Worth the Candle, Ch 38: Don’t Split the Party

After a moment of blinding pain passed by, I blinked and took in my surroundings, looking for witnesses or threats. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw none, and slowly straightened up. The moment of crisis had gone by in an instant, because now if someone found us where we shouldn’t have been, they wouldn’t immediately think that we were in a possession of a billion-dollar piece of equipment that nations would have killed to get their hands on. We’d still be in trouble, but it would be more ‘breaking and entering’ trouble, not ‘stole a nuke’ trouble.

Our destination was a fancy restaurant with a private back room where a much younger Amaryllis had eaten with her mother and a number of guests. We had gone in the morning, before the restaurant would be open, on the hope that the only people there (if any) would be kitchen staff doing prep work, and then ideally we could slip past by leaving out the front door. This, we accomplished with relative ease. I again used the hilt of the Anyblade to fake us up a key.

And with that we were basically indistinguishable from any regular citizens of Cranberry Bay. Amaryllis wore a traditional veil of the women of the Mehkadi Desert, which would prevent anyone from recognizing her even if they knew her face. She wore long sleeves as well, ones that flared at the wrist, with gloves to cover her yellowed hand and missing fingernails. These clothes had been pulled from Fenn’s glove, which had apparently been loaded with a fair number of clothes for all of us, Grak included. When I questioned her about this, Fenn said that I shouldn’t worry my pretty little head about it, and when Amaryllis questioned her, Fenn had only remarked that Sable was purpose-built for shoplifting, which she must have done back in Barren Jewel.

The plan, in short, was that we would go into the Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh, raid their library for information, and find a few people who would be willing to talk about bones that had been drained of their power and/or how to cure serious diseases without having to fight a unicorn. We were going to (sigh) split the party so we could accomplish what we needed to as quickly as possible, then leave before sundown with no one aware that we’d even been there. As soon as we’d formed that plan, I had thought about a title card saying, “Three Weeks Later”, or “The Gang Gets Captured” or something deadpan like that. Simple plans made me nervous.

We did split up though, and I was on my own for the first time since … well, since Silmar City, when Amaryllis had left me to die. The strongest argument for me not going out on my own was that there were still gaps in my knowledge, and while most of the major ones had been filled by this point, there were lots of subtle cultural things that I was sure to miss. With that said, the athenaeums were places of learning that people from all over Aerb traveled to, whether by the imperial train network or by teleportation key, which meant that they were much more socially and culturally diverse than almost anywhere else in the world. That meant that I had a lot of leeway to be weird.

So Fenn went to go con someone into talking about drained bones, Grak went to go bluntly ask someone about rat rot (a name which so far seemed to exist only in the game layer), Amaryllis went to go rest in a rented room at an inn (the teleportation key tucked inside a tattoo I had put on her skin) and I went straight for the library.

“The daji hits you, take 23 damage,” I said, without looking up from my notes.

Craig made a few marks on his character sheet. “I’m down,” he said.

“And that’s why you never split the party,” said Reimer with smug satisfaction.

“Should I roll a new character?” Craig asked me.

“Flora and Ike are across town,” I said, pointing to Tiff and Arthur, “Finch is two blocks away, but he’s got no idea that you were attacked, and at best he’d be doing a check to stabilize.”

“Which I could do,” said Reimer. “If I knew that you were dying, which I don’t, because we split the party.” He looked to me. “My turn next?”

“Hang on,” I said. “Craig, do you have anything that can save you? Any special equipment, any magical effects you forgot about, something like that?”

“Nope,” he replied.

“Alright,” I said. “You’re dead. It’s plausible that your body will be found and later recovered by the party, and then you’ll be raised from the dead after that, but most likely all your stuff is going to be gone. That’s the best case scenario for you right now, if you’re really attached.”

Craig waffled, which made me feel bad, because that meant he was actually considering it. “No,” he finally said, “I’ll figure out something else.”

“Now me?” asked Reimer.

“So the argument against splitting the party is that we’re stronger together than apart, right?” asked Tiff. “Like, if we’d run into that daji as a team, then we’d have smoked it without any problem.”

“The game’s balanced around a team of three to six adventurers,” said Reimer. “They’ve got non-overlapping magisteria, so it’s not just that they’re stronger together, though they are, it’s that between all of them, they can do pretty much anything. By themselves, most of the classes can only take on a very specific range of tasks, except high level wizards, because wizards are OP.”

“Actually, I think it’s mostly about the story,” said Arthur. “You can cover more ground if you split up, but not really, because you can’t actually do things at the same time and the players are still sitting there. Half the party is out of the narrative spotlight, which is boring. The reason you’re not supposed to split the party isn’t that people will die, it’s that you’re taking the ‘collaborative’ out of ‘collaborative roleplaying’.”

“Yeah, no offense Joon, but I’d like to join back up with Reimer as soon as possible,” said Tiff.

“Thanks for the eulogy, guys,” said Craig.

The thing was, I didn’t actually know whether the “don’t split the party” trope applied or not, because I knew next to nothing about the mechanical implementation of the game (or the thing the game was running on). What happened to Fenn and Amaryllis when they were out of the narrative focus? I had no idea. It was one of those existential things that I was trying not to think all that much about for fear that I would descend into the depths of madness.

My Dungeon Master had unknown resources that really could include simulating not just all two billion square miles of Aerb and five billion inhabitants, but all nine thousand hells as well. The only thing that I had seen to indicate that this wasn’t what was happening was the fact that a few things had seemed narratively convenient, which wasn’t very strong proof. But again, that was the kind of thing I really was trying not to think about as I walked away from the others.

It was somewhat easy to direct my thoughts elsewhere, because I was in Cranberry Bay, the site of the very first adventure I had ever written.

Cranberry Bay was (very) loosely based off of San Francisco. It was built up on the tip of a peninsula that made up one side of the bay’s mouth. There was no enormous bridge spanning the bay here, but there were piers jutting out into the cold bay water, an island with a maximum security prison on it, and steep hills divided into colorful districts. Every year, cranberries floated up from the depths of Cranberry Bay and were scooped up with large floating nets, to be gathered and sold around the world.

(What’s that you say? Cranberries don’t work like that? The reason cranberries can be seen floating on cranberry marketing material is because the process of wet harvest involves flooding a cranberry bog, agitating the vines, and then collecting the floating cranberries? Yeah, well I didn’t know that when I was nine years old, give me a break. I assumed that in Aerb, cranberries worked differently, or the fruit that was collected from Cranberry Bay was named something else and had only looked and tasted similar to early explorers.)

The restaurant we’d come out of was at the top of the hill, meaning I had a wonderful view of both the city and the bay. It took my breath away a little bit. I had so far seen Silmar City, a lifeless, uninspired place that seemed like it had taken notes from Wichita, and Barren Jewel, which was nothing too spectacular to look at from the outside and a hive of scum and villainy from the inside. Cranberry Bay was different. Where Barren Jewel seemed to be limping along through inertia, Cranberry Bay was a city in the prime of its life, a clear festival of commerce and culture. And as I watched, I could see that we were just in time for the cranberry harvest, because the bay was tinged red and big ships with white sails were dragging nets behind them.

Other than the titular cranberries, there wasn’t that much to suggest the place that I’d built. This city was too dominated by the athenaeum, and it wasn’t really that much of a shipping city at all, not like I’d drawn it up, because teleportation magic meant that with a few exceptions, it didn’t make any sense to send things across the world by boat. The ships in the bay didn’t even have the colors of the Cranberry Guilds on them, which meant that the whole plot about cutthroat cranberry trade wasn’t in play. I didn’t have time for a quest like that one, but it was still a disappointment. A lot of the potential hit of nostalgia had clearly been removed, and I wondered whether that was by intent.

The Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh wasn’t hard to find; four of the five tallest buildings in the city were on its sprawling campus. There was no unifying architectural style to Cranberry Bay, but two of those four buildings seemed like they were meant to be a matching set. Both were giant castles, fifty or sixty stories tall, and at least on the exterior they looked like they had been built by mad wizards who had been told that they could build whatever rooms they wanted so long as they never tore anything down. I had never seen a building that large which still looked ramshackle, and I was immediately suspicious that it was all just aesthetic, a facade meant to look quirky but which hid an interior of straight, clean lines.

It felt good to be on my own. I had always been a fairly solitary person, and with the exception of tabletop nights, I preferred to spend my time alone. I was one of those people who always felt relieved when plans fell through, because it meant that I was suddenly free from the effort of being around other people. Even when it was just Fenn and I, I didn’t really have missions to undertake on my own, nor did I often leave the hotel room to get some fresh air, at least not without her by my side. I liked Fenn, I really did, but being without her was freeing. The game had a bar labeled “mental exhaustion” and the way the stats were set up it seemed logical to think that there was a hidden metric somewhere called “social exhaustion”, one which needed some time to be recharged.

I was out of my magical armor, though I did have a bandolier of fairies across my chest, and the Anyblade was in its ring form, ready to spring into a greatsword with a thought. I had Ropey too, who was coiled into a messenger bag by my side, plus my throwing dagger, a few emergency bones, a sizeable sum of money, and a vial of liquid nicotine I was hoping I wouldn’t have to use. There were some taboos against going around armed and armored, but few nations had laws against it, and Cranberry Bay (part of the Monarchical Democracy of Esplandian) was not one of them. Come to think of it, I was pretty sure that there weren’t many laws against wearing full body armor in America either. Still, it would have marked me as squarely out of the ordinary, and that was something I really didn’t want to be. The bandolier was maybe a bit unusual, but not so much that I thought I would draw stares.

I kept wanting to stop and look at things. I’d felt the same way in Barren Jewel, but Barren Jewel was a shithole where I felt like I was constantly in danger of being mugged or pickpocketed, and if not that, then maybe just stepping in refuse. Cranberry Bay was clean, and if not quite organized into a sensible grid, then at least with a degree of city planning and complex infrastructure. That made exploration all the more tempting, because it meant that I was more likely to be safe if I wandered off to a place serving teas that billowed with smoke, or went into a shop that had floating stones in its storefront, or decided to follow along after a green-skinned woman with a shell on her back to see what her deal was. The shell was decorated with a complex, miniature cityscape which had been affixed to it, and she walked in such a way that all the buildings of the city stayed level with the ground. I stopped myself from wandering after her only when she saw that I was paying attention and flashed me a smile.

Amaryllis was dying. I wasn’t dying, per se, but my hand was numb and uncoordinated, my appetite was weak, and I was getting some nausea from time to time that wasn’t going to do me any favors in a fight. The anemia that was supposed to accompany the effect wasn’t a real problem yet, because I’d been topped off on blood when I leveled, but in the long term, it wasn’t looking good. That was what was at stake here. Wanting to go fuck off and look at the wares in a random magic shop or follow a turtle woman was basically the equivalent of me putting off homework until the last minute because I wanted to watch anime or write up a city description for a campaign we would never end up playing. It was a mild surprise to find that this part of me hadn’t changed all that much during my three weeks on Aerb. I did eventually manage to make it to what I thought of as ‘campus’ without getting distracted by men in two-foot-tall hats or a gaggle of children with glowing red rings around their necks.

The Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh was fucking huge. It was the only authorized place to learn bone magic in all of Aerb, and had an enrollment of four million students. That made it about six thousand times larger than my high school. In terms of students alone, it was larger than Los Angeles, and that was without including all the teachers, janitors, cooks, landlords, housekeeping, entertainment, et cetera, all the people that it took to make the athenaeum a functional institution, plus every person that was indirectly employed because of the needs of the students, teachers, and staff.

I knew that I was in the thick of campus by the fact that everyone around me seemed to be wearing bones. I was pretty sure that some of that was a fashion choice, because it wasn’t like there were many opportunities to actually practice bone magic, and bones were expensive enough that you couldn’t just use them willy-nilly. Some people wore them like Tova had, with bones strapped in bandoliers, while others wore them coming up from the back, or bundled in a quiver at the hip. Most of the bones were big, but some people favored lots of small bones, like those from a salmon, arrayed within easy reach. I saw a few distinguished-looking people with skulls atop walking sticks, but they were a rarity.

There were relatively fewer humans among the students and faculty I saw walking around; unlike Barren Jewel, they were a plurality here rather than a strict majority. There were quite a few dwarves, mostly traveling in packs, but I saw only two elves. The rest were a riot of races, sometimes in groups and sometimes in mixed company, many that I recognized and a few that I didn’t. Save for the section on dwarves, I hadn’t read through The Book of Blood yet, largely because reading a reference work cover to cover seemed like a pain in the ass, especially when there were other books waiting to be read and skill training that needed to get done.

We’d done the minimum amount of research ahead of time, so I knew which building I was going for. It was one of the larger ones that sat between the wide green concourses, Coeus Hall, the biggest and most generalized of the athenaeum’s eight different libraries. There were people streaming in and out of it, though fewer than I had imagined there would be. It made sense when I thought about it though. Most of the students were here studying to be bone mages, going through the same five year course of study that Bormann had mentioned to me, which meant the same or similar material and instruction, with the same or similar textbooks. Libraries were more useful if you wanted to go deep into a subject and find the esoterica, so the students going to those would be the ones who were specializing.

I went in through the front doors, passing through a few wards that Grak had warned me about (wards to keep the books in and the water out) and trying to look like I belonged. It was by far the largest library that I had ever been in and it seemed as though the architect had designed the entrance so that I would know it. The library was a hundred feet tall, with most of it sitting under an immense dome. The floors of shelving extended up into the dome, but with a hollow space in the middle that seemed to be there specifically so that you could see all the shelves that radiated out on all ten of its levels.

“First time?” asked a woman in an off-white robe. She was bog-standard human, maybe a bit on the short side, with her hair pinned up in an elaborate bun. She was giving me a pleasant smile.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. I looked around the library, and behind a long, curved desk I could see other people in off-white robes stacking and sorting books. It was a uniform then, which meant that this woman was a librarian. Regrettably, there was no name tag.

“You were staring,” she said, gesturing to the dome. “It happens.”

“The architect wasn’t thinking about what the view would do to foot traffic, huh?” I asked.

“He was under a forge frenzy, actually,” said the librarian. “So in a very real sense, no, he wasn’t thinking about foot traffic. Would you like a tour?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But, I’m actually under a bit of a deadline, so …”

“Is there anything I can help you with?” she asked.

“Um,” I replied. I didn’t know the library policy on whether non-students were allowed to look at books, and didn’t want to ask in case the answer was that they weren’t. I didn’t know what assumptions she was making about me. “If I told you I was looking for a particular subject rather than a particular book, could you help me find something worth reading?”

“Certainly,” said the woman. She pointed a finger at herself. “Clara.”

“Sam,” I said. “You work here?”

“Work study,” she replied. “We’re going to need the catalogs,” she began moving towards some large rows of cabinets. “I’m not a proper librarian, I work here because it ‘builds character’, nominally to defray the cost of tuition. I can still probably find you what you need.” We reached the cabinets and Clara looked at me expectantly. “What is it that you need?”

“I was looking for information on a very specific, non-contagious,” hopefully non-contagious? “disease, but I don’t know the name of it, just the symptoms, plus where and how it was contracted.”

“Okay, so you’re going to need a reference book,” said Clara. “It would probably help to nail down geographical region, if possible. You’re sure it’s non-contagious?”

“Pretty sure,” I replied. “It was originally spread by rat scratch. And the region was, ah, the Risen Lands exclusion zone.”

And if she goes to grab someone else, that’s my cue to leave, because I am absolutely not going to let myself get ambushed for having asked the wrong questions. I wasn’t sure how smart it was to be sharing that information, but this woman was clearly a low-ranking bone mage on work study, and whatever vast, shadowy conspiracy was arrayed against Amaryllis (and therefore me) they couldn’t have spread agents that far, not given that Amaryllis had only been known to have rat rot for something like two weeks.

“Huh,” said Clara. “If it’s confined to the exclusion zone you might be out of luck,” she said. “Worrying about disease in a major exclusion zone is kind of … not done. Is this for a particular purpose?” She saw my hesitance. “Just curious, you don’t have to say if it’s secret.”

“Did you know that Anglecynn drops people into the exclusion zone as a form of punishment?” I asked.

“Ugh,” said Clara, “Yes, I’m well familiar with that bit of barbarism. So someone made it back, got inducted into the Host, but contracted a disease along the way?”

“Something like that,” I replied. “So I’m here, trying to at least figure out what kind of disease it is. He’s got about a week left to live, which I hope explains why I didn’t want to take the tour.” And if she asked about the distance, which was on the order of ten thousand miles, I would just tell her that I got my orders by radio. This wasn’t a terribly clever story, but there was only so much I could do.

“Well then, let’s get moving,” said Clara. She began pulling out a long drawer of organized cards from the cabinet, and that was when I realized that this library used actual card catalogs, because it obviously didn’t have a computer system. “Now, the hope is that it’s not unique to the Risen Lands. They’re a former territory of the Kingdom of Francorum, so we can probably start by, ah — here.” She pulled out a card and showed it to me. “Start with Diagnostic Manual of Fatal Diseases of the Bretaigne Continent and Zorish Isles. Come find me if you’re having trouble.” She grabbed a pencil and paper from the top of the card catalog and copied down the information for me. “I’ll be by the entrance, hassling people who are staring in awe at the upper levels.” She gave me a smile and then left.

The library didn’t use the Dewey Decimal system, so it took a little bit of wandering for me to find what I was looking for, but however they were classifying their books, they were using lots of numbers, and then helpfully labeling all of the shelves and books with those numbers. I found the book I was looking for three levels up, a thick, imposing one next to other thick, imposing ones, and went to the index, looking for ‘rat rot’. When that didn’t bear fruit, I started a search, reading brief descriptions and looking mostly at the symptoms and disease vectors.

I was in the middle of doing this when Clara came by, leading a man with red hair, freckles, and red armor joined at the seams with nearly-black leather. He had a sword at his hip and both a cloak and shield on his back, which would have been enough to mark him as trouble if the look on his face hadn’t said it all.

“Sam,” said Clara, “This is your friend?”

I stared at the man and desperately regretted not dumping all my points into social skills. “Uh.” Nailed it again. They keep setting them up and I keep knocking them down. Who needs special magic when you’re this good at talking your way out of trouble?

“Have you found anything on ‘rat rot’ yet?” he asked.

I was absolutely sure that my face gave me away. I could feel tension in my stomach and ice in my veins, and I was pretty sure that I was going to start having cold sweats in short order. Stupid 2 POI and 8 Deception meant that I was going to give it all away without actually having said anything. In which case, the logical thing to do was to get myself in a position where I could run away and disappear into the city. I didn’t know whether this guy was a friend or not, but the probably-magical items, slight family resemblance to Amaryllis, and the fact that he could only have learned about rat rot from our enemies were all pretty sure signs in favor of slapping a “foe” designation on him.

“Clara, if you could excuse us?” I asked. No sense in letting her get caught in the inevitable crossfire.

Virtue: Ruthless Removed!

New Virtue: Conscientious! (Flattery +5, Romance +5)

I tried to do my best not to react  to those notifications. Ruthless hadn’t actually done anything, at least not in its level 0 incarnation. I didn’t actually use either of the skills I was now getting a bonus to, but it was a sizeable impact to them, and was better than nothing.

“Sure,” said Clara, though she was giving the both of us a wary look. She left without further comment, and the man in front of me waited until she was out of earshot to speak.

“Can you imagine my luck to hear that someone else was looking after a disease from the Risen Lands contracted by rat?” he asked. “Tell me where she is.”

“Who?” I asked. “Actually, first, who are you?”

“Larkspur Prentiss, second of his name, Foreign Security Director of the Kingdom of Anglecynn,” he replied. “My best guess would be that you are Juniper Smith, traveling companion to my erstwhile cousin. Tell me where she is.”

“Sorry, it’s not ringing a bell,” I replied. Armor, sword, cloak, shield, all probably magical, plus he’s probably got training in at least one school of magic, maybe many, plus hidden magics I would have no way of knowing about, plus extensive training as a fighter. That point I put into LUK was a waste.

“Where, exactly, did you come from?” he asked, looking me over. “The intelligence reports are muddled and inconsistent with regards to you. Fenn Greenglass I already knew of, hand-selected in fact, and it doesn’t take much of a guess to know that the gruesome fate of Brownsnout Quills-in-hand was her doing.”

“I still don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, not caring that the lie was transparent, “But it kind of seems like you’re shit at your job.”

Larkspur looked me over. “Do you think flippancy is how you escape this?” he asked.

“I think that I don’t have to escape this,” I replied. “My guess is that your powers as a Foreign Whatever don’t include going into an athenaeum and kidnapping or killing a random person there. I’m sure that you could make up some kind of story about how I was a dangerous criminal that you tracked down, or something more clever, but there would be an awful lot of witnesses, and my guess is that you’re bound by politics just like any other Prince or Princess of Anglecynn is.”

That was my read of the situation, anyway, and if I was wrong, then Larkspur’s reaction would tell me something, and my cockiness about it would demonstrate me to be an overconfident idiot, which might be its own advantage. I had no idea whether I was playing this right. The fact that he was apparently here alone was suggestive, and obviously I knew that he was both the guy who ordered the fireteam after Amaryllis, and that he was also chasing after a teleportation key.

“You’re gambling,” he said. “You think that I care more about politics than about catching Amaryllis.”

I shrugged. “Again, I don’t know anything about what you’re talking about. And if I did know anything about anything, I wouldn’t tell you, because you seem like an asshole.” (And on second thought, I didn’t actually believe that it was just luck that brought us together, especially not the smarmy way that he said it, it was probably some kind of probability manipulation, clairvoyance, prediction, or LUK, and the fact that he tried to slip that under my nose like he was oh-so-clever made me hate him even more.)

“Then it would appear that we’re at an impasse,” said Larkspur, confirming that politics really were a legitimate problem and that a fight in the athenaeum library of a foreign country would raise a lot of questions that he didn’t want to answer. He looked at the book in my hand. “I wasn’t being flippant, I really did want to know whether you had found anything.”

I slid the book back onto the shelf. However he had found me, the fact that I was here gave him some concrete information, namely that rat rot was still a problem that we were working on. He’d know that just from having read the title of the book I was holding. He seemed to be leaking information far worse than I was, but that wasn’t much consolation, because I was pretty sure that he would beat me in a fight, even if he had come alone. But would he beat me in a race?

“I don’t know what hold she has over you,” said Larkspur, “But if it’s money, I’ll double it, and if there’s some magical item she’s invested in you –” he glanced at my ring, “– I am in a position to offer you more. Blackmail, hostages, magical compulsions, whatever it is, I can make problems disappear.”

Larkspur was standing at the entrance to the aisle, with a thick railing behind him, and a three story drop down to the library floor beyond that. I was between the books, with not enough room to swing a sword. He was constrained, at least in part, by politics, and while dragging me out of the library probably was an option, it was one that he was loathe to pursue, for pretty obvious reasons. Me? Well as Reimer used to say, politics is a dump stat.

I ran straight for Larkspur, using every ounce of blood magic I could muster, while at the same time reaching my hand into my messenger bag and readying the Icy Devil tattoo if he tried to grab me. I ducked down as he drew his sword and got under him, then pushed with the power of a Sanguine Surge, trying to send him over the side of the railing. He turned to the side to avoid me and my shoulder clipped his stomach, sending him backward. I went over the edge, as planned, and flung my sentient rope toward the railing.

One end of Ropey wrapped itself tight around my wrist, while the other slipped through the posts and knotted itself around them. I fell twenty feet and had my shoulder nearly wrenched from my socket, breaking a number of bones in my hand in the process, then swung back in toward the lower levels and slammed up against a railing, which I quickly climbed over. Ropey fell down from the floor above and started quickly coiling himself around my chest, which I felt a moment of panic over before realizing that he was fashioning himself into rope armor for me.

I stayed on the second floor only for long enough to shove fairies into my mouth, then vaulted over the railing and brought the Anyblade out to its full extension of eight feet and attempted to brace myself against it. My clever plan had been to retract the blade when it made contact, allowing me to cushion my fall, but I heard the internal crunch of a rib and ended up coming clumsily down on a table, which was painful but not blindingly so.

From there I was up and running in short order, looking back only for long enough to see Larkspur jump from the fourth floor. It would have been really nice if he had been forced to take some pain and injury getting down, like I did, but when he was two feet from the ground he did what was clearly a double-jump and landed on top of a table, then gave chase with his sword in one hand and shield in the other.

I swore and booked it, making each step a Sanguine Surge timed to my racing heart. I reached into my bag as I went, grabbing the first bone I could find, and sucked it dry of END before tossing it aside to grab the next one, which went to SPD as I raced past frightened and bewildered students and library staff.

But of course it wasn’t going to be as easy as just bum rushing my way through the entrance, because there were two people standing there. The first was an enormous guy in full plate, with a concealing helmet. He had a machine gun at his side, which he wasn’t using, instead preferring to spread his arms wide like he meant to either block my path or catch me. The other was a slender woman with horns who held a glowing staff that she was spinning, twirling it faster with each revolution, which I did not like the looks of at all. I drained another bone for SPD as I barreled ahead.

I threw the dagger at her and wasn’t terribly surprised when she had no reaction to being struck in the face point-first. Instead, there was a plunk and the armored guy’s head moved back a bit; this was that same bullshit soul linking thing that I’d squeaked my way out of back in Silmar City. The dagger returned to my hand, landing in my palm at a speed that was painful. This time I didn’t have a convenient elevator shaft to drop one or both of them down, and I didn’t have the void rifle either. My objective was easier though, because I didn’t have to actually kill them, just escape.

I turned the Anyblade into a halberd and ran right for the guy in armor, then at the last second, slammed it down into the ground and tried my best to leverage myself up and over him like I was pole vaulting, retracting the Anyblade as soon as my weight was off it. I was still riding a high of SPD from the bones and everything seemed to be moving in slow motion; I saw the brute’s hand reaching up for me as he tried to track me and twisted out of the way, then landed on the ground by the door just as the glowing staff became perceptually identical to a translucent disk.

I burst out the door without looking behind me to see what that weapon’s new shape was capable of. I hooked to the left once I was past the door and was treated to the sound of breaking wood as the disk spun through the air where I had been. I pulled my last bone from my bag, shrank the Anyblade down to ring size, and tried to pull SPD as slowly and steadily as possible to ensure it would last. Then I put all my efforts into outpacing them and tried to figure out what I was going to do next.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 38: Don’t Split the Party

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