It would be another three days before we were ready to go, which meant that Plan Glove-Rocket didn’t actually save us any time as compared to walking through the desert, but at least part of the delay was from all the time that Fenn wanted me to spend training. I didn’t like it one bit; I kept imagining that the worst was happening to Amaryllis and had to reassure myself that she was tough enough to handle things on her own.
“Hooman, it was your dumb choice to focus on blades,” said Fenn. She held a slightly rusted sword from the armory in her hand. “I’ll be damned if we’re going to try this escape plan without you as good as you can possibly be.”
“I’m already better than you,” I said. I was keeping the Anyblade as a simple longsword, but some testing had showed that I was equally proficient with it in any form it took. The skill was One-Handed Weapons, not simply swords, which meant that I could wield an axe or dagger with equal ease. The feeling of switching between them was a little bit unsettling, since I had muscle memory for things I had never done before.
“Yes, you’re better than me now,” said Fenn. “But you’re not going up against me, you’re going up against a suicidally ferocious beast that cut off two of your fingers and almost killed you last time.”
That was a fair point, and I kept my complaints to myself after that. I even embarked on some independent training of my own, which was to test the limits of blood magic as far as putting speed into my stride. All it really took was using Sanguine Surge with every step and trying to angle myself so that I was gaining horizontal speed instead of vertical. I had hoped that I would unlock another spell, but apparently it didn’t count. It was six drops of blood for every step, which meant that I could actually suffer from blood loss if I tried to run all out. I didn’t get a good grasp on my top speed, mostly because the longest corridors in Caer Laga were curved and the largest rooms were too short.
It wasn’t all building things and training though. We took breaks for eating and sleeping, naturally, but we also stopped to talk.
“Can I ask about the scars?” I asked. We’d finished a bout of sword-fighting and were both somewhat sweaty and breathing hard. I had capped out Parry at 18, as planned, which revealed its primary stat as SPD, a minor (and predictable) bit of new information.
“You can ask,” said Fenn. “And by my measure, just did.”
“You said that they were non-functional,” I said. “I wasn’t told much about scar magic.”
“Oh,” said Fenn. “For a moment I was worried that you were trying to get to know me.”
“I was giving you an out,” I shrugged. “I do want to know about you, but not if it’s stuff that you don’t want to talk about. So you either say, ‘here’s some stuff about scar magic’ and then I take a hint and drop it, or you tell me something personal.”
“Can this count as the favor I owe you?” asked Fenn.
“Not a chance,” I replied with a laugh. “You know, I’m really worried that we’re going to get in a fight someday, and you’re going to stop there with a nocked arrow and ask me if shooting the guy charging at me is a favor.”
“Oh, now that is a good idea,” said Fenn. She chuckled softly, then was silent for a bit. I let the silence breathe and gave her time to collect her thoughts. “Elves,” she began, then stopped, frowning. “People say that elves stop aging when they reach maturity, but that’s not the half of it. When an elf hits about forty years old, that’s adulthood, and adulthood means that their physical form is set for life, unless someone cuts off their hand or brands them or — you know, that sort of thing. Humans? They change all the time, put on muscle, put on fat, get skinny from malnourishment, they tan, they sunburn, all sorts of things. Elves can get stronger or whatever, they can die from not eating, it’s just that their body does not change, not ever.”
She let out a puff of air. “So anyway, scar magic. The short answer is that you get scars on your skin and they give you abilities. It’s a form of passive magic, a pretty powerful one. You go through the pain of this scarring in very specific patterns, and when you’re done and they’ve healed, you can put your fist through stone or leap up a few stories into the air. The problem with it, aside from the perfection of technique needed to do the scarring right, is that the scars themselves need to be positioned properly upon the skin, and if the skin changes too much, the magic gets lost.”
“So elves use it more than other races,” I said.
“I’m tempted to say that only elves use it, but I don’t really know,” said Fenn. She sat up some and took off her shirt, revealing her scarred arms in all their glory, their curving, organic looking patterns that must have taken a master to do properly. They were pretty, in their own way, but I wasn’t about to say that to her until after she’d finished her story. “The different types of elves have their own ways of doing things, but among the wood elves it’s a rite of passage. You get your magic scars when you come of age, to say that you’re now unchanging, and anyway, it plays into this cultural thing called ‘fäsh’ that — well, it’s complicated, but the elves are really big on things staying the same.”
She frowned. “The elves hated me. A lot of my childhood was basically meant to torture me, and I guess that I can only be thankful that a lot of it washed over me because I didn’t fully understand elvish culture. The scars though … I knew that I wasn’t going to ever be perfect and unchanging like them, I had freckles, for fuck’s sake, I had to cut my hair every so often, like, duh, I’m not an idiot, the scars were just going to be scars on me. And I wasn’t even forty, I was seventeen, but they wanted to spit in my face so they decided that I would take the rite early. I refused. They drugged me and did it anyway.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“The worst part was that it worked, for the space of about a week,” Fenn continued. “I was so strong, so fast, and it felt so good. Then my skin changed, just a bit, and the scars lost their power, and I’ve been living with them as ornamental ever since. It’s a brand, basically, saying ‘this one, she’s not an elf’.”
“I’d say ‘fuck the elves’ but I worry that you’d take it the wrong way,” I replied.
“No, fuck the elves,” said Fenn. “Not that anyone else is that much better. I grew up getting lots of speeches from elves about how humans were terrible, and lots of demonstrations from humans determined to prove the elves right.” She stood up and stretched. “So that’s the deal with the scars, satisfied?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks. It’s sometimes hard to … to know what you’re thinking, whether you’re just saying things for a joke.”
“Me?” asked Fenn. “Psh, no, never.” She paused slightly. “Did I get a loyalty bump?”
“No,” I replied. “Were you thinking about that?”
“Well, it crossed my mind,” said Fenn. “I never tell that to anyone, I usually say that I was mauled by a bear. I just thought, you know, embarrassing personal trauma, that’s gotta be worth at least a point, right?”
“I think my loyalty to you probably went up a few points,” I said. “But the game doesn’t track it going that direction.”
Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 8!
Fenn gave me a warm, genuine smile, which she hid by putting on her shirt. I declined to tell her about the loyalty increase, partly because I was worried that it would undercut what I had said. I wasn’t trying to game the system like she had been, but maybe she would see it like that.
I ended up building an entire second glider, work that went much faster than the first one, especially given that I now had what was basically a workshop full of tools and parts in the main dining hall of Caer Laga. It ate up more time, during which I was particularly worried that we’d hear the sound of a helicopter in the distance, or, since gold mages could use their telekinesis to fly, that we’d simply see Aumann walking down the halls. Neither of those things happened though, and I launched the first rocket-glider out the highest window we could find.
We watched as it shot off into the distance, using spyglasses (helpfully provided by the clonal kit) to track it. I was faintly surprised that I was able to judge how far away it was, but I had the Range Finder virtue, which apparently extended to looking at rockets. Eventually I lost track of it, when it became too small to see, but it had been going in a straight line even after the propellant was spent.
“Shit,” said Fenn. “Are we actually doing this then?”
“Yes,” I replied. I could feel my hands shaking. If I were DM, and my players tried something like this, I’d allow it, wouldn’t I?
“All we need is sunlight,” said Craig. “We have the linked portals, right? So we just hold onto one of them and get the other into direct sunlight.”
“Range is a mile,” said Reimer. “London is cloaked in fog out to much farther than that.”
“Okay, so we just send the portal up instead,” replied Craig.
“How?” asked Arthur. “We can’t fly. I know we talked about one of us becoming a vampire and infiltrating their side, but that doesn’t help us in this specific case because we’d have to fly into the sunlight.”
“Step one, steal a cannon,” said Craig. “Step two, point it straight up. Step three, fire one half the portal instead of a cannonball.”
“While we’re inside, fighting Dracula?” asked Arthur. “I guess we could get someone to do it for us, timed to the bells of St. Mary’s …”
“Joon, how high up does the magical fog go?” asked Reimer. “Also, how high up could we shoot a cannon?”
“Three hundred yards is maximum range for a Napoleonic 12-pounder, and the fog rises up to about 300 feet, meaning that St. Paul’s Cathedral just pokes out over it,” which is where I’d planned for the climax of the arc to take place, but I guess we’re not doing that.
“Okay, easy peasy,” said Craig.
“Except for the part where we’re basically subjecting a magic item to ballistic velocities,” said Reimer.
“What kind of a roll would I need to make to know whether the portal would survive?” asked Tom.
“Knowledge arcana,” I replied. He rolled and told me 19. “You think that it would probably survive the firing, especially if you take the time to magically reinforce it, but you have no way to control its descent or prevent it from landing in the Thames or similar.”
“Okay, so, we can’t test it and we have one shot, but it’s certain death if it works,” said Reimer, pinching the bridge of his nose. “And we’re also going to probably lose the portal rings, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay given their restrictions. By my calculations we’ll need some kind of parachute to slow it down once it’s at the apex …”
They agreed on a plan, and moved on to the next things, which was getting a cannon from somewhere and finding out a way to sneak into Whitehall, where Dracula had set up shop. In the meantime, I was trying to figure out what to do about this cockamamie scheme of theirs. I couldn’t just say that it flat out worked, because then they’d only succeed by DM fiat, and I couldn’t have them fail either, for the same reason, but I’d never liked turning major moments on a roll of the dice, not when we were so far outside the bounds of the systems we were playing in.
So I decided to split the difference.
Fenn had sucked everything up into Sable, and we both wore our breathing gear, which we’d gotten from thinking “pearl diver” at the clonal kit. I touched the glove, which was set into rocket/glider, and Fenn closed her eyes in thought. Ten seconds later, I was in the void.
I don’t think I can properly describe how terrifying that was. Sable was invested in Fenn, not me, which meant that everything I had set up was going to have to be done by her. I trusted her, but I still would have preferred to have been the one to set everything in motion. I was properly equipped for the interior of the glove this time, and spent some time looking around, just to take my mind off of what was going on outside. I had a pocket watch, a flashlight, and the Anyblade, along with a small waterskin. Across my chest was a bandolier with five dead fairies in it. The flashlight was mostly so that I could see without using Aarde’s Touch; I wanted to be in peak condition when we got out of the glove.
We had independently tested everything that we could. I’d spent some time with the radio reflectors sweeping them back and forth across Barren Jewel, watching the rudder adjust itself in response. I had spent an hour inside the glove with the breathing equipment on, just to make sure that I wouldn’t suffocate or get the bends. That still left a lot of area uncovered. We didn’t know for certain that the glider would be able to make it to Barren Jewel. We didn’t know that the mechanisms I’d put in place would allow us to stop. We didn’t know what would happen if the glove were destroyed, but we couldn’t test that either.
A look at my watch showed that a minute had passed, which meant that we were probably off to the races, flying through the sky at ludicrous speeds as we burned through our propellant. I tried to stay calm as a feeling of claustrophobia came over me. Getting out now would mean plummeting down into the desert sand, which meant that the things I had with me were the totality of what was available to me until it was safe to get out of the glove — and there was no information from outside coming in to us, so the only thing that we could do was time it.
Achievement Unlocked: Outside the Box
Achievement Unlocked: To Infinity and Beyond!
I stared at those two messages for a bit, trying to decipher them. The Buzz Lightyear one was probably because I was flying, though this was a world with planes, so that didn’t seem so exceptional to me, and I had already done a skydive right at the start of the game, which if you watched Toy Story was the kind of “falling with style” that they most often referenced.
“Outside the Box” worried me a bit. Was the game making a comment on my solution to escaping from Caer Laga to complete the Exit Strategy quest? And if it was, what was the “intended” solution, if there was one? How was “Outside the Box” being said? I didn’t have a firm enough grasp on the game’s sense of humor to know whether that was something it would say sarcastically.
So I spent some time thinking about that, then tried to let my mind wander when I wasn’t looking down at my pocket watch. We had agreed on an hour, by which time the glider should definitely have crashed, which meant that it would be safe to exit. In theory, the glider sitting on the desert dunes would be safe from everything but an errant thaum-seeker, so it didn’t matter too much if we left right after the crash or after half an hour. I was sitting in the void, breathing air from a metal cylinder, but I could still feel that opening waiting for me, and I wasn’t dead, so I at least had that going for me. It was claustrophobic, but it was also a little bit calm, right up until the half hour mark.
Quest Progress: Exit Strategy – Your homemade rocket glider has crashed five miles short of Barren Jewel, thanks to a bit of errant sand in the rudder. While the thaum-seekers haven’t been alerted to your presence yet, they’ll be coming for you as soon as you step out of Sable.
My heart started racing as soon as I saw that. It had an unusual amount of specificity, down to the name we’d given the magic glove. More than anything that had happened thus far, this felt like the hand of a Dungeon Master reaching down to set things up for me. Would I have allowed the rocket glider to work, if I were DM? Well, yes … but I would add in a complication. When Craig had wanted to shoot the portal ring up into the sky above the magical fog so that they could use the other end to shine sunlight at Dracula, I had decided that it would work … but not completely, not enough that the encounter itself was trivial.
Alvion’s Word was the name for the magic that protected all of Barren Jewel, and it projected a mile out past the city walls. That meant that we had roughly four miles to go, four miles across hot sand dunes, with thaum-seekers that would be on us as soon as we left the glove. How long had we had, from when Fenn had fired her artillery shot to the others showing? Long enough for me to heal Amaryllis, long enough for Fenn to climb up and keep watch, and it had felt short, but I was rushing and under pressure, so … a low single-digit of minutes?
I moved faster than Fenn when I used my blood to run, and she wouldn’t have any reason to come out of the glove for another half hour, since she wasn’t getting any messages directly from what I’d have to describe as being my own personal god. I could wait and exit the glove with her, but she would just have to go right back in for me to carry her, and if our timing was off, we’d burn valuable seconds when I could be running.
I shrank the Anyblade down, small enough to once again fit in my mouth, its blade as small and blunt as it would allow. I unclipped the waterskin and unbuckled the tank of air. Was I really doing this? Trying to outrun a creature I knew could exceed a hundred miles an hour?
I stepped out from the extradimensional space of the glove, and the things I’d unstrapped came crashing down. The glider was half-buried in the sand, but the vantablack glove was sitting exposed, and I pulled it from its casing in a single fluid motion, then put all the motion of my blood into my legs to climb the dunes and get my bearings.
As soon as I saw the smudge of Barren Jewel on the horizon, I leapt again, trying to get as much horizontal distance as possible. I landed on top of another dune and took a moment to get my footing, then jumped again, trying to get into a rhythm, but it was difficult, because the dunes were unevenly spaced. Three more jumps though and I was clear to run on a flatter stretch of sandy ground.
I was surprisingly fast, even given the experiments that I had done in Caer Laga. There I hadn’t had much room to get up to speed, but on the desert flats it was easy to add on more velocity. Before long, the biggest impediment wasn’t the way the sand stole the force of my feet, but instead the air resistance. I remembered reading that for cars at low speed the tires provided the majority of the friction, but that fell away at higher speeds, when it was all about trying to move air out of the way. Cars were designed with airflow in mind, and I was just a muscular teenager without the aid of modern airflow designs.
I looked behind me just in time to see a thaum-seeker racing after me, its clawed feet only briefly stepping on the tops of the dunes I’d left behind. I had no idea how fast I was going, but his relative speed made it seem like I was practically standing still. I pulled the Anyblade from my mouth as I ran and reshaped it so that it was a thin dagger in my hand, small enough that it had little weight to it. I was trying to increase my speed as well, but the air seemed too thick, and any effort was wasted on it. (So why wasn’t it a problem for the thaum-seekers? Magic, probably, those snaggle-tusked bastards.)
The big problem (aside from the thaum-seeker and all his buddies surely right behind him) was that I couldn’t watch him and keep my eyes on the ground ahead of me at the same time, and I was moving fast enough that I barely knew where I was going to step before I laid a foot there. I started bounding as the thaum-seeker got closer, using the brief time I was in the air to look back and judge his approach. On the last jump I landed just ahead of him and lunged with the full weight of my blood magic to the left —
— just barely in time enough to Dodge him as his clawed hand swept past me, and like I’d seen at the cliffs, these things had little ability to control their monstrous momentum. He went skidding across the sand, out ahead of me, and tumbled across the ground as he tried to dig his claws into the sand.
But by now there were others visible, converging on the magic that I was putting out, and when I looked at Barren Jewel I could see that I was still two miles away, which meant a mile to safety, which meant … well, that I was going to be sliced to ribbons unless I did something drastic. They were moving too fast and just as I could get crit successes, there were crit failures too, the last one I’d gotten while running enough to twist my ankle.
I dug deep into a well of power I really hadn’t wanted to touch. There was magic in my blood, magic that lay latent until I tapped it, but I was already tapping it as hard as I could. I grit my teeth and focused on another source of latent magic: my bones.
I sucked power from my ribs one by one, tapping each of them for speed, and the burst of movement I got from them was intoxicating. It wasn’t just velocity though, it wasn’t speed, it was SPD, the governing attribute for dexterity, grace, and nimbleness. It wasn’t like time was slowing down, but instead like I had a better knowledge of how to use every second available to me. Each rib drained left me feeling slightly hollow, and each was accompanied by a message about an affliction, but I didn’t waste my time reading them because another stolen glance behind me showed that I still wasn’t safe, and just like that I ran out of ribs to pull dry. But now I was going too fast, tearing my way through the air that was solid as a wall trying to stop me, and if I lost the SPD I was certain that I would tumble and fall, so I started pulling from the fingers of my left hand, extracting power from each knuckle in turn, and when those were done, the bones that lay under the palm.
I had finished the bones of my left hand just as I felt a cold pain on my back — another message at that — and I pitched forward, into the sand, scraping my face across it as I suffered the equivalent of a major motorcycle accident while going freeway speeds. When I came to a stop, my back was burning with pain and my face was thoroughly abraded, but a wild look toward the thaum-seekers showed that they weren’t after me anymore. I stopped to read the long message printed on my eyes.
Quest Complete: Exit Strategy – Safely within the protection of Alvion’s Word and in no danger of starving, you’ve made your way back to Barren Jewel. If safety isn’t what waits for you there, then at least it’s a different, more human kind of danger.
I slumped back onto the ground and with a weak hand reached into my bandolier to take out a fairy and eat it, then again, and again, until I had eaten all five, each one sealing wounds. My breathing slowly came back down to normal and my heart stopping threatening to explode in my chest, but I felt hollow inside. To my surprise, my hand and ribcage felt no worse the wear for having been drained with bone magic, but at the same time, I could feel that there was no longer any magic left there. I checked the glove to make sure that it was okay, then lengthened my Anyblade so it was usable, thankful that I hadn’t had to try fighting. After three seconds, I had my menu open to check on what had happened to my bones, but all that greeted me was this:
Affliction: Drained Bone (x51)
After some time had passed with me laying on the sand, I got to my feet and started walking toward Barren Jewel, which was still a mile away. The quest had triggered early, because I could very easily see myself dying out here, especially if I hadn’t had the fairies for some quick (if incomplete) healing. I had also lost a full six thousand drops of blood, some from running and some from the cut on my back, and the fairies hadn’t restored any of it.
What I really wanted was a level up, to feel that golden taste, to be refreshed in body and spirit. They didn’t remove every affliction, and I was skeptical that they would take care of something as drastic as using my own bones for fuel, but just to feel it again, if only for a moment … wasn’t this a major quest? Didn’t I deserve it?
I was a hundred steps from the walls of Barren Jewel when Fenn popped out of the glove, which I’d been carrying, and landed on her butt in the sand. She looked around for a moment, then took off her breathing mask and grabbed the glove from me, which she slipped on with a sigh of satisfaction.
“We did it!” she shouted. “What the hell happened to you?”