We went into Trifles Tower through the service entrance two days later, with only minor deterioration to my condition, after Grak spent ten tense minutes with his wand against the wards, subverting or changing them somehow. We’d watched the outside for long enough to get a sense of what people wore; the bottom two thirds of Trifles Tower was an eclectic mix of residences, office spaces, and stores, which meant that there wasn’t much need for us to wear disguises as we made our way up the stairs. Most of the traffic in the building would be through the central elevator, meaning that we’d have the stairs to ourselves anyway, if luck was on our side. After we were in the stairwell we’d taken out the equipment it wasn’t wise to show off on the street, like the bandoliers of dead fairies and a second bandolier of bones.
When we got up to the seventh floor, Grak stopped us. “Ward,” he said. He squinted against his monocle, looking at something that was invisible to us. He crept closer and stuck out his wand, prodding at something. He grinned and sheathed his wand. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Basic detection ward against a variety of magics, intended as warning if any of the big guns come knocking. We’re the wrong kind of big guns.”
I winced at that. Grak had not been appraised of my unique situation. “Do you have specifics?” I asked. “Would it tell her about skin magic? Gem magic?”
“Are you curious or cautious?” he asked.
“I have tricks up my sleeve,” I said. I shifted one of the snake tattoos down my arm until the head poked down from my long sleeves. When Grak had seen it, I lifted my hand and lit the tip of my finger on fire with a pulse of my blood. “Nothing earthshaking.”
Grak looked me over. “This ward will alert her to high velocities consistent with either gunfire or a velocity mage,” he said. He moved his wand marginally, though neither of us could see what it was pointing at because his monocle was at his side. “It will detect against the latent magic in any gems, gold, carapaces, flowers, fires, crystals, pustules, devils, or demons, as well as the passive or active magic of a blood, bone, skin, wood, or gold mage. Which of those apply?”
I hesitated. “Is it just at the barrier here, or will it apply throughout the building?”
“Which, of those, apply?” said Grak with gritted teeth.
“We have gems in the glove,” I said. “I have a single tattoo that’s passive in nature,” which I don’t actually know how to remove, come to think of it “but I’d like to know whether we can get around that by me entering the glove, having Fenn cross through the ward, and then me exiting the glove.”
Grak sniffed, which I’d come to think of as one of his nervous tics, like he thought that he could learn more about a situation by smelling. “Should work,” he said. “The glove can make a fool of many wards. You should have told me.”
He was right, but I’d been trusting The Commoner’s Guide to Warding Magic when it had said that skin wards were used almost exclusively to prevent physical intrusion.
“You’re more well-trained than I gave you credit for,” said Grak.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Usually keeping that under wraps works to my advantage.”
“You’re more well-trained than should be possible, given your age,” said Grak, still watching me.
“We don’t have time for this conversation,” I replied. “I give you my word that after we’ve finished getting Amaryllis back, I’ll tell you everything.” I tried not to put too much stress on the word ‘my’ there; Grak liked me more than he liked Fenn, and he certainly trusted me more than her, for obvious reasons.
“Fine,” said Grak. “You heard what I said about demons and devils?”
I nodded. “Not a warlock,” I replied. “Never met one.”
Grak grunted, which he sometimes did by way of assent. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and saw pitch black in my peripheral vision, and started on the controlled breathing that I’d been practicing, mixed in with all of the reading and other practice, plus scoping out Trifles Towers, plus finding locations for our distractions and helping to set them up, plus the bouts of feeling sick. (I would probably have listened to Fenn about us going too fast with this plan, but I’d broken two fingers in my left hand the day before while trying to open a jar. I murdered and ate some fairies to fix them, but it was a grim reminder that I was getting less useful as the days went on.)
I spent no more than ten seconds in the void of Sable before being spat back out onto the stairs. We went a little more slowly up the stairs now, with Grak being even more cautious than he had been before. The stairway wasn’t quite an institutional fire escape, but it had some similarities, mostly in the sparsity of furnishings and bare bulbs that provided illumination. I was still well enough to not feel winded from the climb, but it was a strain nonetheless, and I could tell that Grak was feeling it. Some of his stops with his monocle out were, I was pretty sure, because he wanted to catch his breath a bit.
“Contact, site A,” said Grak when we reached the thirteenth floor.
That meant that active gold magic had passed through a ward he’d placed in a room we’d rented on the north side of the city. Once Aumann was there, it would take him an estimated fifteen to twenty minutes to use physical force to break the wards around the gold, maybe a bit more, and then he’d either be heading back to the tower or off to one of the other sites.
The problem was, the plan had been for us to spend some time waiting at the top of the stairs until he got to one of the sites; he had moved a lot faster than we’d thought he would, or maybe we had moved a lot slower. We had another seven floors to the top.
We booked it up the stairs, straining hard, Grak more than me or Fenn. We hadn’t seen anyone using the stairs yet, nor had we heard anyone using them, which meant that the stealth aspect of the plan was going fairly well, and we could use that in order to make up for the timing aspect going decidedly poorly.
We reached the top of the stairs and took a moment to catch our breath.
“Shit,” whispered Fenn. “This is the nineteenth floor. Trifles is supposed to have twenty floors, right?”
Of course we all knew that it was, because we’d been over the details, such as we had them, backward and forward. Supposedly, Aumann’s guest was being held in the top floor, next to where Aumann himself slept, but the full layout of the building wasn’t known to us. Being short a floor meant trouble for us.
“Wards on the door,” said Grak in a low voice, looking through his monocle. He winced. “Three varieties of vaporization, none affecting us, but it says unpleasant things about Sheriot’s skill. She’s better than I thought she was.”
“Any detection?” asked Fenn. “Or are we good to breach?”
Grak hesitated, then unhooked his axe and pulled back the leather sheath that covered the head. Warders were, as a general rule, useless in any combat scenario where they couldn’t dictate the terrain ahead of time. I wasn’t quite sure what Grak was capable of, but I was hopeful that since he was my companion he’d be capable of something.
“We’re going in hot then,” I said. “Assume that we’re compromised from the word go.” I hesitated and looked at the door. It swung outward, toward the stairwell landing, “Just a sec.” The Anyblade was a small dagger in a hidden sheath beneath my shirt, but when I pulled it out I made it into a thin, hard knife with a blunted point, thin enough that I was able to use it to pop up the pins that held the hinges in place. With those gone, there was nothing holding the door in place by the pressure of the hinge pieces against each other. “Fenn?” I asked.
She held Sable forward and pressed the glove against the door. Ten seconds passed by, and I tried not to hold my breath, because there was a good chance I was going to need all available oxygen to deal with whatever was on the other side of that door.
When the door disappeared, we were greeted by two people in a small, unadorned hallway. The woman was leaning up against the wall, facing us, one leg propped up and her hand on the man’s shoulder, beside his breastplate. He was leaning into her, away from us, with very little room between their faces. There was just enough time for the smile on the woman’s face to fall before Grak’s axe flew through the air at them, cleaving straight through the woman’s skull. The man turned to look at us in shock and horror, blood covering his face, and an arrow caught him point-blank in the eye, driving him back against the wall.
Collateral damage. My dad had always hated that word, the way it shirked responsibility from the people killed for no goddamned reason except that they were in the way of the objective. I’d known that it might come to this, but I hadn’t thought it would be so soon. This had been the sort of morally grey situation that I always forced my players into, it shouldn’t have been surprising to find one here.
“That’s the warder down,” said Grak in his low voice. He held his hand out and the axe flew backward, spinning dangerously fast, to land in his grasp. I stared at him. “Sheriot,” he said, pointing his axe at the woman whose face had been nearly cleaved in half. And he was right, of course, if I had only been focused on the words the game had written.
Sheriot Trosty defeated!
Trifles Tower guard defeated!
“No one coming,” said Fenn at a whisper. She pulled a metal nail with runes on it from Sable and briefly placed it first in Sheriot’s brain, and then in the guard’s, pulling both their souls out and putting them into a small glass bottle. As a seeming afterthought, she touched both bodies for the required ten seconds and put them into Sable. “We should move.”
I kept my objections to myself as I tried to work through the wave of dissonance. No, that hadn’t been some random maid or receptionist flirting with a guard in a back hallway, it had been the woman that had helped Aumann kidnap Amaryllis, and wasn’t that just fucking convenient, enough that I felt my anger growing at the way the game was jerking me around. It wasn’t just that happenstance had led us to an unreasonably good ambush, but the moral convenience of killing someone who deserved it.
We moved down the hallway with Grak in the lead, his monocle occasionally going up to his eye to look for more wards. There were occasional rooms that we looked in on, Fenn with her bow at the ready, and me with the void rifle behind her, but they were bedrooms or sitting rooms, and one was a kitchen. This floor, then, was the place probably where Aumann kept his closest staff, most of them either gone to oversee his businesses or temporarily teleported away from Barren Jewel to seek out whatever buried treasures Amaryllis had told him about. I was pretty sure Aumann being stretched thin was one of the reasons that Fenn hadn’t pressed too hard about the speed we were putting this into place; it was another way in which time was not on our side.
The hallway we’d been following eventually turned a corner and opened up into a large room with a wide staircase leading up. It was beautiful and detailed in a way that I hadn’t expected; the call of the gold was supposed to be a constant pressure on a gold mage, something that pressed on them, which I had thought would lead to miserly behavior. Here, instead of that, there was a tastefulness and delicacy that spoke to incredible amounts of money, the kind of money that allowed you to have things be simple because you knew that they were perfect.
There was a single guard standing next to the staircase, idly reading a paperback book and turned slightly away from us. Fenn raised her bow, popped an arrow out of Sable, and silently nocked it. The arrow punctured a hole in his head before he could react to the sound of the bowstring. This kill wasn’t quite so clean; he turned around, dazed, and when he spotted us something like a word came out of his mouth. He was clutching at where the arrow had gone through his head when Fenn followed it up with a second one, and this one made him crumple to the ground.
Trifles Tower guard defeated!
We hesitated, waiting for someone to come running, or some kind of reaction, but there was none. I had a bad feeling about this, not just the revulsion at the fact that we were killing guards who were just collecting a paycheck, but this was seeming entirely too easy. In the real world, sometimes things were easy, but in a game, ‘too easy’ meant that the tone was just being set for a major fight.
We had a brief, quiet conversation about what our plan was. The grand staircase leading up was the logical path to take, but there was another hallway on this level. The elevator that most people would have taken up to get to the nineteenth floor was opposite the stairs, and I was just thinking that I should deploy my Lecher’s Vine around the elevator door to warn against intruders when we heard the ding of an arriving elevator.
Fenn was the first to react; she sprinted toward the stairs, then turned around and loosed an arrow just as the doors opened up. The arrow split itself, so there were more than two hundred by the time they reached the elevator itself. The elevator operator, a boy with a wolf’s ears who looked to be in his early teens, was partially shielded by where he was standing, and he twirled to the side as he was hit by a few of them in his arm and leg. The elevator’s other occupant was a man in a business suit and spectacles, and he was hit by at least a hundred of them. Where the points of the arrows hit him, they stopped completely, and for just a second he was standing there looking like a pin cushion, arrows touching him but not actually piercing him or his clothing.
Then the arrows all fell to the ground, and him without a scratch to show for it. That was when he pulled out a handgun and started firing on us.
We scrambled for cover. The still mage, Echert, was shooting at Fenn, since she was the clear and present threat, his shots deafening, but she was either lucky or fast enough that three shots managed to miss her before she was hidden behind a couch. Grak pushed over a table for cover and began using his wand to create a ward, but I couldn’t fathom what that would be given how long wards took to make.
I raised up the void rifle and took my shot with a loud thunk, which opened up a hole in his left arm that was mostly visible by the blood that pooled from it. That unfortunately got his attention focused on me. I got three fairies out of my belt and stuffed them in my mouth just as the first bullet hit me in the chest. Maybe I was imagining things, but I had the distinct sensation of blood being pushed through my veins the wrong way. I definitely wasn’t imagining the pain of a broken rib. I chewed and swallowed the fairies, trying to move enough that his next shot wouldn’t also hit me, but we weren’t far enough away from each other, and the void rifle had a four second cooldown. I put the pulse of my blood into a Sanguine Surge that allowed me to dodge another shot and begin moving toward cover, but the still mage was moving on his own now, trying to close the distance between us.
Grak’s axe came sailing through the air and struck the still mage in the neck. I thought it was more for a distraction than anything else, because still magic’s whole deal was bringing things to a halt, but though the axe was stopped, it still had an effect; Echert suddenly had an extra foot of hair getting in his eyes.
I shot him again, this time hitting him in the stomach, which was not at all where I’d intended to put the hole. He grunted in pain and raced toward me, heedless of the wound, trying to get me within reach. I wasn’t sure how many bullets he had left in his gun, but I knew he was trying to get a grip on me so he could stop me in place and then kill me at his leisure. I threw the void rifle to the side, because I knew I wasn’t going to get another shot with it, and then raced toward him, which gave him pause. When I grabbed him around the neck he stared at me in confusion. I was stopped in place, naturally, that was the nature of his magic, it was practically instinctive on his part. That didn’t stop me from using my tattoo, the Icy Devil, which sheathed my hand in ice.
He got the brain freeze a moment later and released his stilling grip on me, but that did nothing for the fact that I was still clutching him tightly. He tried to bring his gun up, and I moved my other hand to block him; he shot me just above the hip, and that hurt, like being smacked by a baseball bat that left a burning pain inside me, but it didn’t actually help his situation any. He stopped me in place again, fighting against the cold going straight to his brain, and lifted his gun higher, trying to get it pointed at my head. I could feel something else, a killing intent from him that was striking at my chest. One of the ways that a still mage could kill was to stop your heart for long enough, but some people could shrug it off, and so far it seemed like I was passing that Save or Die check.
Echart Halderson defeated!
The grip of stillness was lifted with a thunk that came to my right. I grabbed all the remaining fairies from my bandolier and stuffed them in my mouth as I sank to the ground. I really, really needed to stop getting shot, and I hadn’t had a level up in what felt like far too long. The fairy magic went about magically healing my wounds, and I looked around for the others, only to find that they were both by the elevator; Fenn had taken a fairy from its storage space within Sable and shoved it into the kid’s mouth, but he was limp and breathing shallowly. She was trying to get him to chew, trying to work his jaw around the marzipan, but it wasn’t working. I limped my way over as my wounds started closing, keeping an eye on the bar that showed my hit points, which had dipped down to 5/36 but was now steadily rising.
I took bones from my bandolier and applied healing, but he was badly injured and I was mediocre at bone magic, which meant that the work I was doing wasn’t enough. I hadn’t brought them with for the healing, that was what we had fairies for, I’d brought them for a burst of speed or power. It wasn’t long before I’d emptied all ten bones, casting them aside one by one as I’d drained them.
“Give me a corpse,” I said.
Fenn gestured toward me with Sable and the body of the warder, Sheriot, materialized in thin air and fell to the floor. I grimaced and stuck my fingers in her brutalized face, feeling the ragged ridge where her skull had split, then reached out to the boy with the furry ears and rested my hand on his. Grak cottoned on to what I was doing fast enough and started hacking at Sheriot with his ax, biting down to the bone so I could leech END from her and put it into the kid. Each time he hit her corpse, her hair grew out a foot, until it was a tangled mass on the ground.
“Contact, site B,” said Grak, right as I was finishing up the final touches. I’d drained eight of the bones from Sheriot’s corpse, one after the other, and the bleeding had mostly stopped. Fenn looked pallid, maybe because she hadn’t wanted to kill this kid, or maybe because of the copious amounts of blood.
“Let’s fuck off out of here then,” said Fenn. “He’s stable?”
“Yeah,” I said, though I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t just giving her a polite lie. The game had not informed me that we’d defeated a random teenaged elevator operator, at least, and he was still breathing with a weak pulse.
As we went up the stairs to the twentieth level, I was pretty confident that at the very least, there probably weren’t more people coming for us. The handgun had been loud enough to be heard on the floors below, and if someone was coming, then they would have probably come by now. I had refilled my bandolier just in case, but Aumann was at the second lure, presumably with his revision mage in tow, and that only left the velocity mage, who supposedly never went into Trifles Tower. Of course, if she were to get a phone call, she could arrive in a flash …
The top floor of Trifles Tower was a single wide, open room with a large bed, doors leading to a porch, a kitchen area, shelving, and various curios lining the walls, which went up nearly thirty feet before coming to a sharp point where they converged. I didn’t really have time to look at any of that though, because Amaryllis was standing at the doorway of a small room that seemed to have been partitioned off from the rest of the place.
The intervening days since we’d last seen each other had not been kind to her. Her right arm was too skinny and horribly yellow, withered like it had aged a hundred years. The nails on that hand were no longer there, leaving only red divots at the end of her fingers. She had dark bags under her eyes and her hair was stringy. She was wearing only a plain shift that left her looking shapeless.
Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 8!
Her mouth moved, but we could hear no words.
“Wards,” said Grak as he moved forward with his monocle up. He turned to look at us. “Look for the gold. Sheriot on her own wouldn’t be enough to put up vaporization wards against blood, bone, or skin, you won’t run straight into death without me.” He tapped his wand against the wards around the doorway and frowned.
“We’re getting out of here,” said Fenn. She slipped Sable partly off so her fingers were holding onto the edge of it, and swung the empty parts across the ward, where Amaryllis caught them. Ten seconds later, Amaryllis had disappeared, and a second after that she was standing on the other side of the ward.
“He has the key,” said Amaryllis, without so much as a thank you, a glance in Grak’s direction, or any acknowledgment of the absurdity of us being there with her. “The tattoo is still sealed, but it’s on his body. He doesn’t know what’s inside it.”