Worth the Candle, Ch 40: The Feminine Mystique

We teleported into the Aon Adharc Glen fully armored and with weapons drawn. If not for the fact that a murderous unicorn was there, I probably would have found it pleasant. Birch trees stuck up from knee-high grass, with little yellow flowers poking up in small clusters and blue butterflies flapping their wings as they made their way through the forest. We were in a clearing, with the closest tree some sixty feet away.

Grak sprang into action while the rest of us stood with our backs together. He was drawing up a ward around us, circling at ten feet out. One of the things that Grak had done with his day was try to find out more information about unicorns, specifically with regard to warding. He was fairly confident that a ward against latent skin magic (i.e. skin) would work on a unicorn, so that was the one that he was drawing, but he gave us the caution that it was possible that because unicorns were an intensely magical creature our unicorn friend, as Fenn insisted on calling him, might either have skin which was fully imbued with unicorn magic instead of latent skin magic, or he might only have notional skin in the first place.

Killing a unicorn shared some surface similarities with killing a revision mage. With a revision mage, you basically had to ensure that they couldn’t revise backward to a point where they weren’t dead, either by killing them with something their magic couldn’t interact with, or by ensuring that no amount of revision or different action on their part could possibly prevent their death. The big difference was that timeline fuckery, or whatever the unicorn did, didn’t actually seem to care about magic all that much. It wasn’t undoing anything, just doing a sideways merge into a timeline where that thing hadn’t been done in the first place.

So that basically meant that we had to kill it in such a way that we couldn’t not kill it, no matter how many timelines it tried to merge together.

The good news was that Amaryllis had been rescued from a unicorn’s ‘care’ and then, when she was quite a bit older, read through the after-action report of that rescue. We were at least partially going off of what she remembered from that, though by her reckoning it had been at least four years since she’d read it, and she wasn’t terribly confident in her specific ability to recall fine details, because she hadn’t been reading with intent to memorize. The dual memories reported by the men sent to kill the unicorn were always within three seconds of divergence, which meant that all you really had to do was ensure that there was nothing that the unicorn could do within a three-second period to survive.

The bad news was that this power, or magic, or whatever it was, could be used an unlimited amount of times, and the unicorn had other abilities beyond just that big, annoying, deadly one. For example, it could slip behind trees and teleport around, which would allow it to close in on us from practically any angle. And while my normal response to the time fuckery might have been to just use poison (assuming I could figure out a way to administer it), that was all moot, because the unicorn’s natural healing conferred a complete immunity to poison and disease.

Grak finished the ward against skin and then came back to rejoin us with his axe drawn. We still hadn’t caught sight of the unicorn.

“You said that you were fairly certain that this unicorn hadn’t died?” asked Grak.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. We had already gone over this back at Weik Handum, and it didn’t seem like she wanted to repeat what she’d said there. If there was no unicorn, then all we really lost was time. The existence of a unicorn in this glen wasn’t exactly common knowledge, and people with the resources and motive for killing this unicorn were also in short supply.

Fenn began moving before I saw anything, drawing an arrow from her glove, nocking it, and turning to track something unseen in the woods. My eyes caught a flash of white a moment later, but that was it.

“Elf luck still works,” she said. “That’s enemy contact, by the way.”

“Steady,” I said.

The unicorn came out from behind the closest tree to us, nine feet of equine somehow hidden behind a foot-wide birch. I wondered how that was possible, not just in the sense of this being a teleporting unicorn, but we had to have different perspectives on where it was hiding, right? And given that, there wasn’t just physical trickery involved, but visual trickery as well, because at any given time the four of us were looking at different parts of the unicorn.

Fenn loosed an arrow at the unicorn. I watched it sail toward him — and then I had this other memory, one where he began moving just as Fenn let her arrow fly. He knocked it out of the air with his six-foot long horn and gave us a contemptuous snort that sent curls of steam into the chilly air.

“Well, that’s just like you drew him up,” said Fenn. “Good job, Juniper.”

(It wasn’t actually though. The way I had drawn him up, he had a version of Deflect Missiles that worked with his horn, and that was only once per round, plus a way for him to do the same to melee attacks, again only once per round. It was easy enough to overwhelm him or use area-of-effect spells against him, and the ‘new memories’ thing was mostly flavor because of the theme I was trying to go for.)

“He should be attacking,” I said, watching him. He was stationary, staring at the four of us. “You think he senses the ward?”

“He’s cautious,” said Amaryllis. “You can see there, on his flank, where they wounded him.” I looked to where her gloved and gauntleted hand was pointing and saw a thin, gray scar against his white hair.

“Shit,” said Fenn. “Doesn’t seem like that’s going to work in our favor. Should I shoot him again?”

“Let’s try the void rifle,” I replied. I unslung it from my back and took aim at the unicorn, which was watching me and occasionally stamping a cloven hoof. I was about to squeeze the trigger and shoot it before a thought occurred to me. “Is there any reason that it would just stand there and let me shoot it? Because my only guess is that it’s gathering information.”

“Could be taunting us,” said Fenn.

“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. She was wearing her immobility plate, with helmet in place, and I hated that I had to go on the tone in her voice. This creature had kidnapped her and killed three of the people she was with when she was eight years old. “It likes its victims to know and understand that it has power over them, but … the three of you aren’t victims, you’re threats, obstacles.”

I squeezed the trigger on the void rifle, and watched as a dime-sized hole opened in the unicorn’s chest, and then there it was again, this alternate memory, where he had turned and darted back behind a tree. In the memory, I had tried to track and shoot him, but he had moved too fast for me, and my shot had put a hole in a tree instead.

He came at us from a completely different direction, charging at speed with horn down. He covered fifty feet in the space of a single second, and hit the ward hard, his horn swinging to within a few feet of us. And then, suddenly, we all had a new memory, one where instead he appeared behind a different tree and simply stared at us.

“Okay,” I said, “He’s definitely probing us out. Are we confident in that ward?”

“For another two hours, yes,” said Grak. “More confident now than when it was made. He’s proven that it will stop him.”

“It’s not enough that we stop him,” said Amaryllis.

She was right. The condition for success, as stated by the quest, was that we had to kill the unicorn and have Amaryllis drink its blood. Sitting in a field with a unicorn staring at us for two hours until the timer on the teleportation key was up and we could leave wouldn’t actually accomplish anything.

Logically, the game had to have a way of implementing unicorn timeline fuckery within the game. I didn’t know how the game itself was implemented, but while simulating the entirety of Aerb seemed like a stretch, and simulating all nine thousand hells beggared belief, I was pretty confident that simulating actual alternate timelines was right out. It would be easier if the simulation was local to me, detailed only if my attention was directly on something, but if the Dungeon Master were going to cut corners like that, then there was no way that he would simulate a stupid number of timelines, especially since he was only really interested in the ones where the unicorn won.

My biggest question was whether the unicorn was getting information from the future or not. It was possible that if the unicorn got hurt, or was about to get hurt, or just wanted to, his mental state would get sent ‘back in time’ three seconds and he would get a do-over with more information. It was also possible that ‘time’ got rewound backward three seconds instead, and then events played out with different die rolls (or whatever), which would mean that the unicorn only got alternate timeline information when the merge happened.

These things weren’t functionally equivalent, not if there was a limit to plausibility/probability. If most of what the unicorn did could be summed up as ‘repeat the scenario until I win’ then you could never kill it, because something dumb and out there like everyone dying of random brain aneurysms could happen, or skilled fighters making rare flubs, or something like that. To make a D&D analogy, it would be like saying that you got to reroll the dice as many times as you wanted, which would mean that there was never a point where you wouldn’t roll 20s.

The solution spaces looked different depending on what we were dealing with. Maybe we didn’t need a death he couldn’t escape from, maybe we just needed a death he couldn’t escape from if there was no possibility that he had the information necessary to react to it.

“Okay,” I said. “We need to figure out whether the unicorn is getting information from the future or not. Maybe it is, or maybe it’s picking what actually happened from within a random set of things that might have happened.”

“And how, praytell, do we figure out which is which?” asked Fenn.

“Artillery shot,” I said. “His previous response to you firing an arrow was to wait and watch it come at him, then to use his magic to bring us into a world where he knocked the arrow out of the sky, right? He’s obviously really, really fast, we’ve seen that, maybe even fast enough that he didn’t need to use his power, but he probably can’t do the same for an artillery shot, because there would be too many arrows.”

“Only between eight and sixteen at this range,” said Fenn.

“You think he can parry eight arrows?” asked Grak.

“If he can, it’s worth knowing,” said Amaryllis.

“Okay,” I said. “So what I want you to do is to aim straight at him, wait six seconds at full draw, and then release. If you see him move at all, or you get the feeling through your elf luck that he’s going to move, then you release before the time is up, but only if it’s after three seconds have passed. Alright?”

“Uh, sure,” said Fenn as she thought about that. “You want to make sure that he can’t go back to a time before I had full draw. You’re trying to game it.”

“Yeah,” I said. This wasn’t actually a definitive test on whether the unicorn was actually getting future information, but it was as close as I thought we’d be able to get. I had a flowchart in my head for how this encounter would go, and information gathering was right where we wanted to be given that we didn’t get attacked.

“It’s me he wants,” said Amaryllis. I noticed a slight sway to her as she spoke.

“We have time,” I said.

Fenn nocked an arrow and pulled the bowstring back, closing one eye to sight along the grip. One mississippi. Two mississippi. And then the unicorn was off, back behind the tree and off somewhere else. Fenn turned to track him. One mississippi. Two mississippi. And again, he moved, darting back behind the trees. His movement reminded me more of a deer than a horse, in the way that he could spring forward or to the side. Maybe it was the agility that a cloven hoof gave him.

“Okay,” I said. “He’s smart enough to avoid getting in a situation where he’d have his options limited, he’s staying next to the trees so that he always has an out, and even then, he’s not staying still for long enough that he’d be faced with something inevitable. My guess is that he’s not getting future information, just information from the parallel timelines on merge, which means that all we really need to do is get him in a situation where he can’t see the killing blow coming.”

“The only reason it has to stick around is that it wants me,” said Amaryllis.

“Or because it can’t understand the teleportation key and is waiting for the ward to fade,” said Grak. “I would have to redraw it smaller.”

“Do you have something clever, Juniper?” asked Amaryllis.

I hesitated. “I have a vial of nicotine,” I replied. “If I drink it, then maybe with Ropey’s help I can grab onto the unicorn and –”

“Oh, are we entertaining idiotic deathwish scenarios?” asked Fenn. “Because mine is that I stab it in the throat, but I’m so good at stabbing it in the throat that there’s no possible scenario where it runs me straight through instead of just dying.” She turned to Amaryllis. “So that’s mine, and we know the princess has hers, Grak, did you have one?”

“With enough healing magic it might be possible to entrap the unicorn in a warped ward,” said Grak.

“No,” said Fenn, “It’s got to be something like Joon’s or Mary’s, where you’re putting all of the weight of the adventure directly on your spine.”

“I’m the one that’s dying,” said Amaryllis. She pulled off her helmet, and I looked at her sunken eyes. She had taken a shower and some magical healing, but that had only done so much. “I knew that it would come to this. We all knew that I was the key.”

She laid the helmet on the ground, and began walking forward, unarmed. The ward protected us, but not from the horn, and with three steps she was past the point where it might be able to gore her. Fenn began to raise her bow again, and I laid a hand on her arm to stop her.

“It’s me,” she said the unicorn. She walked forward with a trembling hand held out in front of her. Her voice was higher, more mellifluous than normal. “I’m your sweet little girl, your darling come back to you, still pure and innocent, still untouched by man, still unawakened to the pleasures of the flesh, that’s what you want, isn’t it? Your trembling, virginal, doe-eyed beauty returned, yours to capture again?”

(I felt my stomach churn at her words. The whole ‘innocent little girl’ thing had always left me feeling uncomfortable, maybe mixed with a little bit of shame. Part of that was Tiff’s influence over me. If she’d been here, she would have given me an earful about the male obsession with purity and youth. But that was the whole reason that I had made the unicorn in the first place.)

The unicorn leapt forward and charged at Amaryllis. I kept thinking that it would come to a stop, or at least that Amaryllis would try to dodge out of its way, but all she did was flinch a bit at the end, just before it drove its long, white horn straight through her armor and out the other side.

And then that was just an alternate memory of how things might have been, and the timeline we were in was one where it did come to a stop in front of her.

“Yes,” she breathed with a shaky voice, “You could kill me, thank you for showing me that, you’re so big and strong and handsome, that’s why I came back to you, why I’m here to let you take me away from these people, so you can use your big strong muscles and long, powerful horn to protect me from anyone who might try to defile me.”

The unicorn was semi-intelligent, but couldn’t understand English, so what she was saying to it was mostly to convey emotion and intent to it. She was a better liar than I gave her credit for; even with the overacted character she was putting on, there was something compelling about her words.

Again the unicorn moved in a flash of power and brought his horn down, thrusting it forward and spearing her through, and again the violence and gore, the shock of Amaryllis dead, became just a memory of a thing that never was.

“I know I was taken from you,” said Amaryllis, who tensed and then relaxed at the moment of integration, “And I know you’ve been lonely in this glen, because everyone keeps their daughters from you, but it was those mean men who took me from you, who whisked me away even though I clawed at the ground trying to stay with you. I was chaste and pure and modest while I waited until I could get back to you, back to the only creature that could ever protect me.” She took another step forward and rested her hand on the unicorn’s horn, then stepped forward tentatively, running gloved fingers across it.

Twice now it had gored her through and then made that only a memory, and I was tensed up waiting to see what the beast would decide. There was nothing stopping it from killing her for real, nothing except the fact that it had this intense, pseudosexual desire for her. I was worried that her armor would make her unappealing, or that it would smell the disease on her, or maybe just that she wasn’t pure and innocent except maybe in the sense that she’d never had sex.

But the unicorn allowed her to approach it, and she kept moving forward, down the length of its horn, until her hand met the ward against skin.

“Grak,” said Amaryllis, without looking back. “You’re going to need to remove this ward so I can be reunited with the unicorn.” Her voice was still the same, light and airy. She’d been careful with her words since coming into the glen, and this was the critical moment.

“Will it stay with you if I draw a new one to protect us?” asked Grak.

“I can’t say,” replied Amaryllis. “You’re in his glen. He has every right to kill you. He doesn’t like men.”

“I’m not quite a man,” said Grak.

“Whatever you do, do it quickly,” said Amaryllis. “We’ve been apart for so long.”

The unicorn moved backward just a bit as Grak slowly and cautiously made a second ward within the first, but made no move to attack, or even to give us a memory of attack. It wasn’t clear how intelligent the unicorn was, but I thought maybe he understood that we were going to release Amaryllis to him. He certainly wasn’t smart enough to see the trap, or if he was, then his desire for Amaryllis was strong enough to overwhelm any natural caution.

When the second ward, much smaller than the first, had been drawn upon the ground, Grak raised his warder’s wand and swished it precisely through the air. The unicorn made the first move, closing the distance between himself and Amaryllis until his muzzle butted up against her hand. She leaned forward and gave it a brief, gentle, chaste kiss.

“It’ll be just you and me,” she said, almost too soft for me to hear, “I can help bring in more girls to your care, I can bring them back to this glen with me, so that we can all be yours, together.” She brought her head down to touch against the unicorn’s. Where her red hair touched its horn, it changed, taking on a shiny, spectral quality. “Can I ride you?”

(I held my breath.)

The unicorn lowered its head until its horn touched the ground, and Amaryllis moved over to the side of him. With a start, he sprang into action, turning toward her and bringing a foot slamming down on her, stomping on her face, which was the only unarmored part of her. And then that was only a memory, yet again, a memory that said, “I’m a nice guy, but I can and will fucking end you if you betray me”. Amaryllis stopped, only briefly, at the unicorn’s side as the memory caught up with her, and then she put a hand on his flank. He lowered slightly at her touch, and she climbed up with an ease that spoke of experience with horses.

Amaryllis gripped him with her thighs and leaned forward to wrap her arms around his neck. She whispered something in his ear, too soft for me to hear, but I was paying more attention to the count. One mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi.

“Now!” screamed Amaryllis, and the unicorn tried to move with a start, only to find himself locked in place by the arms around his neck, the immobility plate rigid around him. And then there was not one memory, but a cascade of memories, all of him trying to buck her and her clamping down, locking her armor in place and closed tight around his neck.

I sprang into action. I faltered for a moment in the confusion of timelines, because I hadn’t sat there counting, not in reality, I had been moving from the moment he tried to buck her and she had locked him down. I raised my void rifle and aimed straight for center mass, trying to ensure that there would be no possible reality where I hit her instead of him, and pulled the trigger.

Skill increased: Rifles lvl 21! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat CUN.)

New Virtue: Compensator!

Critical Failure!

There was another disorienting flurry of memories as the unicorn tried and failed to avoid the shot. A few things came to me at once, thought several times along parallel timelines, the first being that I’d been at 12 for Rifles, and I had memories of different messages coming up, which meant I was gaining skill from every timeline, and the second that the unicorn had to be iterating through timelines to find one that worked, trying over and over.

And still, the void rifle put a hole in him, just off-center of his chest, and I remembered times it had gone worse for him, when six inches of penetration had been enough to kill rather than just a wound that missed everything vital. It began to close almost immediately, and within a second it was just a grey dot.

Grak dropped the ward as Fenn moved around to the side, darting with the speed of her armor and then lining up a shot carefully. The unicorn began throwing its head back, trying to smash into Amaryllis, and I could see her jerk from the impact, but almost all of its force went up against her armor, which wasn’t going anywhere. The memories were coming thick and fast now, and I was having trouble keeping track of what was and wasn’t happening. I laid a hand on a bone sticking out of my bandolier and started draining it for SPD, and popped a snake from my wrist tattoo to slither across the ground, as I went to join Fenn.

Skill increased: Bone Magic lvl 21! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat KNO.)

Skill increased: Skin Magic lvl 21! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat KNO.)

When Fenn shot, I must have lived the same slice of three seconds a few hundred times. She had been moving as far away from the unicorn as possible, and when she shot the arrows split, then split, then split, and I had a wash of memories of it happening, arrows driving deep into the unicorn’s flank. The true reality we ended up in was six of them in the unicorn and another two in Amaryllis’ leg, the odds against that astronomical but still not enough to save the unicorn.

It slowed down, huffing and rearing frantically, occasionally tossing us across into another timeline, giving us memories of things that had happened in just slightly different ways. Amaryllis was bleeding from her face, battered from where he’d managed to hit her just so, but she grit her teeth and waited there as we hopped between realities and the unicorn wore down, until finally it sank so that the front half of his body was supported by the lock Amaryllis and her immobility plate had around his neck.

Unicorn defeated!

She dropped unceremoniously and rolled for a bit, then gasped in pain and moved over to the unicorn. Amaryllis ripped one of the arrows out of its side, ignoring her own wounds, and pressed her lips to where metallic blood was trickling out. I moved over beside her and took a small cup Fenn offered, trying to scrape up more blood from the unicorn’s other wounds. When I offered the cup to Amaryllis, she drank deep, guzzling it down, leaving her lips and teeth stained with the silvery fluid. The arrows in her leg popped out, the cuts and fractures of her face healed, and then, with a trembling hand, she removed her glove. Her hand, previously yellow, was now as pretty and perfect as it had ever been.

She looked at me with a maniacal grin on her face, and that was when I noticed that her pupils were crazily dilated, giving her a look that might have been cartoonish if not for the blood (hers and his) all over her face. She reached toward me and gripped me on the neck, then pulled me in for an uncomfortable kiss, with her lips mashing against mine and our teeth clinking together.

When she pulled away she rose from her knees and raised both fists in the air for a scream. “Woooooo!” She pointed down at the unicorn. “Fuuuuck you, fuck you, stupid fucking horse!”

Quest Complete: Unihorn – The unicorn blood has purged the disease from Amaryllis and cured all the damage it had done. Don’t worry, the high won’t last longer than 1d4 hours.

I braced for the level up, but it didn’t come, and I felt my heart sink at that.

“I feel SO FUCKING GOOD!” shouted Amaryllis as she started to remove her armor. “Did I always feel this good?” she asked, speaking fast and not waiting for an answer. “No, no, I never felt this good, this is the unicorn juice talking, but FENN, do you want to go for a naked run through the woods with me, because I’m not going to die anymore and it’s probably a good idea to try to burn off some of the unicorn blood inside me so that I can get my head on straight and Juniper I’m sorry I kissed you but I knew you’d been wanting me to –” She stopped and struggled with one of the straps on the immobility plate, flailing around with it for a bit.

“Well now I kind of want to try it,” said Fenn. “But we’re going to need at least two people with their heads screwed on straight. Joon, you’re up.”

I looked down at the unicorn corpse and then did as Amaryllis did, pulling an arrow from the unicorn’s side and then sucking at the wound. I’d already had some of the taste when Amaryllis had kissed me; it was metallic and slightly bitter, not the ambrosia I would have been expecting. I didn’t really think that this would do anything for my bones, but not even trying didn’t seem like an option, not even with the psychological reaction that Amaryllis had. Fenn was at my side, watching me carefully as I drank, and before I knew it she had thrown me backward and climbed up to sit on my chest.

I was waiting for it, and could feel the effects start to rip through my mind, holistic integrity thresholds on my personality network be damned.

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Worth the Candle, Ch 40: The Feminine Mystique

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: