Grakhuil Leadbraids was at the Impish Inn before us, and when we arrived he led us into a back room with a nod to the barkeep and a grimace at the caged imp that served as the tavern mascot.
“I sold my profession for this room,” said Grak with a sniff as he sat down in one of three chairs arranged around a table. I noticed, but didn’t comment on, the booster seat that gave him an extra few inches. There wasn’t much room to move inside the room, but it was enough for us. Grak had papers spread out on the table, most of them with drawings on them. “We should be safe here, as safe as a warder can make any place on short notice. No sound will leave these walls.”
I had stayed up late reading The Commoner’s Guide to Warding Magic, enough to get some sense of the boundaries a warder had to work with. There were lots of different types of magic in Aerb, and since warding was countermagic at its heart, warding against “latent magic” meant that wards could extend into other areas that didn’t seem, on the face of it, to be magical. There were velocity mages, water mages, wind mages, vibrational mages, steel mages, flower mages, revision mages, the list ran on and on, and on top of that, there were individual “spells” that were independent of any school, plus magic inherent to exclusion zones, plus magic only available to monsters, plus unique magics inherent in magic items. The block against sound was, I figured, some kind of barrier against latent vibrational magic.
“I have seen as much of Trifles Tower as I could from the outside,” said Grak. Warders had warder monocles, which let them physically see the wards. “Sheriot placed strong wards on all entrances. There is a way for servants to get in which has weaker, sloppy wards I have already probed and can easily subvert. We are going to use the servants’ entrance without breaking the wards there. I will deal with any wards as we go up the tower. The two of you will kill anyone who gets in our way.”
Fenn cast me a look at the word kill. I’m sure the words ‘moral crusader’ were going through her head, but I wasn’t about to say anything that would get Grak in a huff. We needed him, and if he asked us to do something utterly immoral, like murder a maid who saw us, we could just refuse. Guards were a more morally grey issue; they wouldn’t even necessarily know that Aumann had Amaryllis, they might just be men doing their jobs … and I was pretty sure that I would hesitate before striking them down, but I would strike them down, non-lethally if at all possible. Even as the thought crossed my mind, ‘non-lethally’ seemed like a pipe dream.
“What about Aumann?” asked Fenn.
“We will wait until he’s away,” said Grak. “He always travels with his revision mage to cover for gaps in his gold magic. His warder will not be a problem if she is there.”
“And the others?” asked Fenn. “Word on the street is that he’s got a few other heavy hitters under his employ, still mage and velocity mage among them. The velocity mage, if he exists, would be quick to respond if they know we’re there. And I have to say I don’t like the idea that we’re just waiting for Aumann to leave.”
“Echert is his still mage,” said Grak. “He spends his days at the cheese factory. Lida is his velocity mage. She never goes inside Trifles Tower because of the existing wards against velocity there.”
Fenn grumbled in acknowledgement of Grak’s superior intelligence gathering.
“We should still get Aumann away ourselves,” I said. “I think we have the resources to set up a diversion for him, something that will pull him from the tower for a set amount of time. Gold mages love gold, right?”
Grak raised a thick eyebrow. “You have gold?” he asked. He looked to Fenn. “You have gold?”
Fenn sighed, making it sound more like a hiss of pain. “We’ve got three pounds,” she said. “For emergencies only.”
Grak ground his big, flat teeth, tensing. “He will sense it,” he finally said. “He will be drawn to it, if it’s close enough, long enough. Forced to it. Where is the gold now?”
Fenn dipped her hand down her shirt and pulled up the black glove, which she laid on the table. “There, for me to call out as needed. This is the item I told you about.”
Grak relaxed marginally, from high alert to just looking like he had a stick up his butt. “Can I test it?” he asked.
I wanted to give him a flat no, because Sable was not just a very useful magic item but contained the bulk of our current party loot, but Fenn tossed the glove over to him. Grak pulled a wand from beneath his furs and drew a single line across the table, then waved the glove back and forth across it.
(The wand was of a very elaborate make, and a staple of the warders; from what I had gathered, it was equivalent to a Jedi building their own lightsaber, except that warders were functionally useless without theirs, at least until they engaged in a complicated, months-long process to build a new one that was uniquely keyed to their soul. The other bit of warder kit was a monocle, which was a similarly involved process to build and let the warder see wards.)
When Grak was finished, he tapped the place in the table where he’d drawn the line, then tossed Sable back to Fenn, who slipped it on. “And?” she asked.
“The glove blocks the gold,” said Grak. Meaning that line was a weak ward against latent gold magic. Neat. “You’re right. We can set a trap to lure Aumann.”
“That’s like sixty thousand obols worth of gold that we’re basically giving away to the enemy,” said Fenn. “Am I the only one that has a problem with that?”
“We’re dead if this plan fails,” I said. Grak nodded.
“No,” replied Fenn. “You’re not thinking about failure the right way, there are lots of ways that the plan could end without us so much as having exposed ourselves. If we were to set up a distraction using our literally sixty thousand obols worth of gold, then we’re fully committed before we even get through the doors, which means that we can’t back out, not without blowing our funds.”
“You’re right,” I said with a frown. I looked to Grak. “It’s something about the call of the gold that will tell him where the gold is, right?” I asked. “Can you block that?”
Grak looked between the two of us and sniffed, then tugged on one of the braids of his beard. “You want to collapse the ward at a distance,” he said. “Clever.”
Loyalty Increased: Grak lvl -1!
I blinked at that. I needed a discreet way to close my eyes for a few seconds and check my character sheet. If Grak was a companion now — wait, if Grak had negative loyalty, then — I wasn’t actually sure what negative loyalty meant, but it didn’t seem like it was good. In the end, I decided that Fenn would just cover for me.
“Is he well?” asked Grak.
“He’s thinking,” replied Fenn. “He trained with the Elon Gar, but only for a fortnight before he was kicked out. The only real trick he learned was to think a little bit better by shutting out the world for a moment. No doubt when he opens his eyes back up, he’ll have something clever for us.”
Grakhuil Leadbraids was, indeed, listed under “Companions”, with a greyed out box where his biography should have been, and a -1 for loyalty. That was the first time that the game had given me a negative number, so hooray for firsts, except that Grak was actively disloyal to us, if I was reading the negative right. (Or he was so loyal that it had caused an integer overflow, but that didn’t seem likely.)
“We have three pounds,” I said. “We can set up three different locations around the city to distract Aumann with. Depending on how much he’s drawn to the gold, how well he can sense it, we should do some work beforehand, pulling gold in and out of the glove for brief periods of time and then moving on so that he gets used to the idea.” I turned to Fenn. “Have we pulled the gold out yet since … our arrival?”
“No,” said Fenn, rubbing her chin. “I’d imagine that there was a ward against gold in the place we picked it up then, to hide it from his senses?”
“You stole this gold,” said Grak with a nod. “Most would hide it so, if they had the resources.”
Neither Fenn or I particularly wanted to discuss our time at Caer Laga with the dwarf, for obvious reasons. I decided that I was going to pick up warding as soon as I had a month to devote to making the relevant equipment, because tripping over mostly invisible wards or dealing with ones that I had never seen before was not my idea of a good time. Of course, if Grak was a companion, then the rules I set down as DM long ago meant that he would have to have some way of actually having his character work with the party, instead of being doomed to a role as adversary.
“So we go around Barren Jewel, pulling gold out for long enough that he senses blood in the water, then putting it back,” said Fenn. “Then on the day of, Grak sets up wards around as many distinct piles of gold as possible, wards that will need a gold mage to break, and we send him on a scavenger hunt across the city while we climb the tower and go for the prize.”
“How much can the glove carry?” asked Grak.
“It has no known upper limit,” said Fenn with a satisfied smile.
“We’ll put all of the gold into it,” said Grak. “He will either degenerate or lose power completely. We can leave without ever having seen him.”
“He’ll know,” said Fenn. “First bar that leaves his vault, he’ll know, and that’s assuming his warder doesn’t trip you up and get the message that we’re in there, taking his stuff.”
“We could leave out a window,” I replied. “I know travel by glove is no one’s favorite, but … it’s doable. We could just flutter down to the ground and pop back out, no need for gas masks.”
“We don’t know who is going to be in the tower,” said Fenn, “Even if the big guy himself is out in the world, away from us, and his most powerful minions are gone, we don’t know what we’re going to find.”
“What do you suggest?” asked Grak.
“More time,” said Fenn. “Time to talk to people, time to get some intel, maybe, I don’t know, go to city hall and get some old permits that show the floor plans or something.”
“This is Barren Jewel,” said Grak. “Such things are not done here.”
Fenn deflated somewhat. “Why are people always suggesting that I come up with alternate plans?” she asked. “Doesn’t seem fair to me. I mean, I would suggest that we apply for jobs at Trifles Tower, but Aumann has already seen our faces, which means that we’d be banking on him either not recognizing us or just not showing up to vet a low level position, and odds are that wouldn’t even get us into the upper levels.” She looked at Grak. “And I doubt that he would allow a dwarf in his employ at all.”
Grak nodded. “Where exactly is the vault?”
“We lied,” I said.
“Joon, for the love of –” Fenn began.
“He’s flagged as companion,” I replied.
“You lied,” said Grak, prompting me to go on.
“Aumann is holding our friend, Princess Amaryllis Penndraig of Anglecynn, hostage,” I said. “He’s going to use his resources and her information to collect more money and more gold. We know where she is and we assume that his stash of gold will be near where she’s kept, and besides that, the top of his tower is the most likely place.” I was banking a lot on the fact that dwarves valued being forthright. “We need your help because we can’t do this without you. I think you need our help too, if you’ve been here for a month.”
Grak grumbled at that, thinking, while Fenn looked daggers at me. But it wasn’t exactly like I could duck out of our conversation with him in order to talk about whether or not we should bring him in, not just because it would be awkward but because having a private conversation would undermine the trust I was placing in him. What I really wanted, more than anything, was to get his loyalty up.
Loyalty increased: Grak lvl 0!
“I was right not to trust you,” he said, which was basically the opposite of what the game was saying. I kept waiting for a ‘but’, and it never came, because that was apparently all Grak had to say, except …
“Yet you’re still sitting at this table,” said Fenn.
“Your quest was to bring gold back?” I asked. “Was it any gold, or Aumann’s gold in particular?”
Grak shifted in his seat. “One thousand pounds is my penance to the clan,” he replied.
“Or about twenty million obols,” I said. “Alright, if you help us to rescue Amaryllis, we can provide that, if it turns out that there isn’t any gold in the upper levels of the tower. Obviously if the gold is there, you’ll break down the wards and we’ll rob him blind, but if it’s not, then Amaryllis Penndraig will have the ability to pay for your services.”
Fenn was still glaring at me, but Grak was looking a little more relaxed now. “You intended to deceive me,” he said. “We can work with each other, so long as we’re working in the same direction.”
Fenn raised an eyebrow at him. “Water over the bridge, just like that?”
Grak shifted in his seat. “It’s different, in dwarven culture,” he said. “Most of the other mortal species allow bad blood to perpetuate through retribution and mistrust.” He looked me in the eyes. “It marks us as naive to others.”
“Because it doesn’t scale well,” I said. I remembered that cultural trait; I’d given it to hobbits, not dwarves. “It works in smaller settings, where it’s important that you not have constant feuds and escalations, but in a city of a million people, you run into too many people that you can only ever expect to see once. The counterpoint to forgiving first offenses is that you judge second offenses harshly, but in the city that’s just not an option, because there’s no second offense for you to levy against.”
“Are you a student of dwarven culture?” asked Grak.
“No,” I replied. “Just a student of cultures generally.”
Loyalty increased: Grak lvl 1!
And I would like to be a student of dwarf culture, especially to understand how they resolve the inherent contradiction in a tit-for-tat-with-forgiveness strategy with sending people out to steal gold. “Dwarves have always interested me though.” I turned to Fenn. “I’m sorry I didn’t consult you first, but you have to understand how it would have looked if I had tried to have a private conversation with you before telling him the truth, right? It would have seemed like we were getting our stories straight.”
Fenn pinched the bridge of her nose. “All’s well that ends well. Are we still going ahead with the plan of hiking our way up the tower and spending our gold on distractions?”
“I’m open to better offers,” I replied. “We still have some time. We’ll want to watch Aumann to see how quickly he responds to the presence of gold in the city, do a few dry runs mapping out his movements.”
Fenn was pissed at me, as might have been expected. She didn’t bring it up when we finally left the back room at the Impish Inn, and I was content to let her stew about it while I tried to think about how the fight would go. She would call me a traitor, maybe, or say that I was naive, or … something like that, maybe, given what she’d said before. She hadn’t brought up the fact that Grak might be only pretending to work with us in order to sell us out, but I’d seen his loyalty go up twice, and that seemed proof enough against nefarious intent. His loyalty meter wouldn’t be rising while he was plotting against us, would it? (Would it?)
We moved through the city together, passing by people, shops, ugly buildings, and haphazard wires. We didn’t say anything to each other as we walked through the hotel lobby, and the only thing Fenn said in the elevator was our floor number. I sat in one of the room’s chairs while Fenn flopped out onto the bed, and I waited for her to raise her objections, which I was sure were going to be personal rather than professional. It was about the fact that I hadn’t consulted her, that was the source of her anger, this feeling of being unappreciated, certainly not the outcomes of the meeting, and only maybe some piece of ‘the ends were good but the risk was unacceptable’.
“How many companions are you going to have?” Fenn asked the ceiling.
“Uh,” I replied, because that wasn’t where I saw the conversation going at all. “Uther Penndraig had seven, so that’s not a bad guess.”
“So there are, maybe, four others left to find,” Fenn said to the ceiling. “Crap, I’m going to have to read that biography of Uther Penndraig, aren’t I? I’m going to have to figure out how they dealt with it.”
“With what?” I asked.
“With being caught up in your wake,” said Fenn. She sat up and looked at me. “You turned on a dime, because the game said so, and that means that we turned on a dime.” She sighed. “I’ve got whiplash, that’s all.”
“You wanted him to be a companion,” I replied. “You said that, when you first introduced him to me.”
“Sure,” said Fenn. “But I thought it would be us bringing him into the fold, not … this. Not you making a unilateral decision, and yes, I understand why you made that choice, why you thought it was important not to loop me in, and I have a good enough read on Grak that I think he’s actually pretty happy, but … I feel like I’m a side character.”
“You’re … worried about your place in the narrative?” I asked.
“Does loyalty ever go down?” asked Fenn.
“I haven’t seen it happen, no,” I replied. “Generally speaking … it depends, but generally speaking most games like to satisfy the need to see numbers get bigger, so no, generally loyalty goes up and not down.”
“Do you understand why, if I accept your version of reality, that might be terrifying?” asked Fenn.
“Because it’s not how people work,” I replied. “Yeah, I get it.”
“I think I should be more angry with you than I am,” said Fenn. “We talked about what our story was going to be with Grak and then you decided, in the moment, that you were going to tell him anyway, despite us having a whole conversation about how we weren’t going to do that. I was upset by that, but I could feel that anger fade, and by the time we left the tavern I was over it.”
I stared at her. “Wait, you’re mad at me because you’re not mad at me?”
“Ugh, it sounds so dumb when you put it like that,” said Fenn. She flopped back down on the bed.
“I get it,” I replied. “You know that there are changes in how I’m thinking, right? I put points into the mental stats and now I’m left second-guessing myself about what’s me and what’s been modified by the game. When I was putting that rocket together in the desert, I was trying my hardest not to think about how I knew how to do all these things, how much was pulled in from my experiences on Earth and how much was just inserted as-needed by the game itself. I doubled my insight and now when I think things about people, there’s always this temptation for me to think, oh, that’s the game feeding me information, screwing with my head. And if it’s not, then I was fundamentally, irreversibly changed on a core level.”
“And how do you deal with it?” asked Fenn, looking at the ceiling again.
“Mostly I don’t,” I shrugged. “I push forward, try not to think about it, focus on other things, do what needs doing. I don’t think it’s a question that has an answer, so … ignore it, I guess.”
From the angle I was looking at her, I could just barely see her smile at that. “It’s brilliant,” she said. “Ignore the problems, make jokes about them … a task I was purpose-built for.” Her smile faded. “I really hope that I wasn’t purpose-built for it.”
“Yeah, me too,” I replied.
Loyalty increased: Fenn lvl 10!
Companion Passive Unlocked: Twinned Souls (Fenn)!
I resisted the urge to say “fuck” and instead closed my eyes to look through the screens to figure out what that actually did. It was listed under “Companions”, just below Fenn’s biography.
Fenn is a loyal companion, now formally part of your kharass, and will never lag behind you in relative power, so long as she is a member of your party.
Huh. That … was actually pretty good. I was a generalist, with a generalist’s build, but so long as I kept gaining levels (which I fully intended to do) it had seemed like I was destined to make Fenn largely irrelevant, at least in terms of combat ability, since I was already a better swordfighter than her, and the last few levels of Dodge and Parry had been difficult because there wasn’t actually that much challenge in it. That left the question of whether to tell her, which was hardly a question at all.
“You just hit loyalty level 10,” I said. “The game says you have a thing where you’ll match power with me as I level up.”
Fenn was quiet for a moment. “Neat!” she finally said. She sat up again and then closed her eyes. It took me a moment to realize what she was doing. “Aw, no stats screen for the half-elf,” she said as she opened her eyes and looked at me. “So if you’re on the path to becoming the next Uther Penndraig, then I’m on the path to becoming, what, the greatest archer the world has ever known? The most charming half-elf in the land? The word power is a bit ambiguous, tell your game that I’d like more, please.”
And with that the tension was broken, at least a little bit, which I was happy for. I had suggestions about how to gauge power, which mostly revolved around doing simple, repetitive tasks that had a chance of failure we could assign a metric to, but Fenn thought that was the most boring thing in the world. We descended into other topics from there, stories of Earth and Aerb, tales from Fenn of stalking the Risen Lands for treasure, and for the most part, we went back to normal.