I ate from the fairy jar, squeezing their tiny bodies to crush their marzipan internal organs, until I was fully healed, back at 36/36 hit points. My health meter had increased in size when I’d put points into PHY, but I didn’t fully understand the pattern I was seeing, nor did I fully grasp what it meant to have health points, since I certainly didn’t feel like I had more survivability. That was a mystery for another time though, because Fenn and I went back over the wall (using the clonal kit to grab some clean robes) and into Barren Jewel. The warning on Sanguine Surge about sluggishness was definitely holding true, and that wasn’t just because of the blood loss I’d suffered from running four miles using it.
“We should find a different place to stay,” I told her. “Visit the old one, sure, check for messages there, but anything Amar – er, Mary knows, it’s got to be assumed compromised. I can see them asking her where she was staying, and her telling them because it was something that didn’t really matter.”
“We’re not going to stay at that hovel, thank you very much,” said Fenn. “No, you and I are going to live the good life. We’re stacked, remember?” She had her bow across her back and her full quiver, but the glove was too conspicuous, so had gone into her pocket. Within the glove was the box containing a fortune. We’d burned through a sizable amount of it paying the clonal kit to make various things for us, but that still left us flush with cash.
“I’m worried we’re going to need it to get Mary,” I said.
“You’re in no shape just now, you need rest,” said Fenn. “Why do you keep getting hurt so badly? Even with the fairies, you can’t keep from hurting yourself in ways that they can’t fix.”
“I saved both our lives,” I said. “I’d think that would get me a bit more credit.”
“I’m sure it was very heroic,” said Fenn. She frowned. “I was going to try being serious for a moment and thank you, but then it occurred to me that I could keep score instead. I saved your life, what, four times now? Against your — I’m being very generous here — one?”
“I am too tired to even think about it,” I said. “But I’m pretty sure that your count is off, because I should have two, including this one.”
“How so?” asked Fenn.
“Can we please find a place to stay first?” I asked.
Most of the temporary housing in Barren Jewel was for residents of the city. That made sense when I thought about the fact that teleportation cost the equivalent of $10,000 per passenger, which meant that it wasn’t a cost undertaken lightly. Barren Jewel wasn’t much of a tourist destination either, for obvious reasons, so most of the people who would have need of a hotel, motel, flophouse, or similar would be those who had been displaced for some reason or another and were in the process of finding a new place to live or waiting on construction or repairs. That was where we’d stayed on the first go-around, in a building with maybe twenty units whose owner probably prayed for calamities that would let him fill rooms.
But there were still people who teleported into this city, and those people didn’t always have the favor of someone with a great deal of power and a nicely furnished guest room, which meant that there was at least one place in Barren Jewel that catered to those of means. Fenn and I now counted ourselves in that group.
The first thing I noticed were the plants in the lobby.
I wasn’t counting the days, but it had been maybe two and a half weeks since we’d left the hellscape that was Silmar City and come to the different hellscape that was Barren Jewel and its surrounding environs. Both were exclusion zones, but at least the Risen Lands had plants, trees, and grass, some of it working its way up through the cracks in the sidewalk of the city or creeping into buildings. In the Datura Desert, nothing grew, and the blight extended into Barren Jewel itself. So I hadn’t seen a plant in quite some time.
Fenn gripped my arm and gently guided me away when I went to go look at one of the palm fronds in the corner. “I’ll excuse it this once, since you’re in rough shape,” she said in a low voice. “Don’t go poking things.”
She paid for our room in cash — well, she would have to, wouldn’t she, since Aerb didn’t have credit cards, because they were pre-computer? Except didn’t credit cards predate computers by a little bit, they used carbon paper and a machine that took impressions from the raised letters, or something like that. So it was entirely possible that there were credit cards in Aerb, I supposed. Even setting aside the plants, the lobby was stunningly presented, in a way that reminded me somewhat of the bathhouse. Was that a thing in Barren Jewel, to have ridiculously ugly exteriors hiding shining, clean scenes within them?
“We’ll be up in the room soon, darling,” said Fenn. “It’s been a long day,” she explained to the concierge. We had on fresh clothes, helpfully provided by the clonal kit, but we’d had nothing but sponge baths during our stay in Caer Laga. I’d never been big on baths, which felt too much like soaking in my own filth, but right now I would have given quite a lot to slip into a warm tub of water. The feeling of blood loss and overall sluggishness that was overcoming me were another reason not to invest too heavily into blood magic. I couldn’t spend my life like this.
Fenn led me to an elevator and we stood in silence next to an elevator attendant as we rose.
“Better than our last elevator ride by a fair sight,” said Fenn.
“Fewer deaths, certainly,” I replied.
The elevator attendant looked at me, but I hadn’t even managed to pique his curiosity enough for him to raise an eyebrow. Fenn rolled her eyes, but there was a slight smile on her face, and she slipped her arm into mine, though that might have been because I was swaying a bit.
When we got into the room, I flopped down onto the white cotton bed without bothering to change out of my robes. It wasn’t much past midday, but I felt like I could do with some sleep. It seemed like such a pleasant place for a nap too, with cream-colored walls, blue-colored trim, and smooth, slightly cool tiles. Instead of actually doing that, I pulled myself up into a rough approximation of sitting and looked at Fenn, who was undressing.
“Not wasting time now that we have a bed, are you?” I asked.
“This is not for you,” said Fenn as she stripped down to her underwear. “Unless …” she put her hand to her mouth and looked at me with wide eyes. She turned slightly away from me. “Are you propositioning me? Because I’m quite flattered, but –”
“Knock it off,” I muttered, looking away.
“Fine, fine,” she replied with a laugh. “I paid for hot, running water, and I’m going to take advantage of it.” She removed her underwear and stepped into the private bathroom, which she absolutely could have done in the other order. I heard the sound of a shower not long after and slumped back onto the bed, where I closed my eyes.
I had been invested with the Anyblade, Fenn had been invested with Sable, and we had both been invested with the jar o’ fairies and the clonal kit. Investiture was a complicated thing that varied from heirloom to heirloom, but I had been assured that we had at least a month left before we risked losing any of those four, and most likely we would have them until either Amaryllis cut a magical mental tether or some while after she had died.
(Heirloom entads were inextricably tied to the people who had inherited them, and they couldn’t be divested of them by anything short of death. This had all the obvious knock-on effects you would expect, like incentive to kill someone with a lot of heirlooms if you were the next in line, and a concentration of power in the hands of the few, and all kinds of other things like that. Worse, there was a grace period between when entads were created and when they became bound to a person or a line, which meant that entads concentrated in the hands of people with power and money, helping to create solid dynasties like the one that Amaryllis was a part of. In his lifetime, Uther Penndraig had amassed a huge quantity of them, one which the Lost King’s Court had been the beneficiaries of. Strangely, and as one of the grand and impossible things that Uther had made his stock and trade, he had untethered himself from his stockpile before his long trip, leaving everyone ever after wondering whether he had ever truly died, or whether he would return to Anglecynn in its time of need.)
I could take some solace in the fact that our four magic items continuing to function properly was very weak evidence that Amaryllis was still alive, somewhere in the city. The fact that we hadn’t been visited by a helicopter or gold mage also spoke in favor of her continued good health, because we were expendable if she were under pressure, especially given that our chances had looked grim. On the other hand, the fact that she hadn’t sent us rescue meant that she was still trapped.
We’d have to do some investigation on this gold mage Aumann, and figure out a way to either beat him or steal her away without him knowing, but we knew that he had a warder and a revisionist, probably some others as well, and that’s about where my chain of logic was when I drifted off to sleep.
I woke up from my cat nap when Fenn sat down on the bed beside me, still wet from her shower and with a towel wrapped around her. “Shower’s open for you, stinky hooman,” she said. “Get your rest after that’s done, so you don’t stink up the bed.”
“Don’t leave while I’m showering,” I said. “We have things we have to talk about.”
Fenn flopped down onto the bed. “I have bought this room with our hand-earned loot and intend to enjoy it, at least for a bit.”
I went into the bathroom, which was filled with the warm steam of Fenn’s shower, and turned the water on before closing the door and then stripping away my clothes. The robes were relatively clean, but the shirt was bloody and had gashes through it, and everything was soaked with sweat from the long run. The warm water of the hotel shower was the first time since the ill-fated bathhouse trip that I finally felt like I was actually getting clean, rather than just smearing sweat, dirt, and sand over my body. It was nothing like home, of course, since for one the water pressure wasn’t as good and for another the water had a faint smell to it that spoke of filtration systems that hadn’t gotten everything clear, but it was still a hot shower, taken in private. I rested my head against the tile of the wall and might possibly have fallen asleep like that, just for a few seconds.
When I came out, with a towel wrapped around my waist, Fenn was asleep on the bed, half-covered by a blanket but not enough to be modest, since she wasn’t wearing clothes. Beside her, on a small table that hadn’t been there before, was a metal plate with two large metal domes, what I had to assume was room service. I opened both of them and took the thing that looked like a burger with too-red meat over the thing that looked like a curl of fried something sitting in soup. I demolished the maybe-burger in no time flat, since it was vastly better than the street food in our first hotel room, rations on the road, and whatever we could convince the clonal kit to make for us in Caer Laga. The thick-cut fried vegetable wafers next to the maybe-burger soon joined it in my stomach. I was eyeing the fried soup thing when Fenn woke up.
“There’s food,” she said as she yawned and arched her back.
I talk a lot about how pretty Amaryllis is, and not as much about how pretty Fenn is, and I would rather just not mention either because they’re people beyond how attractive I find them. Comparing them is unfair to Fenn, plainly, because Amaryllis is just complementary to my tastes in a way that goes beyond how pretty she is in general. I thought there was a good argument for the look of Amaryllis being designed, but how fucked up was that to say of a woman, “Oh, she was designed specifically for me”? So even if that were true, I wouldn’t have said it.
Fenn was slender bordering on skinny, somewhat flat-chested, and not very muscular at all, though you wouldn’t have known that if you’d taken a punch from her, because elves laughed in the face of muscle mass, and half-elves at least gave the concept a chuckle. I had thought her scarred arms were pretty, before she’d told me her story, and I still thought that they were pretty, beautiful even, but it was tinted with a sense of “fuck those elves for leaving their mark on you”, and I knew that neither part of that was something that she wanted to hear.
I liked the freckles on her face, more now after days in the desert than when we’d first met, clustered around her cheekbones and across the bridge of her nose. I liked the shape of her ears, her slightly crooked and inhumanly white teeth, and it was all more than the sum of its parts, especially in the way that she smiled and joked. She was pretty, and I don’t want to diminish that by comparing her to anyone.
And this is a really long way of explaining why I was, very briefly, staring at her tits, something that I would normally gloss over because you don’t need to know every little thing that goes through my mind, except that she caught me.
“Oh gods,” said Fenn, covering herself with an arm and laughing. “Were you actually propositioning me?”
I could feel myself blushing, not just because of the implication, but because I had gotten caught being unchivalrous. I turned away from her and looked at the food. “It’s not — I’ve explained that things are different in my culture, I can’t — you could be more accommodating to me.”
“Oh I bet you’d like me to be a lot more accommodating,” laughed Fenn. “If you catch my drift? That works as a human expression, for a woman to accommodate a man? As a sex thing?”
“You know damned well that it does,” I said. The flush in my face wasn’t going away. “Just eat your food.”
“On a scale from 0-9, how in love with me are you?” she asked. She leaned forward and grabbed her plate of food and some silverware, to eat on the bed, still without putting clothes on.
Where 0 is not at all in love, and 9 is eternally devoted, heart and soul …
“Are you actually thinking about the answer?” asked Fenn, her mouth half full of food.
“Do you have to undercut absolutely everything?” I asked. “Can’t we just have a serious conversation for once instead of making a joke out of everything?” I was unaccountably annoyed by her just then. I had enough insight now that I knew at least part of the answer, which was that if things were a joke, then they didn’t have to be serious. Her biography had said as much.
“Joon, we have had so, so many serious conversations,” she replied. “Even on the first day we met, when I told you that Quills and company were going to kill us all, do you remember that? I didn’t try to make a joke of it.” She was eating while she talked, speaking around the food in her cheeks.
“Yeah, but,” I started, then stopped, then, “Death shouldn’t have to be on the line for us to have a serious conversation.”
“About this?” asked Fenn. “Even if you’d started to form some pitiable attachment to me, and you could get over the elements of me that are more elf than human –”
I turned back to face her. She was still naked, with a blanket covering her lap and her meal sitting on top of it. She was holding a spoon in one hand, halfway to her mouth, and the fingers of her other hand had soup on them, so she was holding them slightly away from her to keep them from getting on anything. It was kind of ridiculous, and took the wind out of my sails. She watched me for a bit, then continued moving the soup to her mouth and slurped it loudly.
“I’ve explained that we have elves on Earth,” I said. “I’ve told you, elves are, as Tolkien conceived them, basically perfect beings, timeless, practically immortal, just a step removed from angels. Maybe everyone here hates the elves, because of war crimes or just the typical elvish snootiness taken up to 11, or they’re dicks here, but on Earth people like elves, they want to be elves, it’s so common for people to be attracted to elven features that there are whole groups of other people who take it upon themselves to argue that elves represent unrealistic beauty standards, and sure, all that is taking place on the internet … the, uh, global internet of connected electronic computers, sorry, I lost the thread.”
“You were saying that in your culture, being attracted to a half-elf would be a very natural thing, not a perversion,” said Fenn.
“Was that your problem in the past?” I asked. “People who chased after you because you were a half-elf, rather than who you were as a person?” That I could see some Earthian parallels to.
Fenn shrugged. “Maybe at loyalty level seven I’ll tell you,” she said. “And we’ve been ignoring the elephant who’s not in the room, who we’re still thinking we’ll rescue. That’s the real kicker there, the one that would make a true, serious conversation about ‘feelings’ painful for me and awkward for you, if we just laid everything out there like dwarves.”
“Is that a thing that dwarves do?” I asked, partly from curiosity and partly to change the subject. I couldn’t remember how the conversation had started, exactly, but I had lost my footing pretty badly somewhere along the way, and was feeling lucky that her loyalty to me hadn’t gone down.
“Oh yes,” said Fenn. “Dwarves are notoriously blunt about how they see the world.” She slurped some more soup. “I’m willing to make you a deal. I’ll try to respect the culture you come from and its standards of modesty, so long as it’s not too much trouble for me, which it shouldn’t be during the course of us trying to figure out how to help Amaryllis. I know, by now, what gets those particular gears turning in your head, so I will be a gentlewoman and avoid intentionally turning them. In return, I want a light and airy time from you, or as much of one as we can have when plotting against a gold mage and trying to rescue an ally who may or may not be under threat of unspecified tortures.” She paused. “Also you owe me a favor.”
“You just tacked that favor on at the end,” I replied.
“Well the deal seemed a bit too sweet otherwise,” replied Fenn. “I’m giving you one thing that you want and another that you should want.”
“You already owe me a favor,” I said.
“So?” asked Fenn. “We owe each other favors then, that’s fine, do favors cancel out in human culture?”
“No idea,” I said. “Okay, deal.” I stuck out my hand and she shook it, using her soup covered fingers and smiling, then with a pleasant smile lifted her blanket up to cover herself more completely.
None of that actually settled anything, but it did shelve it, at least for a bit.
Let’s talk comic books for a bit, shall we?
Superman created the flying brick archetype of superhero: fast, strong, nigh-invulnerable, and capable of flight. This was all well and good, but it wasn’t at all thematic, and Superman, as well as his successors, routinely defied physics in ways that their powers shouldn’t have allowed. There were geeks who shook their heads in frustration at Superman catching a woman falling from the sky, because obviously her back should have snapped from the force of stopping either way. Or Superman would catch a plane whose engines had catastrophically failed, and these geeks would make long comments about how the chassis of a plane was not at all capable of supporting the entire plane at a single point in its midsection.
The solution to both the thematic problems and the physics problems was to boil Superman and his ilk down to a single, unified power: tactile telekinesis. Superman wasn’t actually invulnerable, he just had a telekinetic force field that projected a few millimeters from his skin, which counteracted forces against him. Superman wasn’t actually powerful, he just subconsciously leveraged his extremely short-range telekinetic power to put force behind his punches. He flew by using telekinesis on himself. He could extend his telekinesis to cover people, applying force to their entire body in order to prevent their death by acceleration, and he could cover a plane to ensure its structural integrity.
Gold mages had tactile telekinesis, and when I’d heard that, Superman had been the first thing that I thought of. (It was Superboy, not Superman, who actually had tactile telekinesis, and there were lots of problems trying to apply it to Superman specifically, simply because of his other powers like laser eyes or cold breath, and the need for him to instinctively use it in certain ways without actually knowing what it was he was doing.)
The reason they were called gold mages is that this power of theirs was tied directly to the amount of gold they owned, where ownership was defined by a magical ritual performed on the gold once per month. Gold mages almost always had vaults that they could securely store their gold within, which they could return to on a monthly basis to re-up their claim of ownership.
This had all been explained to me by Amaryllis back during my weeklong crash course on Aerb.
“So what do we need for me to learn gold magic?” I’d asked.
“At minimum, you’d need a pound of gold,” Amaryllis had said. “The ritual to claim the gold isn’t exactly secret, but it would take some time, effort, and money in order to find a copy. After that, twenty minutes of your time to go through the motions, which would give you some small amount of power. But even if we had the amount of money necessary to induct you into the ranks of the gold mages, there’s a catch, which is that gold magic expects much from you, first and foremost that you maintain some level of gold within your vault, but with some other demands that you’d have to meet.”
“And if I can’t or won’t?” I’d asked.
“You can get locked out of the magic forever,” Amaryllis had replied. “At this time, I don’t think pursuing that type of magic is a viable option, nor are we likely to tangle with one. Let’s move on to flower magic.”
“So, let’s say that I want to kill a gold mage,” I said to Fenn the next morning, after both of us got some much-needed sleep (in the same bed, but (somewhat) thankfully without contact). We had ordered room service again, and I’d managed to get a very normal-looking breakfast of bacon and eggs, even if the bacon was sliced half an inch thick.
“Hold onto your horses,” said Fenn. “Why do you want to kill a gold mage?”
“I … Amaryllis is being held by one,” I began, but I stopped when I saw her point. “You think that we should go in, get her, and then get out.”
“I think we need to listen to the word on the street,” said Fenn. “Killing that gold mage is not our end goal. I know that’s probably the best path for you to get another level up, and gods help us that might be necessary, but the thing we are actually trying to accomplish is getting Amaryllis back to us. Mostly to make sure that our shiny toys keep on working.”
“Hypothetically,” I said slowly. “If our goal were to kill Aumann, how would we do it? Enough bullets or arrows to overwhelm his power? Forcing water down his throat to choke him out? Poison? Something else?”
“Forcing water down his throat doesn’t work when he can just force it right back up,” said Fenn. “Hitting him hard enough would work, but we’ll have to get some measure of his power, which again, is the value of getting the word on the street. As for poison, he’d probably have found some solution to that.”
“Blood or bone magic?” I asked. Both seemed likely candidates.
“I can’t say for sure,” shrugged Fenn. “Most likely he’s got a few heirlooms at auction.”
“Shit,” I said slowly. “So it’s possible that he’s not only got a version of Superman’s powers, but he also has other magic that we don’t know about, some of which he would have bought specifically to counter plans intended to kill him, and which we wouldn’t necessarily know about until after we actually tried those plans.” I thought back to Count Gardner, my NPC who had failed to kill the party for a very similar reason.
“And, naturally, we don’t have to or particularly want to kill him,” said Fenn. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind it, and I’m sure that you want your points, but he’s probably going to be a bitch to kill, which means why risk it?”
“Levels are how I get better,” I replied. “Even with that aside … in a game, I wouldn’t expect to go in for a rescue mission and not face the named antagonist.”
“In a game, would Amaryllis have been taken from you?” asked Fenn.
“Maybe,” I replied. “It depends on the game. I’m not saying that we have to kill him, just that when we’re asking questions, it might be good to keep in mind that we might be forced to at some point. I would rather fight him on my own terms than see him show up right after we’ve unlocked her cell door, or whatever.” I rubbed my chin. “Void weapons hurt him?”
Fenn sighed. “Yes. Anything that’s not directly counteracted by force. Or we could cut off his connection to his gold, though I’d think that’s the first thing anyone would try, so it’s what he’s most prepared for, especially if he’s got a pet warder of some skill to make his vault secure. And I hate to belabor this point, but you don’t seem to be getting it. We shouldn’t fight him. There’s a reason that we didn’t do it in Caer Laga. Joon, do you remember those ball bearings he held up to us? He could have shot those at the speed of a bullet. A bullet fired at him? That would just come to a stop against his skin.”
“Okay,” I said. “Point taken.”
“Finally,” Fenn huffed. “What you and I need to do is go out into the world and gather information. The radio says that peace and order has been restored to the city after the Risen Bile were put down, so we should be able to use a little less caution when moving about.”
“So, what, we need to know whether Amaryllis is alive, where she’s being held, what kind of forces or resources Aumann has at his disposal, anything else?” I asked.
“You’re forgetting one thing,” said Fenn. “A thing that I’d like us to do first, as it happens.” She cracked her knuckles and gave me an evil smile. “There’s a tattooist who has some explaining to do.”