toward hard labor: heavy fabrics, sturdy buckles, and an array of tools near the front counter. I found basically everything I wanted in terms of clothing over the course of the next twenty minutes, from a pair of steel-toed boots to a pair of heavy canvas jeans I hoped would offer a little protection against the claws of the undead. There were packs of clean socks and underwear, the kind always bought in bulk, and while they had a faintly unpleasant odor to them, they seemed to be structurally sound. It was whatever the local equivalent of summer was, which made heavy clothing a little bit inadvisable, but I figured that was probably a price worth paying for armor, especially since I found a canteen for water, and a shoulder pack to stick things in. The only things on my shopping list I didn’t find were food, potable water, a map, and a multitool.

Of course, everything was just a bit off from what I was used to. The currency symbol seemed to be ð, placed after the (Arabic) numbers. The underwear had been packaged in a thin canvas bag rather than the thin, clear vacuum-pack plastic I was used to. There were no zippers anywhere; they used buttons instead. The aglets on my new shoes were metal, not plastic, and I didn’t think that was a simple matter of workmanship because none of the other shoes had plastic either. I knew that they had plastic in Aerb, but most of what I had seen was hard plastic or rubber. Did they not have plastic bags? The trash can beneath the shop counter had a paper liner rather than a plastic one, and yes, I did check specifically to sate my curiosity.

These attempts to study and understand the world were partly driven by my desire to bury myself in thought, to distract from all the problems I was facing, but I wanted so badly to know what kind of world this was. I had four quests to pursue here, but the most important goal I had was understanding the nature of this new reality I had found myself in. The metaphysical questions weren’t really actionable at the moment, I had decided that almost right away, but if I had a self-defined quest, then it would have been to get to the bottom of what this place, which was so steeped in my own thoughts and so reminiscent of Earth, really was.

I continued my trek through the city, stopping only briefly to listen for movement when there was an intersection ahead of me or when I wanted to read a sign painted on a storefront. Silmar Velocity Services, Planus Tattooing, and Eckhart Prognostications all caught my eye, but I moved past them when I saw nothing immediately interesting inside. I knew I could probably have spent years of my life exploring this city, with all its weirdness and quirks, even if I ignored all of the places that were obviously just eateries.

When I was a few blocks away from one of the towering castles, I finally found the thing I was most looking forward to: a bookstore. The name Able & Adler Booksellers was emblazoned across the front window, which was dirty but unbroken, and within I could see books on display, plus row upon row of full shelves behind them. I unlocked the door by shooting a hole in it, then went inside to see what I could find. My breath caught when I found a full section labeled “Magic”.

I started reading through the titles before remembering that this place might have zombies, so I grudgingly made a sweep of the shop before returning to my browsing. A Tour of the Elemental Planes, Insights into the White Spires, Bessemer: A History in Steel, on and on, each more tantalizing than the last. Their arrangement was haphazard, though there were defined clusters. Eventually I pulled out The Commoner’s Guide to Revision Magic and began reading (hoping all the while that I would get a notification about a skill unlock).

Revision mages are masters of time, able to reverse its flow with the strength of their will alone. The Athenaeum of Claw and Clocks is among the smallest institutions of learning, its members and graduates renowned for their solitary natures and their reticence to display their most fabled abilities.

It is with great honor that I accepted the invitation of Mistress Audrey Lavolen to discuss revision magic, its role in the workings of Aerb, and some common misconceptions about what it can and cannot do, the latter issue being one of great importance to her. I also owe a great debt of gratitude to George Aurelio, who facilitated the writing of this book in too many ways for me to count.

I skipped ahead a bit, until I got to a chapter labeled “Interactions”.

The general rule of thumb is that revision cannot wipe things out of existence, only break them down into their component parts, and then only through sufficient application of revision such that whatever process created the object in question is undone (see Ch 4). When it comes to its interaction with other systems of magic, it’s important to remember that generally speaking, magic cannot be reversed, only the effects of that magic.

To wit, a steel mage can create a towering wall which is immune to the ministrations of a revision mage, because the magic which creates the wall cannot be undone and the revision mage cannot revert the wall back to a time before it existed. The same applies to the cluster of similar effects we call teleportation, because the revision mage cannot unteleport someone or something that has arrived, putting a hard limit on how far they can roll a teleported object back. Some of the caveats to this will be discussed in this chapter.

Contrarily, velocity magic is almost entirely centered around producing effects, which present only somewhat heightened challenges for a revision mage, challenges which have more to do with reaction times than actual expenditures of power. Tattoo magic —

But as I was in the middle of reading that sentence, the glass front of the shop shattered completely and I turned just in time to see a beast made of corpses lift up toward me. I stumbled and ran in a sudden panic.

I must have been lured into a false sense of security by the scarcity of zombies thus far in Silmar City, because I had neglected to prepare an escape plan from this bookstore. I ended up running down the aisle, with the corpse-monster chasing after me and pushing down bookshelves to get through. When I reached the back of the store I took a sharp turn and doubled back, moving between the shelves that had been knocked over like dominoes and were now resting up against the wall, stepping on books as I went.

I hurdled over the knocked-over display and into the street, then after a moment of hesitation turned down back the way I had come, which seemed like the safe option. Running at a dead sprint was a lot harder in the heavier clothes, and I was heating up quickly, but I was hoping to lose the monster behind me like I’d done back in Comfort. Unfortunately, speed was only half the battle, and I quickly found myself going down a street that I didn’t quite remember, which was exactly the sort of place that I didn’t want to be. I ducked down behind a set of stairs and waited with my gun drawn, hoping that I had made enough twists and turns through the irregularly angled streets.

After a minute or so of waiting, I came out and started moving again, trying to find my position relative to the city center and the so-called corporate castles by the position of the sun. I desperately wanted to get back to the bookstore to continue reading, mostly in order to get some measure of just how many magic systems this one world could contain. I cursed myself for not doing the smart thing and pulling down random books to put in my shoulder pack before I’d started reading.

I wandered on, more wary than I had been before. I was on the lookout for Amaryllis, but if she had left any signs of her passing, I wasn’t seeing them. That left me essentially aimless, right up until I found a corner store with a stock of faded maps that gave the general layout of Silmar City.

The first thing I noticed was that the streets weren’t labeled. Instead, each block had a name on it, and the streets were merely the unimportant void between the blocks. That was the Japanese addressing system, and I was pretty sure that it would have thrown me for a loop if I hadn’t discovered and used that same system for a handful of major metropolises in my D&D games.

The second thing I noticed was Sorian’s Castle, helpfully labeled as its own big block of real estate. I breathed a sigh of relief and picked up a pencil off the counter to mark it, only to realize that it was some weird form of pencil with wrapped paper instead of wood, and a black core that had dried out. It crumbled as soon as I tried to write with it. Note to self, if I’m stuck here for awhile, I should try to invent graphite.

I moved slowly, creeping my way along as I moved toward the castle. I didn’t think that the stories-tall corpse monstrosity would be able to sneak up on me any more than Godzilla could have, but it wasn’t the only thing that was stalking these quiet streets. The lack of plain old zombies was a little bit concerning, since it meant that I couldn’t snipe them for skill ups. It also meant that they had all been rolled into the bigger versions.

I was about three blocks away when a woman in fatigues came running around the corner, straight toward me. She was carrying a bow that was almost as tall as she was. When she saw me, she gave me a smile and a salute.

“Better follow!” she called to me as she sprinted past. I found out why a few seconds later, as two of the semi-trailer-sized zombie-things came following after her. I ran, naturally. It was only as I was running that I realized the woman’s ears had tapered to a point.

She was faster than me, but when I followed down the street she’d took she was standing there with an arrow nocked and aimed right at me.

“To the side!” she called.

I didn’t need to be told twice. I ran to the sidewalk, then continued up it until I was past where she was. It wasn’t until that point that I turned to look behind me. Naturally I was certain that a bow was an incredibly ineffective weapon against a creature like that. You had to hit the individual hearts of enough zombies that it would fall apart, and even a well-aimed arrow would be lucky to get two hearts. I didn’t say any of that, because I didn’t want to be the asshole who tells someone that they’re doing it wrong right before they knock it out of the park.

When she released the string, the arrow zipped through the air, until it was ten feet away from her. There, still in flight, it split into two identical arrows, and after another ten feet, each of those split into two arrows, on and on, until it was practically a cloud of arrows all flying through the air, loosely clustered together. They struck the zombies with the sound of wet flesh being pierced a hundred times and the umbral zombies, both of them, tumbled and fell apart. A number of the component zombies got up from the ground, some of them with arrows stuck through them, but they were slow and shambling, not really a threat unless they had you cornered.

The elf grabbed her bow in both hands and stretched with it over her head while yawning. “You’re welcome,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said. I was looking her over. The fatigues she was wearing had no insignias or other symbols on them. She was blonde, roughly as tall as I was, and with a smattering of freckles across her face, marking otherwise pale and flawless skin. My eyes kept being drawn to her ears, which came up into long points. “Though actually, you led those things toward me.”

“Hrm, so I did,” she replied. She sauntered over toward me and looked at the red-eyed zombies stumbling our way. “What exactly brings you to this part of town, hooman?”

“Uh,” I said, which was really not my best-ever stall for time. I needed a more clever way to delay before I started giving things away. “I was going to ask you the same thing.” Nailed it.

“Well, I see you’ve noticed the ears,” she said. “And the teeth as well, eh?” She smiled at me, and whatever she thought I had seen, her smile didn’t really help me figure it out, because her teeth looked normal, if a little bit unnaturally white. “Half-elf,” she said.

“Okay,” I said slowly.

“So your question should have been, ‘What brings you to this part of town, half-elf?’ instead,” she continued, looking at me expectantly.

I was paralyzed by a couple of things. First, I was standing in front of a real live honest-to-god elf (or at least a half-elf) just like I had seen in probably hundreds of source books and fantasy paintings. I figured I was probably going to feel the same way my first time seeing a dwarf too.

Second, and as an issue of actual importance, I was immediately suspicious of her. The odds of me running into anyone in this city were … well, hard to calculate, given that I didn’t know how many people were running around in Silmar City at any given moment. But the quest I had said ‘leave before her friends show up’, and that small bit of wording hadn’t slipped past me.

“Myself, I’m looting,” she said. “Violation of imperial law, that, but if the empire is going to just let all this stuff go to rot, then I don’t consider it the worst crime a person can commit to steal some of it away.” She paused. “And this is where you tell me what you’re doing here.”

“I’m,” I began. “Just sort of bumbling around.”

Skill increased: Deception lvl 5!

I was a bit miffed at that. I hadn’t really lied.

“Bumbling around,” said the half-elf with a nod. “I, too, often find myself wandering about in cities deep in the heart of exclusion zones, carrying makeshift pistols. There’s something that’s so freeing about being lost, don’t you think? An exhilaration that comes with being untethered from even the bare knowledge of where you are in the world, hrm?”

“Sure,” I said. “That’s … a nice bow you have there.”

Skill unlocked: Flattery!

That didn’t seem right. Had I never said anything to flatter Amaryllis? Thinking back I couldn’t think of a specific instance, but she was so damned impressive it seemed impossible I had never said so, or at least let slip how beautiful I thought she was in a moment of ineptitude.

“Oh, thank you,” said the half-elf. “Family heirloom, very valuable, but occasionally one likes to fire a volley of arrows. Your own … pistol? It’s very … rustic.”

I looked down at the pistol in my hand. “Look, I’m, uh, looking for a friend I got separated from,” I said. “Have you seen –” I thought about Amaryllis and how I would describe her, then thought twice about it. “– anyone?”

“I don’t think the two of us have quite gotten to the point where we’re freely sharing information,” she replied, “And I’m sorry, but I have to place some blame for that on your reticence. Is there any particular reason that the two of us can’t be friends?”

“No,” I replied. My eyes involuntarily went to her bow, the first real magic item I’d seen thus far (if I didn’t count the void weapons). I wondered how often she could fire that volley of arrows and how dead I would be if I got hit by it. My guess was very dead. “Look, to be honest with you … I came here by way of the plane.”

She raised an eyebrow at that and gave me a low whistle, then glanced at the zombies that were making their way toward us. “And your friend too?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, because I didn’t really think that was the sort of thing that I could plausibly hide.

“Well then,” said the half-elf, still watching the zombies. She held out her hand to me. “Name’s Fenn Greenglass.”

“Juniper Smith,” I replied, shaking her hand. I was fairly sure that there were no records anywhere in the world that would back me up on having that name.

She turned to me and smiled. “Well Mr. Human, if you’re amenable, traveling alone in Silmar City is pretty much the most insanely dangerous thing a person can do, so I’d like to introduce you to my party, and you can travel with us, at least until you find your friend. No obligation, but it’s safer for all of us.”

Shit. I still didn’t trust her. “I was planning on going to Sorian’s Castle,” I said. I didn’t trust her, but being cagey wasn’t getting me anywhere.

“Fine by me,” Fenn said with a shrug. “I’ll see if I can talk the others into it, but we’ve ventured in there once or twice before. And if not, then maybe one of them has seen your friend.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 11: A Winding Course

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