Worth the Candle, Ch 22: Rolling Need

She led us down several hallways as we slowly regained our breath, moving with purpose. I caught glimpses of other rooms, mostly bare but some with covered furniture in them. These were ideal conditions for keeping things in stasis, since there was rarely weather in the Datura and it was almost constantly warm and dry. A part of me wondered whether this was going to be our base of operations, which any good videogame needed to have. I could see that as a quest, to get this place up and running again, to have people and things shipped in at great expense … even though it would be pretty damned impractical, which was the whole reason that this place had been mothballed in the first place.

We eventually came down to an opened metal vault, lined with pedestals, hooks, and shelves, most of which were empty. Three mannequins sat at the back, only one of them with armor on it, a suit of elegant full plate with a heavily stylized anvil on the front. There were two swords. One had a thin basket of metal around the handle, and I would have called it a rapier if its edge didn’t look too sharp for it to be primarily a thrusting weapon. The other was a very plain blade with a somewhat dull reflection; it was a sword so generic that it somehow seemed like it was hiding something.

There were other things as well, an amulet with a blue gem sitting on a pedestal, a small wooden box inlaid with ivory, and a ceramic jar depicting fairies playing, its lid closed tight with red tape. With the glove, that made seven items in total.

I recognized three of them from the games I’d run.

“We probably shouldn’t open that jar until we’re ready,” I said.

“You have some hint?” asked Amaryllis.

“I don’t know what its proper name would be,” I replied. “I, um, never gave it one. But if it’s what I think it is, it’s full of fairies made of marzipan. When we open it, they’ll attack.”

“What is the godsdamned point of that?” asked Fenn.

“I think they’ll only attack the first time,” I said. “At least, that’s how it was when I made it.”

“In this long dream you once had,” said Fenn with pursed lips.

“He’s been right before,” said Amaryllis.

“Marzipan fairies,” said Fenn, with a raised eyebrow. “And they … heal you?”

“If you eat them, yeah,” I replied. “The jar keeps generating them over time, but after the first batch I think the rest should be docile.” I had given the party the item as a way to partially make up for the fact that no one had wanted to play healer; fairy murder became a recurring joke. You had to snap their necks so they didn’t wriggle on the way down.

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “We can prepare for that. These fairies will be our food source then. Hopefully it’s enough to stave off starvation for a while.”

“I think that armor is immobility plate,” I said, pointing at the suit. “It’s basically an immovable rod in armor form. It stops you from moving.” I pointed at the box. “And that’s probably the clonal kit, which can make a copy of any of the standard adventuring kits, though I’m not sure how that would translate here.” Amaryllis and Fenn were both staring at me.

“Well, damn,” said Fenn. “I guess we get to see whether you’re nuts or not.”

“This is the first time you’ve made specific, testable predictions,” said Amaryllis, which sounded enough like agreement that I was slightly hurt.

“That’s not true,” I said. “I’ve had all sorts of insights into things that I shouldn’t have, given that I’m dream-skewered.”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “But most of those were pieces of knowledge available to the general public, or provided to you by the words written across your eyes, which I would consider separate. If I’m hearing you correctly, this is the first time that your actual memories of creating this game will be tested. Everything else could have been formed post hoc by an irregular skewer. You remembered about Barren Jewel, but it didn’t fit in with the dream of Earth, so the skewer warped your mind by inventing this game you played and placed Barren Jewel within that fiction. If you’re correct about these items, that rules out the backformation hypothesis.”

I looked between the two of them. “Have you been talking to each other?”

“Of course,” said Fenn. “We’re a team, that’s what we do. Did you think that we’d have a self-confessed mentally diseased team member and not talk about it with each other? I’m not that irresponsible.”

“We didn’t mean anything by it,” said Amaryllis. “Nothing was said that we wouldn’t have said in front of you. There were just … decisions that we needed to be prepared for.”

“Ah,” I replied. I let out a sigh. “Okay, I get it.”

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 6!

“You do?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “The story as you’ve heard it is basically, ‘I created most of the elements in this world with my friends as part of a game and now I’m trapped here’. I would probably think that was absolutely crazy if someone said it to me, even with the demonstrable abilities I’ve displayed. Caution was, or is warranted. It’d be pretty dumb of me to chastise either of you for doing what I would have done.”

“That … is remarkably mature,” said Amaryllis.

“I’ve been through some things, in the last few months,” I replied with a shrug, but I was blushing, because Amaryllis was impressed with me.

“Hoomans, I admire this display, but I was promised a glove, and you know the saying,” said Fenn.

“No glove, no love?” I asked. I smiled and then laughed at my own joke, which neither of them had any reason to find remotely funny. That made it even funnier to me.

Amaryllis handed over the glove and went to the swords (and for having a fancy name like “investiture”, apparently all it meant was handing the magic item over to someone else). Amaryllis touched first one sword, then the other, and handed me the suspiciously boring one. It immediately sprang to life in my hands, changing and warping into different forms, becoming thicker, then thinner, sharp, then dull, long, then short, never staying as one particular sword for very long. Despite that, it was perfectly balanced in my hand the entire time, forming counterweights in the grip to ensure that the shifts it underwent weren’t too jarring.

“Oh, neat,” I said. “It’s the Anyblade.” I directed a thought at it and transformed it from a sword to an axe wrapped in decorative gold hair, then to a small dagger with a skull on the hilt, then to a bronze khopesh. When I turned it back into a plain, generic sword it had settled down considerably, shifting only gradually between different forms. I stilled it with a thought.

Amaryllis was staring at me again. Her own sword had done nothing much of note while I’d played with the Anyblade.

“How many magic items did you think up?” asked Fenn. She was looking at my Anyblade with envy in her eyes.

“First off, you can’t have it,” I told Fenn. “Second … I think the answer is probably hundreds, if we’re just talking about the ones that I made, not the ones that were appropriated from a sourcebook or intentionally adapted from some other canon. If you included all the really derivative stuff, I’d say maybe a thousand.” I tried to quickly check my math. Four players, times eight years playing, times two sessions a week, times fifty-two weeks a year, at one magic item per session per player, was a sloppy-rounding upper bound of three thousand two hundred. With weeks off, being low on players, not always being DM, or handing out duplicates it had to be a lot less. “I don’t know for sure. Why?” (Truth be told, I was quite enjoying myself. I had acquired loot, and I was on pretty solid footing, especially relative to Fenn and Amaryllis. The feeling of knowing something that they didn’t, and having it actually be useful instead of just being some bit of ‘Airthian’ pop culture, was a pleasant one.)

“Mary, how many magic items are there in the world?” asked Fenn. She pointed straight at Amaryllis while keeping her eyes on me.

“I find it annoying that you would expect me to know that,” said Amaryllis with a frown. “Also, we’re talking about entads and heirloom entads, magic item can refer to a larger class of …” Fenn was moving her hand to mimic a flapping mouth. “A billion would be a close approximation, that’s one for every five people, but Pareto’s Principle applies, and twenty percent of the population has eighty percent of the entads.”

“Pareto was from Earth,” I said quickly. “He was an Earth mathematician.”

“No, she was a well-respected computer,” said Amaryllis.

“Irregardless,” said Fenn. “There are a billion magic items in the world, and Juniper claims to have thought up hundreds or maybe thousands of them. If he’s right about what the items do, and I think he probably will be, then … someone else could apply math, but that seems like a pretty astounding coincidence to me.”

Amaryllis tucked her hair back behind her ear and frowned for a moment. It took me watching the marginal movement of her lips to realize that she actually was doing the math. I wasn’t even sure where you’d start for that.

“It’s a pretty astounding coincidence, yes,” Amaryllis finally said. “One in one quintillion, or thereabouts. That would require a bending of probability beyond even the powers of the oldest elves.” A silence fell on us after that.

“Welp, add that to the ol’ mystery pile then,” Fenn smiled, “I helped!”

“We should fight the fairies soon,” I said. “If I’m remembering right they spawn in slowly, and if we’re going to be here for a while, we’ll want to get as much out of them as possible.”

“Armor first,” said Amaryllis, stripping off her shirt as she walked toward the mannequin. I averted my eyes after a moment of shock. We’d all shared a room together for a week, and I had seen Fenn naked more times than I could count, since she took some delight in seeing me react. Amaryllis wasn’t exactly shy, but it seemed to me like she’d taken some steps to be more modest, for my sake if not her own. She was beautiful, and though I tried, I couldn’t quite constrain myself to believing that I was simply her traveling companion when I saw her unclothed.

I turned my back and kept my attention on the Anyblade, testing the limits of its abilities. It could only do blades, but it was pretty permissive when it came to what a blade was, and I could work whatever I wanted into the ornamental features of the sword, axe, or other bladed weapon I formed it into. Changes didn’t quite happen at the speed of thought, but it was fairly close, enough that I thought that I could probably use a change in shape to my advantage during combat. The Anyblade had belonged to a rogue of Reimer’s, and Reimer had a tendency toward munchkinry which I liked to indulge him in, within reason. I tried to think of the things he’d tried, and which I had allowed. With a thought, I protruded a key from the base of the hilt. I smiled at that, and had the sad thought that Reimer would probably have loved to be here.

I turned around when I was nudged in the back, and saw Amaryllis in her full armor.

You know that scene in stereotypical teen movies where the artsy girl with no fashion sense or the tomboy who wears baggy clothing or whatever — the hot actress that everyone pretends isn’t hot, because she needs to be hot to sell the movie but needs to be unattractive for the story to work — anyway, she has prom, or a big date, or something like that, and so she gets her hair styled, puts on a dress, takes off her glasses, and applies some makeup. Then there’s this big reveal, where – ta-da! – it turns out that she’s actually really pretty.

Amaryllis was not more pretty wearing magical armor. It was pretty armor, and she was definitely pretty, but the armor was proper full plate, which meant that it didn’t display any curves or expose any skin. No, instead of becoming pretty, Amaryllis became deadly. I mean, she was already deadly, muscular and precise, my introduction to her had been her calmly pointing a gun in my face, I’d seen her kill a lot of people, and yet … somehow I hadn’t fully understood it until I saw her dressed in full plate, holding a magical sword, her hair tied back in a neat bun, and with a blue amulet glowing around her neck. Amaryllis wasn’t someone to fuck with. She would scythe her way through an army and stand on a mountain of corpses if she thought that was necessary. She would kill without mercy or warning. She would display as much compassion and regret as a claymore mine.

(And I hope you can see where I’d draw the comparison to a teen movie, because we’d already had our equivalent of that scene where the female lead drops her glasses and the male lead reaches over to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear and say something like, “you know, you’re kind of cute without your glasses”, but for us, it had been the moment she’d killed Poul in cold blood because her motorcycle wouldn’t comfortably fit three people, and I’d thought, “you know, you’re a little bit of a cold-blooded killer”.)

The first proper thought to run through my head was, “Holy shit am I glad she’s on my side,” which did soften the jolt of fear and unease I’d experienced. My second thought was the less reassuring, “Wait, how sure am I that she’s on my side?” The answer to that was, of course, 6. I was 6 sure that she was on my side, 6 out of maybe 10, maybe 100, maybe even more. My only consolation was that both Amaryllis and Fenn were at about the same loyalty, which wasn’t actually much of a consolation at all, especially not if they were talking about me behind my back.

“You look nice,” I said.

“It’s not about looks,” said Amaryllis. She spun her sword around, then held it in front of her. The blade disappeared, leaving her holding only a hilt, then reappeared in place. She frowned at it briefly. “The sword’s benefit is fairly minor, but might be useful in a pinch.”

“Um,” I said, no longer sure that it was wholly wise to offer her good advice. “Is it actually gone, when it disappears? What happens when it comes back in and there’s something in the way?”

Amaryllis made the blade disappear again and pointed the hilt toward the nearest mannequin. The blade reappeared, stuck halfway through its chest. Amaryllis pulled the blade out, inspected it, then slashed at the mannequin with frightening speed, flickering her blade on and off, which left a series of deep, penetrating cuts.

“Thanks,” she said, giving me a small smile.

“That leaves only the amulet unaccounted for,” said Fenn. “I don’t suppose it has the power to get people out of a desert? Because even if we can survive off fairies made of almond,
then we’re still stuck here.”

“The amulet is passive, and no real help here. We’ll unseal the fairies first,” said Amaryllis. “Then we’ll try to figure out what our endgame is. Joon, we might need you to put everything you can into tattoo magic. You should have four points to spend now?”

“Yes,” I replied. Her continued possessiveness over my power still rankled. “I’ll hold them in reserve. Obviously I don’t want to go down that path as yet.”

“Sure,” said Amaryllis. She slipped on the helmet that came with the suit of armor, which locked in place all on its own with a hiss. “Let’s go.”

We did actually end up doing a little bit of monkeying with the clonal kit before opening the jar. One pleasant surprise was that we could all use it, which brought the item count to one for me, one for Fenn, two shared, and three for Amaryllis. The unpleasant part of the kit was that it was fairly particular and somewhat finicky. What you had to do was hold the box (roughly the size of a backpack, but boxy) in both hands, think about some sufficiently generic profession, and the box would give you a collection of items related to that profession, which you could direct to some degree by concentrating correctly.

We tried some stuff that might have worked and gotten us out of the jam we were in, like trying to make the clonal kit produce a box of teleportation keys by thinking specifically about a guy who had that as his profession, but that didn’t work at all. The clonal kit could make food if we thought about chefs or waiters, but here we ran into one of the limitations I’d worried we might; anything you made with the clonal kit needed to be repaid.

“So, the problem was that telescopes are like, really, ridiculously expensive in D&D,” I said. “And I made the mistake of saying that yes, it could make telescopes, which were worth … um, the equivalent of what someone working minimum wage would make in ten years or something dumb like that, I don’t know, the games had kind of dumb economics unless you did a lot of work, anyway,” I took a breath, “To curb that, when the players decided that they were going to just make a bunch of telescopes and sell them, I said that you had to pay the box back. In other words, you have to put things back in the box for it to work again, or you have to give it something of equal value.”

“And the box was worth more as a magical box than just, I don’t know, making a box full of precious gems?” asked Fenn.

‘What profession do you think just lugs around a bunch of gems?” I asked with a laugh.

“Gem mage, o weak-brained human,” replied Fenn. “They’re the ones with the gems?”

“Er,” I said. “Right, but that wasn’t a thing in our games, probably because no one ever thought it was a good idea to tie a class power to material wealth.” Beyond what was already in the game, anyway.

“Even without the fairies, the clonal kit will allow us to stave off starvation for quite some time,” said Amaryllis. “Depending on what the kit thinks things are worth, we can likely cannibalize much of what was left behind in Caer Laga, or use the kit to arbitrarily turn items into higher value, lower weight items for transport. For now, we need a net.”

What followed was a few different attempts at making nets as we tried to get one that was tight enough to potentially capture a marzipan fairy. Eventually Fenn came up with a profession that captured butterflies, which were apparently a delicacy in some far off land, and while that had the ring of pure bullshit to me, the clonal kit produced a fine mesh net for us.

We draped the net over the jar, popped off the lid, and that was about when all hell broke loose, because either I had forgotten just how tough I’d made the fairy fight, or I had thought that goddamned fairies made of literally nothing but honey and almond meal wouldn’t actually be a threat to us. Maybe I just hadn’t been properly paranoid, since I wasn’t considering that the fairies would coordinate.

The first twenty or thirty out of the jar (it’s really hard to count fast-moving creatures the size of a thumb) lifted off the net, putting their full weight behind it and moving to the side so it would slip off. We hadn’t weighted down the net, because we were idiots who had underprepared. Once the net was clear, the rest of the fairies flew out of the jar in a torrent, spreading gossamer thin wings and darting around the room for just a moment before they went on the attack.

Amaryllis’ sword flickered through the air, strobing in and out of existence as she cut through the mass of fairies, and a fair number of them split in half and tumbled to the ground. A few of them plinked against her armor for a moment, then they split away from her and went towards Fenn and I. I swung my sword through the air, but the individual fairies were small and agile, and swords really weren’t meant for that kind of work. I tried to give the Anyblade a different shape, but nothing came to mind, partly because I quickly had fairies all over me.

They tugged at my skin and bit at me, going for my eyes, mouth, nose, and ears, grabbing my fingers and slipping in under my clothes. I dropped my sword and swatted at my face, scraping several fairies off and injuring myself in the process, because they had grabbed onto my eyelids and nostrils. My hands slapped against the places I felt pain, squishing fairies flat, until a quintet of fairies made a play for my mouth, opening my lips before I realized what was happening, then slipping past my teeth and using their tiny legs and hands to force themselves down my throat. That was about when I started worrying less about the fairies that were biting me and trying to rip through my skin, and started worrying more about whether I was going to choke to death. I chomped down to kill the fairies that had ahold of my teeth and then stuck my fingers in my mouth to try to grab the ones that were already activating my gag reflex. One I caught by the leg with my thumb and forefinger, enough that I could pull her back and bite her through the midsection, but the other one was too far down, kicking my uvula and making me short on breath.

Then Amaryllis was on me, slapping away at the fairies on me, but I was still choking on the one in my throat, which was doing its level best to squirm its way down. I was already panicking and trying to take deep breaths that would let me get air around it, but when she grabbed hold of some internal piece of my throat, that flap that lets you not get food in your lungs, I began a choking scream.

Amaryllis, in full plate, pushed me to the ground and placed a knee firmly on my chest. She held the sword hilt high above me, pointed straight down, and my eyes went wide with fear and understanding right as the blade materialized, the point of it suddenly going right through my throat and impaling the fairy inside.

I choked and turned over, spitting a slimy marzipan fairy onto the floor and then scrambling to my feet, looking for more of them and trying to take in deep breaths while at the same time using my shaky hands to protect my mouth. I was bleeding all over, spotting my clothes with blood from a hundred bites, and especially on my face it felt like my skin had been ripped and torn at the membranes.

The room was silent. A half-dead fairy wriggled on the ground and Amaryllis stomped on it with an armored boot. The floor was littered with fairy corpses and splattered with blood.

“Fuck me,” said Fenn. “Fuuuck me.” She was laying face up on the ground, staring at the ceiling, looking like she’d been smacked in the face with a rake a few times. She was bleeding all over her face, with small chunks taken out of it and a small bit of her ear missing. “Joon, if you did actually invent that thing through some stupid metaphysical loophole, I’m going to cut off your limbs and consume your flesh.”

“We should eat them,” I tried to say, but there was a hole in my windpipe, so it came out as, “Wegh a ggeh,” and then a bunch of coughing that ended up with a lot of blood on the floor. I stuffed a fairy into my mouth, chewed it as viciously as possible, then gulped it down, trying to ignore the burning pain of marzipan mush sliding past the hole in my throat. Almost immediately I began to feel better though, and I saw my health go up two ticks. I grabbed another bloody fairy corpse from off the ground (my blood, not the fairy’s) and shoved it in my mouth. It took some time, and another eight fairies, but my wounds closed up and I was feeling much better.

Fenn had taken the hint and done the same, taking a bit less time than me, probably because she hadn’t been subjected to an emergency tracheotomy.

“Well,” I said. “That’s the jar o’ fairies.”

“Why would you make a thing like that?” asked Fenn. “How is that fun for anyone?”

“It’s complicated,” I replied, but it wasn’t really that complicated, we were just teenagers in Kansas during a time of peace and prosperity, and the jar of killer fairies had been part of a pretend world with only fictional consequences.

“Well,” said Amaryllis, taking off her helmet again. She peered into the jar. “It appears that this has been claimed, and if Juniper is right then we should have a much more convenient source of healing than a bone or blood mage, as well as food to ensure that we don’t starve. The only cost was pain.”

“Very easy to say when you weren’t hurt,” replied Fenn.

“Yes, it is,” said Amaryllis with a conciliatory nod. “There are other suits of armor that belong to my family line, a few of them I could grant to you through investiture. Once we get out of here, we might want to look into getting more for the two of you.”

“So it’s bribery, eh?” asked Fenn. She looked down at her black glove. “You certainly know the way to a half-elf’s heart, I’ll give you that. I’m less confident that there is a way out of here. Stripping down to expose the tattoo again might not be a bad idea, and I have always said that your upper arm was your most fetching feature.”

Amaryllis sighed and began to undo her armor, which was apparently quite the process.

“Wait,” said Fenn, suddenly tense. Her long ears twitched. “You wouldn’t have happened to have set up a rescue for us before we left, would you?”

Amaryllis shook her head and I could see her straining to listen, just like I was. I heard the distant sound a little bit later, a rhythmic one coming from outside and getting louder, but though it was very familiar I couldn’t quite place it until Amaryllis spoke up.

“Is that a helicopter?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “And if you didn’t arrange for it, then … you said that going to Sorian’s Castle wasn’t wise, because there might be wards set up to catch us? Is there a chance –”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis.

“Elf sense is screaming at me,” said Fenn. “Usually I listen, but it’s a bit incoherent right now, which is never a good sign.”

“Human sense is screaming too,” I replied. I picked the Anyblade up off the floor. “Exactly how safe are we here? How much will these wards protect us?”

Amaryllis put on her helmet. “We’re going to have to hope that our enemies have once again made the mistake of underestimating us.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 22: Rolling Need

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