Skill increased: Blood Magic lvl 20! (Skill can no longer be increased by amateur training.)
New Virtue: Hypertension!
Skill increased: Athletics lvl 20! (Skill can no longer be increased by amateur training.)
New Virtue: Long-distance Runner!
I stopped using Sanguine Surge with every step once I was down a thousand drops of blood. I’d had a moment of panic when I’d gotten the Hypertension virtue, because the bar tracking blood had seemed to go from almost entirely full to half-full in a matter of an eyeblink. The numbers had changed though, and it was 74K/150K now, which seemed to indicate that my body could or would hold twice as much blood as it could before. I was hoping that I had also gained access to more magic, but now wasn’t the time to do tests. I didn’t want to spare the time to look at Long-distance Runner either, because I was pretty sure that wasn’t anything to get excited about.
I tried to move semi-randomly through the city streets, and kept up a full run until my chest began to ache. I was grateful for the extra points I had put into PHY, because I was pretty sure that the boneitis would be hitting me harder if I hadn’t. I eventually came to a stop in an alley and hid behind a very square-shaped dumpster.
Problem #1 was that I didn’t know how Larkspur had found me, or whether it actually was anything other than blind luck that we ran into each other. It was hard to infer what kind of conversation he’d had with Clara, which would have clued me in on at least what assumptions he’d held going in, but I wasn’t sure that time spent thinking about that would actually be helpful, especially because his half of the conversation was probably extremely deceptive. It was possible but improbable that he had asked her the same questions I had, which might have led her to ask him if he knew me, and them to come up together. I didn’t actually know for sure one way or another.
Problem #2 was that it hadn’t actually been that long since I had gone into the library, we weren’t meant to meet up at the inn until sundown, and I didn’t know where Fenn or Grak had gotten off to, only their mission parameters. I thought that Amaryllis was probably safe, because Larkspur had been asking me where she was, which he wouldn’t have bothered with if it were trivial for him to find out. Had he known that I was going to be in the library? Or had he been guided there by something and not known what, exactly, he would find? It didn’t particularly seem like he had been ready to deal with me, and I wasn’t just saying that in hindsight because I had gotten away.
If Larkspur hadn’t known that I was going to be in the library until he saw me, then my presence gave him more bits of information than I thought it had, but it still didn’t seem like an utter disaster. I had learned at least a little bit about him, his capabilities, and his team members, which I had to regard as a plus. On balance, that was worth half my fairies and all the bones in my bag, along with the information that I’d essentially ended up trading to him, so long as the whole party got back together and in one piece.
I slipped my bandolier into my bag, told Ropey that I didn’t need him as armor at just that moment, and stepped out of the alley, looking around carefully to see whether anyone was looking for me. I was fortunate that all three people I had seen were pretty distinctive, even by the standards of the multicultural wonderland that was Cranberry Bay. There was a strong possibility that there were others I hadn’t seen, since five was the magic number for teleportation keys, but looking askance at everyone that I saw would only make me stand out more.
I ducked into a clothing store and bought the first two things I thought would work, paying quickly and then stepping into the changing room to put them on right away. I ended up in loose, earth-green pants that were barely held up by a tight belt, and a loose-fitting rosy red shirt that seemed similar enough to what I had seen people wearing on the street. In the changing room, I told Ropey to snake under the shirt, and he followed my instruction perfectly, coiling himself around my arms and chest in a way that wasn’t all that noticeable. With just the messenger bag visible, I gave every appearance of being an unarmed innocent.
I made my way through the streets of Cranberry Bay, working in the general direction of the inn we’d parked Amaryllis at. I was worried that I was being followed, and used the Anyblade for a mirror a few times to discreetly check behind me. Larkspur had touched me, and if he was prepared, he might have had a chance to stick some kind of magical tracking device on me. I’d checked over my clothes and hadn’t seen anything, but just for the sake of safety I had left the old clothes back in the changing room.
My lack of information was unnerving me. I had a fairly decent handle on most of the common magic systems, and even some of the rarer ones, but for a high-ranking Prince of Anglecynn, the sky seemed to be the limit. Magic items in particular seemed like they followed the D&D homebrew rules that I’d used, which were basically that magic items could do anything, so long as it was cool, with their awesomeness mostly prevented from making too big an impact on the world by the fact that there were very few of them. An item that allowed you to track someone you had touched was definitely not out of the question, but the possibilities were so endless it was almost not worth thinking about.
I found a room at a hotel some three blocks from where Amaryllis was staying, making sure that my room was on the second floor and had a balcony that would allow me to both watch for trouble and make a quick exit (and for some reason, paying for a hotel room using pink-and-red paper money still tripped my internal weirdness detector, probably because a part of my brain was saying that I wasn’t old enough to rent a hotel room). From there, I set up a chair positioned to watch both the balcony and the hotel door, which I firmly locked, moved a dresser in front of, and then surrounded with Lecher’s Vine for good measure.
Then I waited, with the Anyblade in one hand and my throwing dagger in the other.
And then I waited some more, thinking that at any moment they might track me to this place and try to take me down.
After about half an hour I decided that if they knew where I was, they were staking me out, but that didn’t make all that much sense, because Larkspur knew that a teleportation key was in play, and didn’t know where Amaryllis was, so for all he knew, I might have gone into this particular hotel in order to meet up with her and then leave Cranberry Bay forever. No, wait, he might have been able to talk to the receptionist and asked about someone matching my appearance, but then … setting up an anti-teleportation ward? I didn’t have a firm grasp on how Larkspur thought or what resources he had available to him, and surreptitiously putting up an anti-teleport ward around a hotel room on the second floor seemed like it would be legitimately difficult.
Still then, where was he?
I waited another four hours, listening to the sounds of the city coming in through the balcony, and occasionally going out to check that there wasn’t a warder pulling a spiderman and tracing a ward around my window. After some time had passed and I started getting bored, I practiced with the returning throwing knife some, eventually leveling it up to 16, which felt like a poor use of my time. But no one showed up, there was no secret attack, and when the sun started to set, I moved the dresser back from the door and left the hotel.
I was still on my toes when I got back to The Pink Lady, where we’d parked Amaryllis, but much less so. When I got up into the room, Fenn, Grak, and Amaryllis were all waiting there for me.
“Weren’t you wearing different clothes?” asked Fenn.
“I ran into Larkspur Prentiss,” I said. I saw Amaryllis’ face go tight at that, but Fenn gave me a look of incomprehension. “He’s the guy that sent your fireteam after Amaryllis?”
“Oh,” said Fenn, “That Larkspur Prentiss.”
“I lost him a few hours ago, but we should probably leave,” I said. “It might go without saying that I didn’t have any luck at the library. There might have been a minor fight. Also, I need more fairies.”
“And that was all you did?” asked Fenn as she reached out with Sable and started dumping dead fairies into my waiting hand. “Personally, I found out everything there was to know about your bones, plus I went shopping, plus I helped a lost boy find his mom, plus I entered and won an archery contest, and after that –”
“We can have this conversation elsewhere,” said Amaryllis. She lifted her sleeve and peeled the tattoo from her skin, until she was holding the teleportation key in her hand. “Back to Weik Handum, for now.”
“We need to talk about how he found me,” I said. “I don’t believe it was just coincidence, and we didn’t decide to go to Cranberry Bay until yesterday, which means that there’s an unknown power in play. Amaryllis?”
She used her good hand to rub her face. A day of rest didn’t seem to have done anything for her; if anything, she looked worse than the day before, even if her long sleeves and gloves were hiding the worst of the affliction. “Was he expecting you?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I don’t think so. It felt like … like he came to the library looking for the same book I was, and then wasn’t entirely surprised to find me there looking at the book.”
Amaryllis looked at Fenn and Grak. “Anglecynn has state secrets,” she said. “I have to give some consideration to what I divulge, if I ever hope to come back into power. I don’t think that he’ll be able to easily replicate the feat of stumbling across you.”
“That’s not good enough,” I said, keeping my tone firm and even. “Explain what he used.”
Amaryllis looked at me, and I felt an almost overwhelming pity for her. She had been beautiful, and that beauty was still mostly there, but her inner core of strength, what I had seen as her defining feature, was on the verge of collapse. I wanted to take back what I had said and let her be, or bring it up later, more gently. Future political ramifications over information security should have been the furthest things from anyone’s mind, but that was her way of trying to piece her life back together, or pretend that she could go back to being the person she must have been before.
“Explain,” I repeated, because it crossed my mind that POI was the ability to withstand other people, and I couldn’t just give in to feeling bad for her because I was avoiding putting points into social stats.
“It’s only a guess,” said Amaryllis with a sigh, “But my guess is that he dipped into the strategic elf reserve.”
“The what?” asked Fenn.
“It’s possible for a sufficiently skilled bone mage to draw luck from bones,” said Amaryllis. “Luck is a property possessed almost exclusively by elves, so the kingdom has been covertly collecting their bones for quite a long time.”
“Holy shit,” said Fenn. Grak was frowning.
“Larkspur wouldn’t be able to take too much from it though, and if his application of luck only got him to you, and you’ve stayed escaped for a few hours, then I don’t think there’s a threat,” said Amaryllis. “There are upper limits to what even highly concentrated luck allows you to do. My guess is he used a technique to point himself in the right direction and then went from there.”
She knew all this. She knew when we were talking about luck, when we were looking at my character sheet together, when she was giving advice on what I should do, she knew and she didn’t tell me because she thought she knew better than me. I could feel myself starting to get angry with her, and again my mind went to the 2 POI on my character sheet. I didn’t know how that interacted with my WIS, but I was hoping that I could refrain from doing or saying anything just because I was upset with her. I didn’t trust myself to speak politely, so I said nothing.
“So you’re telling me that Anglecynn has been involved in widespread desecration of elfish burial grounds?” asked Fenn. “That’s the takeaway?”
“I think Larkspur probably missed his chance,” said Amaryllis. “But in case he didn’t, we should make for Weik Handum.”
So we teleported away, without another word, and I saved my accusations for later.
“I described the disease and its symptoms to a magus,” said Grak. “Given the information I was able to supply, he told me that it was murinae putredine, a rare and almost invariably fatal disease. I described the princess’ condition and he told me that she would likely die. His suggestion was that I find a unicorn. He said it as though he didn’t believe I would. He also said that a sufficiently skilled blood mage might have been able to burn the disease out through transfusion if it was caught within the first forty-eight hours. I did not find this helpful.”
“And that was your day?” asked Fenn. “Was I the only one who had a solo adventure?” She put a hand to her chest. “Oh my god, am I the real protagonist?”
“… you know that I ran into and had a scuffle with a Prince of Anglecynn and his cronies, right?” I asked.
“Sure, it sounds impressive when you put it like that,” she said. “But then you holed up in a hotel waiting for my adventure to be done, didn’t you?”
Amaryllis ‘wasn’t feeling well’ and had gone to her room to sleep some more, which I was slightly annoyed at, because I wanted answers from her, dammit, and slightly relieved, because it meant that I didn’t need to think about her being sick (and then I was a little disgusted with myself, because being relieved that a sick person is out of sight is a little shitty). We were going after the unicorn, that had already been decided before I showed up, and the plan hadn’t changed too much with my information.
“I will concede that I did spend a lot of the day in a very Earth-like hotel room,” I said.
“Sounds boring,” said Fenn. “Anyway, the archery contest was being held out on the bay, with little buoys set up as targets, and they gave me a full handicap for elf luck, which I thought was really unfair, especially since there was a kashoonk there and he wasn’t given any handicap at all, even with biceps bigger than my thighs. I mean, it was more about accuracy than strength anyway, given the target values, but –”
“I don’t find this amusing, if that’s what it was supposed to be,” said Grak.
Fenn looked to me. I wasn’t smiling either. Maybe she actually had gone and entered an open archery contest, maybe even won it, but either way she was doing a bit that was only a little bit funny, and then only because of the contrast with our dire circumstances. “Tough crowd,” she said. “Okay, fine, I went to the athenaeum, poked about for a bit, and eventually found a very helpful raccoon who was willing to talk my ear off about what he called ‘blueprint theory’.” She held out a glove and a thick sheaf of papers appeared in her hand, with small little metal clips used for bindings. “This is a copy of his thesis on the subject, which he said I could borrow. It is, apparently, advanced stuff, quite a few years beyond what your average bone mage ever touches, because it’s not actually useful to know unless a bone mage drains their own bones, or at least the bones of something living.”
I took the papers from her as she kept talking.
“Anyway, the idea is basically that the soul has a blueprint of the body, and the bones are the scaffolding that everything hangs off of, with their own local blueprint copies,” said Fenn. “He kind of went on for a long time about whether ‘scaffolding theory’ or ‘blueprint theory’ sounded better, wanted to get my advice, that kind of thing, it was a very poor use of my time. He thinks that some healing works off what the scaffold says and some works off what the blueprint says. Like, I guess, if you had some shingles blow off your house, you’d know where you needed to put new shingles just by looking, right, because there’s nowhere they could go, but if a wing of your house got wrecked by a tornado you’d have to look at the blueprint to figure out how to rebuild. Sorry, I feel like I’m making a hash of it.”
“No, you’re doing fine,” I replied.
“Oh, good,” said Fenn. “But to get at the actual question, the problem seems to be that when you drain bones, you’re not affecting the scaffold, or not just, you’re actually fucking with the blueprint. So your finger gets hurt and asks the nearest bone, ‘hey, what should I do about this?‘ but that bone is basically dead and doesn’t respond back, which means that the finger needs to go somewhere else and get an answer to the same question, which takes longer and maybe in the middle of this conversation things get screwed up because of the distance. That’s my layman’s understanding, anyway.”
“Alright,” I said, “So how do we fix it?”
Fenn coughed. “Well, there’s the rub. I asked that same question, and he first thought that it couldn’t be done, because if he’s right, this blueprint, or maybe these blueprints can only be seen by squinting your eyes at some of the evidence. Or so he said. Most of that evidence comes from draining bones, so it seems like it’s easier to fuck things up than fix them.”
“So you don’t have a quest for me?” I asked.
Fenn looked me over. “Okay, so there are two options,” she said. “Option number one is that you get new bones. Raccoon-friend thought that would probably work, if you got them from someone that was more or less like you.” She paused. “Anything?”
“No quest, no,” I replied.
“Alright, well I’m going to skip over all the reasons that’s a bad idea then,” said Fenn. “Option number two is basically that you get someone to fuck with your soul.”
Quest Progress: Boneitis – The problem goes deeper than the bones, further than the heart, and straight into the very essence of your mortal existence. Find someone to alter your soul, or alter it yourself; either way, this is a project to approach with caution.
“Yeah,” I said, “That would do it. Soulfuckery … yay.”
“Is it really called that?” asked Grak. He’d been sitting quietly by the side, watching us, and I had almost forgotten that he was there. There was a thing that people did sometimes, where they said something just to be sure that they were heard, and Grak didn’t seem to have that instinct.
“No,” I replied. “The quest isn’t much of a quest, it’s just an update to the old one, with some warnings.”
“Yeah, warnings are probably appropriate,” said Fenn. “They practiced soul manipulation in the Second Empire, it’s kind of not a thing anymore, which means that if you find someone who specializes in it, they’re probably the kind of person you would rather run away from.”
“If you outlaw soul manipulation, only the outlaws will have manipulated souls,” I replied.
“Except not,” said Fenn, “Because most of what they did during the Second Empire was twisting innocent people around until they were barely recognizable monsters. And at the upper echelons they still use scraps of it, it’s not fully illegal, it’s just that the athenaeum was razed to the ground and pretty much everyone involved was killed.”
“Sorry,” I said, “That was a joke.”
“Boo,” said Fenn.
But that was a problem for another time, because tomorrow, we were going unicorn hunting (or rather, we were going to try to kill a unicorn that was hunting us).
“You’re a few miles into the woods when you spot the Unicorn for the first time,” I said.
“Any sign of the girls?” asked Tiff.
“I shoot it,” said Reimer, who was playing an archer/cleric, and who uttered the words ‘I shoot it’ at least twenty times a session.
“Roll for initiative,” I replied, “Tiff, no sign of the girls.” When everyone had given me their numbers, I gave them a description. “The unicorn is tall and shockingly white, not just with a horn atop his head that’s nearly two cubits long, but a billy-goat’s beard, a lion’s tail, and a cloven feet like a swine rather than a horse. Its body is that of an immense stallion, rippling with powerful muscles. Its pure black eyes look at the four of you, then it disappears behind a tree you don’t think could possibly hide its bulk.” I rolled some dice, then looked at my turn counter. “Reimer?”
“I can’t see it?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Fine,” he replied. “Readied action to shoot it when it appears.”
“The unicorn goes just after you, and you see him step out from behind a tree that he, again, could not possibly have been hiding behind,” I said. “Fire your arrow.”
“18, hit?” he asked.
“The arrow flies through the air, but the unicorn’s horn has shifted position, and it knocks the arrow away with a loud snort as it charges in toward you,” I replied.
“Shifted position how?” asked Arthur. “Like, it moved its horn really quickly to knock the arrow away, or it did a teleportation effect, or what?”
“Roll Perception,” I said.
“22,” said Arthur.
“You realize that you have two distinct memory tracks,” I replied. “In one, the arrow was loosed from the bow and was about to hit the unicorn, but that memory ends before that would have happened. In the other, the unicorn moved naturally and fluidly to get his horn into position before the arrow was loosed.”
Craig rolled his dice around in his hand and frowned at that. “Okay,” he said. “So it’s like deja vu, but we remember it both ways.”
“Deux fois vu, I’d think,” said Tiff.
“So not precognition or supernatural reflexes,” said Arthur, “More like … reality warping.”
“Or timeline collapsing,” said Craig. “It sees that it’s about to get hit, then picks a timeline where it didn’t get hit, and merges with that one, dragging us along.”
“No, that doesn’t make sense,” said Reimer, “Why would we remember it? That’s not how the brain works. And anyway, this isn’t really helpful to us, because it doesn’t give us a clue about how to beat it. Do I think that it would be able to keep doing this to every arrow I fire at it?”
“I don’t know, do you?” I asked, which was my response pretty much every time he tried to weasel information out of me. “But anyway, that was your readied action, so it’s still his turn, and he’s charging right for you, horn out in front of him.” I rolled some more dice behind my screen, glancing at them only briefly. “His horn pierces straight through your metal armor, going through it like soft butter, and making a hole that punctures your shoulder. Again, he shifts away from you, and you have two memories, one of him charging and goring you, and the other of him coming to a stop next to you. His horn is bloodless and clean, but you are still very much injured. Take 16 damage.”
“Alright,” said Arthur. “This thing has stolen thirteen girls and killed twenty men, some of them supposedly better than us. We have some measure of it now, does anyone have any bright ideas how to kill it?”