It was the first time I really felt like Aerb had failed me. It hadn’t exactly been fun before, though parts of it certainly were, and it hadn’t been easy. And for all that, I wouldn’t even say that it was particularly gamelike, just maybe able to be mapped onto a game. This garbage? This felt like I was sitting through an unavoidable cutscene where Amaryllis got taken from me, and there was nothing that I could have done.
Maybe what I was supposed to have done was go full shonen anime. On hearing that we weren’t likely to win the fight, I should have given a rousing speech about going beyond the impossible and kicking reason to the curb, or believing in the heart of the cards, or being the very best there ever was. I had a really hard time believing that the result of that would actually have been a victory. Aumann hadn’t really known who he was going to find at Caer Laga, and he’d come anyway, probably because he assumed that he was strong enough to fight whoever was there.
While I was sitting propped up against the wall, feeling sorry for myself and idly changing the Anyblade’s form, Fenn pulled out the black glove and began depositing things onto the floor.
“There,” she said, when the clonal kit hit the floor, “This is what we have to work with. Box that makes something from someone’s profession, jar that’s slowly filling itself with marzipan fairies of healing, artillery bow, amulet that we don’t know what it does but neither of us can use, void rifle, and extradimensional glove. Plus a sword that can be any sword we want it to be, which doesn’t seem all that much more helpful than a dagger.”
“No obvious plan is jumping out at me,” I said. “We had all this stuff when Amaryllis was still here. If there was a way to escape Caer Laga and get back to Barren Jewel, we would have found it then.”
“We weren’t in dire straits then, plus there were things going on,” said Fenn. “Look, I’m not good at the pep talk thing, so if you want to just go ahead and assume that I consoled you about whatever it is that’s upsetting you, it would probably work out better for both of us.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just not seeing it.” I looked at the laid out items. “You’re missing a few though. We have Caer Laga and its wards, we have packed up furniture, we have everything else there is stashed away here … at least the clonal kit can make us proper food so we don’t have to eat fairies.”
“See, isn’t it better to focus on something?” asked Fenn. “I think tricking the clonal kit is the right path to success here. All we need to do is think of the right travel occupation. Oh, or maybe we could make some gems!”
“Gems,” I said.
Fenn touched the top of the clonal kit, screwed her face up in concentration, then opened the box. Sitting inside were eight small gems, six of them in the colors of the rainbow, arranged in a circle on the wooden bottom of the box, and a clear diamond next to a black jewel in the center.
“Ta da!” said Fenn. “Alright, now do your thing.”
“Um,” I replied. “Am I correct in thinking that you want me to learn gem magic, right here and now?”
“Yes,” said Fenn. “That’s your whole thing, right? The reason that the princess has, or had, such a throbbing erection pointed your way? To hear her tell it, you were able to give yourself a three-year course in three different types of magic within hours with almost no instruction.”
“I was under the impression that gem magic was more of an offensive tool,” I said. I reached into the clonal kit and pulled out the diamond, looking it over. I wasn’t an expert on gems or how they were cut, but this one seemed to be unpleasantly asymmetrical, as well as being quite small.
“Yes,” said Fenn. “The important word there isn’t offense, it’s tool, as in a thing that we can use, if need be. If you’re strong enough to grasp a diamond and shoot the white light, that might be enough to stave off thaum-sucker attacks for a few hours. That’s not a solution, but it might be part of one.”
I grasped the diamond in my hand. I had seen a gem mage, as it happened, back in the bathhouse. He’d been naked, jumping into the air, blasting a thick beam of red light at someone who was presumably his attacker. Cut and polished gemstones had power to them, which mostly came out in the form of light, with variance in them produced by the color, cut, clarity, and size. It was on the more systemic end of magic systems I’d learned of in Aerb, though I didn’t know the full set of rules that governed it, nor how to get my start as a gem mage.
I tried a lot of analogies, since those had been helpful in the past. “Think of X as Y,” seemed like a good starting point for trying to conceptualize most of the magic I had come across so far, maybe because it was borrowing from familiar mental pathways. I wouldn’t be surprised that those analogies were wrong on a fundamental level, like most analogies were, but they were still helpful in me gaining skill. None of the analogies I thought up helped me though. Really, I’d been hoping that the answer would just be the first thing that I thought up, because Aerb was infused with my memories, preferences, and intuitions, or at the very least, I was warped in such a way that I could make predictions about the world.
Gems were not the light pouring from them, they weren’t filters, they weren’t lasers, they weren’t faucets, they weren’t distillations of power, they weren’t a color wheel, or anything else I tried. No matter what I did, I couldn’t feel even the smallest scrap of latent power from them, not even for a moment, which meant I never had a crack to dig my fingers into and pry the magic open. Maybe one of those analogies really was right, and I just didn’t have a firm enough grasp, but either way, I put the gems down after half an hour of trying everything I could think of. In retrospect, it had been wildly optimistic for me to think that I could learn a new school of magic just from base principles and a handful of reagents.
In the meantime, Fenn had been making her way through Caer Laga, looking for things of use. She brought everything that wasn’t nailed down to a large room off the hallway I was practicing in, placing things noisily down with the glove.
“This glove is great,” said Fenn as she watched me put the gems down in the box. “It needs a name though, all the best magic items have names. Shadow Fingers? Sable Palm? No, neither of those are right, I’ll think on it. I assume from the lack of searing light that you’ve had no luck with gems?”
“None,” I said. “Did you find anything we can use?”
“Furniture, mostly,” said Fenn, “I’d assume that it’s a few hundred years out of style, if I knew anything about fashions of the rich and famous. There are a few pieces of art, but from what I can see they took all the stuff that was worth anything, leaving behind whatever was not worth the cost of transport. I did find a much more mundane armory, probably the place where hired help would keep their equipment. Most of what was there is gone, but a few pieces remain, probably as part of the emergency retreat plan. There is a kitchen, with nothing in it, there are bathrooms that I assume lead to a dry septic system somewhere, there are pipes stuck to the walls, probably put in after construction, that I know lead to a cistern near the top of the fortress, confirmed dry, and there are bedrooms with no mattresses.” The armory was a boon, but other than that, it was more or less what I expected.
Fenn held out her gloved hand and a metal box came crashing down to the ground next to her.
“I also found a lockbox with half a million obols worth of paper money, stocks, bonds, and gold,” she said with a smile. “That’s the kind of find that would normally get my heart hammering, except that we don’t have any way to get back and spend it. Yet.”
“It’s something we can feed the kit,” I said. I paused. “That seems like a lot of money.” I wanted to tell her that in the first editions of D&D, experience points were awarded based on number of gold pieces obtained, but I held back, because it was of interest only to me. It annoyed me to not be able to share things like that. I would have said I missed my friends, but I didn’t even really have that many friends left on Earth.
“It is a lot of money, to the likes of you and I,” said Fenn. “To the ruling class of Anglecynn, not so much. A cool half million, locked away for years? Well, no problem, there’s a whole lot more where that came from. I don’t mock her for being spoiled without cause.”
“She was captured,” I said. “I would appreciate if you were a little less flippant.”
“I suppose I can make the effort, for the boy I’m probably going to die with,” said Fenn. “But do you know what I think we’ll find if we get back to Barren Jewel? I think we’ll climb up the tall castle that we think she’s sequestered in, and when we get to the top, we’ll see twenty or thirty dismembered bodies, with your princess standing in the middle of them, dressed in her fancy armor and with her fancy sword coated in blood.” She was getting into this, talking faster and with more animation. “Then she’ll turn her sword off and the blood will fall to the ground in a perfect little line, and she’ll look at you and say, ‘What took you so long?’” The impression she did of Amaryllis was terrible.
“I think her situation is a bit more dangerous than that,” I said. I looked down at the clonal kit, then at her glove. “Do you think that the extradimensional space of the glove counts as latent or passive magic?” I asked.
“No clue,” said Fenn. “Our dear Mary would know, I’m sure, bless her heart.”
“I’d think that it depends on how it functions,” I said slowly. “I don’t know how extradimensional space is defined on Aerb, but if the glove is magically folding space around it, I’d assume it’s passive, while if it’s sending things somewhere and then calling them back, I’d assume that it’s latent when not in use and active when it’s calling or retrieving. That’s the distinction that the thaum-seekers care about, right? Your bow isn’t a magic bow to them until it does something magical, just like my blood is just latent blood until I do something with it? I guess the glove is black, but I’m not sure it’s supernaturally black, since we have vantablack on Earth.”
“And what, exactly, are you thinking, human?” asked Fenn with narrowed eyes. “We obviously can’t take things out of the Obsidian Hand while we’re in the desert, for fear of calling the thaum-suckers to us. We can take whatever we’d like from Caer Laga, because I’ve yet to find an upper limit on what Raven’s Claw can pack inside it, but how does that actually help?”
“You need a single word name for it,” I said. “The adjective-noun construction says that you’re trying too hard. Just call it Sable.”
“And what is it you want to do with Sable?” asked Fenn.
“Well,” I said. “You know how you said we should never travel by glove again?”
“Yes,” Fenn said slowly.
“Well, I’m thinking that we might be able to travel by glove the entire fifty miles back to Barren Jewel,” I said.
“That’s,” said Fenn. “I’m trying to think of the word, but stupid doesn’t seem to quite cover it. You’d have to … well, first of all …” She stopped again, not seeming to know where to start.
“I can list the objections,” I said. I was momentarily frustrated by my lack of pen and paper, before realizing that we had the clonal kit in front of us. I laid my hand on it and tried to figure out what profession would get me what I wanted. Scribe? I opened the box to find a quill, a sealed pot of ink, and some thick papers. I closed the box again, not quite satisified with that, in part because I had no idea how to use a quill. Computer, that was a profession here, right? I opened the box and found a slender pen and thin, scratch paper.
- Is the glove latent magic or passive magic?
- Can the glove be used on its own wearer?
How can we move the glove fifty miles …
… in the right direction …
… without the ability to control it?
- How can we breathe for long enough to get to Barren Jewel?
- How can we ensure the thaum-seekers don’t get us?
“So,” I said, “That’s two things that I think we can test fairly easily, and a few problems to solve, but we’re closer than we were before.”
“How are we going to test whether the thaum-suckers will go after it?” asked Fenn. “You know even less about wards than I do, and I have no idea whether we’ll be allowed back into this place if we leave. Amaryllis gave us something like a guest right, but do you normally allow your guests to freely move in and out of your house?”
“Okay,” I said slowly. “So we get some string.”
“You are not throwing this glove out the window,” said Fenn. “It’s my friend. I’ve named it.”
“Do you have a better idea for getting across the desert?” I asked.
“We climb down the cliff and walk,” said Fenn. “Like we’re not actual, legitimate morons. We have the clonal kit, it can make us as much food and water as we need, especially now that we have money to feed it when it gets hungry.”
“And you’d be willing to leave the glove behind?” I asked. “Because if the glove attracts the thaum-seekers, we aren’t going to be able to move with it. We need to figure it out either way.”
“I hate it when other people are right,” muttered Fenn. “Okay, but we’re going to dink around with the clonal kit for long enough that we get some really good string.”
The clonal kit was actually sort of a pain. You couldn’t ask it for specific items, all you could do was think of a profession that had that item as part of its “standard” set of tools and materials. You couldn’t just grab an awl, you had to think “leatherworker” at it. This alone wouldn’t have been so bad, but there were some professions that were either too specific or just not recognized. On top of that, the way we were using it was basically generating a “kit” and pulling a part of it out, then “repaying” the box for what we’d taken.
“Two problems,” said Fenn. “First, this fucking thing does not give us the change we are due, and second, it’s absolutely gouging us.”
“Probably to prevent arbitrage,” I replied. I got a blank look. “One of the problems with a magic item that can create things is that people will try to sell those things. The clonal kit has a restriction on that already, in that you have to pay it back for what you created, but that could still lead to other problems. Say you know the clonal kit values pliers at 12 obols, and you find a place where you can sell pliers for 14 obols, then all you’d have to do is sit there, make a kit with pliers, take the pliers out and sell them, then put some of the money back in the box, making a profit indefinitely.”
“Well, until the guy you’re selling pliers to has enough pliers,” said Fenn.
“Sure,” I replied. “But then you move on and figure something else out, and that becomes your profession: figuring out what the box values things at, then finding someone who will buy them for less. And that’s … not really what games are about. Or at least not D&D.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Fenn. “You’re positing this world where … what, magic items have no value?”
“No,” I said, “That’s not it at all, the value they have is always about adventuring, not about setting up shop somewhere and becoming a boring merchant who spends his days with his nose in spreadsheets. Or ledgers, whatever you guys use here.”
“But that’s not this world,” said Fenn. “People with magic set up shop with it all the time, that’s practically the entire function of magic. I keep forgetting that your entire life in this world covers about two weeks, but Fireteam Blackheart? They are not the norm. Amaryllis is not the norm, she’s … do you have equalists on Airth?”
“I’m not sure what that is, but there’s probably a correlate, yes,” I replied. “Also, it’s pronounced Earth and I think we’ve known each other long enough that you can stop pretending you don’t know that.”
“Amaryllis Penndraig is everything that the equalists rail against,” said Fenn. “She is basically privilege incarnate, born with power vested in her by her bloodline and by the vast sums of money her ancestors have accrued. Most of that money comes, directly or indirectly, from the heirlooms passed down from the time of Uther Penndraig. You see what I’m getting at? On Aerb, magic items aren’t like what you’re describing.”
“Except this one is,” I said with a nod at the clonal kit. “And there are other ways of limiting utility, if you wanted to. The teleportation key is extremely valuable, so valuable that we can’t really use it to make money because of the risk that someone would come after us and try to take it. Or with some of the others, maybe the market has already reacted to magic being able to do certain things, or a magic item is undercut by existing services, or something like that. The jar of fairies? We could use that to heal people and charge for that, but would we really be making that much money when a blood or bone mage could do the same?”
“Yes,” said Fenn flatly. “You understand that healing you wasn’t cheap, right? If I could set up shop somewhere selling dead fairies, I could live a comfortable life. Not a fancy life, but a comfortable one.”
“And you’d have me believe that you’d actually do that?” I asked.
“No, of course not,” said Fenn. “I’d get bored within a week. Mostly likely I’d pawn the work off to someone else and go for something bigger and better, but that’s me, right? You could give me a goose that lays golden eggs and I would probably get myself killed trying to get a second one. I suppose that’s why I’m out here in this abandoned castle trying to figure out a way to get back to civilization, instead of in Barren Jewel working a trade.” She sniffed. “I suppose that’s also why I’m on board for rescuing the princess.”
“Really?” I asked. “Then let’s go throw a glove out a window.”
Except that it wasn’t actually that simple, because things kept getting in my way. The first problem was finding the right kind of material to anchor to the glove. We ended up settling on thick, cabled wire, which took about thirty different iterations of looking in the clonal kit to get. Second was the problem of fashioning some way of attaching the glove that would absolutely ensure that the glove wouldn’t slip off once we threw it out the window. In the course of making a holder for the glove, my engineering leveled up, which led to …
“You have to practice it up,” said Fenn. “If your life were on the line, would you go up against someone with three swords when you could have ten swords by holding off a few hours?”
“Three levels and ten levels?” I asked. She nodded. “No, I guess not –”
“Then you have to make sure that the number in your head is as high as it will go before we try this, and we’re still doing a dry run first, with a different, non-magical glove,” said Fenn. “And stop looking at me like that, I know I’m being too cautious.”
“It’s not that,” I replied. “You’re being paranoid, that’s good, I just … didn’t expect it from you. I am a little worried about how much time we’re going to eat doing all this stuff, especially given what might be happening to Amaryllis.”
“She’ll keep, even if they resort to torture, which I don’t think she’d let it come to,” said Fenn. “I know you’re sweet on her, but we have to trust that she can hold her own. For now, stupid experiments with gloves.”
“She knows about the things we have,” I said. “All loyalty and emotion set to the side, the longer we wait, the more likely she is to reveal that we’re here, which means a repeat visit from the gold mage, which … probably doesn’t end well for us, does it?”
“Fuuuuck,” said Fenn. “Alright, point taken. But I’m not letting you lose this glove.”
Skill increased: Engineering lvl 10!
New Virtue: Material Analysis!
Material Analysis supposedly allowed me to see “weak points”, though I noticed nothing terribly obvious when I started looking around (which made me really hope that this wasn’t one of those things silently disabled by Verisim mode). It certainly didn’t flash red on anything or give me a targeting reticule. I could see the weak points of Fenn, the places where I could hit her to inflict the most damage, but I’d been able to see them before getting the virtue. Still, better to have than not.
Skill increased: Engineering lvl 11!
Skill increased: Engineering lvl 12! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat CUN.)
“I think now would be a great time to put more points into cunning,” said Fenn, when I informed her of this fact. That was when I realized that I hadn’t told her.
“I already spent those points,” I said.
She frowned at me. “Amaryllis got to you, didn’t she?”
“I wouldn’t put it like that,” I said. “We didn’t know exactly what we were going to face and I didn’t want to hold back when I’d already been having too many close calls, so … yeah, she talked to me, and I spent the points.”
“Ugh,” said Fenn. “And you didn’t end up spending them on something useful to our current situation, perchance?”
“No,” I said slowly. “I put them toward becoming a blade-bound.”
“You dummy,” huffed Fenn. “It was either cunning, knowledge, or luck, those were the three you should have done, and I have to tell you that luck is something this plan seems entirely dependent on. Doesn’t cunning say that it’s about being smart and solving problems? Isn’t that what we’ve spent the last however many hours doing? And I haven’t even agreed to this! I still think we’re probably better off just going for a walk.”
“I think we underestimated the thaum-seekers,” I said. “We ran up against one and couldn’t get out of trouble without calling dozens more toward us by using a limited resource. If that had happened while we were halfway across the desert, we would have all died. Do you think otherwise?” Some of that was down to my critical failure, but certainly not all of it.
“No,” said Fenn. “But I’m going to help train you up before we go, either way we decide on. You’ve got to get better with a sword.”
It was already set in my head though. I hadn’t just been doing nothing while I increased my engineering, I had been using tools and materials from the clonal kit to build a rocket, which was mostly done. I had a very slight advantage from having a short-lived stint in the school rocketry club (mostly at Arthur’s insistence) but I had no internet to consult for a guide, and the clonal kit either couldn’t or wouldn’t produce books for me to read on the subject. My plan was starting to get some details; build a rocket, give it wings, make sure that it can glide on its own, figure out how to get fifty miles of distance, and then —
“How’s it going to get anywhere near Barren Jewel?” asked Fenn. “I don’t trust your aim at something fifty miles away.”
“Radio,” I said. “Took a bit for the clonal kit to give me one that had its own power source, but eventually I got one from a ‘park ranger’. I’m not sure how to do it just yet, but there are broadcast towers in Barren Jewel, which we’re going to be flying towards –”
“Inside the magical glove,” deadpanned Fenn. She had done that test herself; yes, she could use it on herself, putting her into the extradimensional space and leaving the glove to drop to the floor.
“– and the fact that we’re flying toward the radio signal helps us, because I can set up reflectors on the glider that will allow totally analog alterations to the rudder orientation without anyone needing to control it. We don’t need pitch or roll, in theory, just yaw.”
Fenn stared at me. “Just how much did leveling up engineering help you?” she asked.
“That’s just the plan,” I said. “It’s the implementation that’s going to be tricky. You can say that you’ll set up circuit conditions all you want, but actually doing it, and in a way that can survive at least some of the unexpected … that’s a lot more difficult.”
“You wouldn’t have thought of all that this time yesterday though,” said Fenn.
“No,” I replied. “Definitely not. I think that engineering might be like magic, where just a little bit of training gets me past the first few years that I’d have to sink into the thing. I’m at fifteen with one-handed swords, but from what you said I’m only a bit above being competent. But for blood magic, I’m far past where Amaryllis ever was, and she was in the athenaeum for three years. If I got, say, the equivalent of a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering by raising it to twelve … I’m not sure.”
“Competence is on a scale,” said Fenn. “You’re better with a sword than most people who’ve ever held one. They’re not much used in armies anymore, but I’d favor you against the average foot soldier, before even taking into account your magical blade. You’re likely to surpass my ability soon. Of course, bows are more my thing, for obvious reasons, and you have a ways to go before you match me there.”
Not long after that, we finally threw the glove out the window after three different test runs to make sure that we could get it down past the barrier and then pull it back up. That all went smoothly, and no thaum-seekers showed up, which was the last barrier of resistance for Fenn. I think that fear of the thaum-seekers was what finally pushed her in my direction; it was clear now that we couldn’t fight off even one, not without using magic.