I didn’t manage to fall asleep until Fenn snaked a lazy hand under the covers and laid it across my chest. I don’t know if she did that by instinct, accident, elf luck, or because she’d woken up enough to see me staring at the ceiling and thinking, but either way, it was a comfort.
When I woke up in the morning her side of the bed was empty, and my clothes and weapons were laid out for me, with my armor off to one side. The smell of breakfast came in through the open bedroom door, and I dressed in a hurry, electing to leave the armor off. I was feeling much better than I had felt the night before, with a clearer head.
Fenn was cooking pancakes and bacon, and had already made a mess of the kitchen. When I came over to the dining table, which was in the same large room, Amaryllis slid me a cup of coffee in a thick mug, with a small, dark yellow square floating in it that I assumed must be butter. She raised an eyebrow my way, and on the assumption that she was asking if we were still okay, I gave her a nod.
“So, now that we’re all here, we shall eat pancakes and discuss the future,” said Fenn. She set a large plate down on the table, stacked with pancakes, and then another large plate, stacked with bacon. Grak immediately took the top third of the pancake stack and moved it to his plate, then began eating it with his hands. “Enjoy the bounty of the freezer and pantry of Weik Handum, long may it provide.”
“My end goal is to find and rescue the Lost King, wherever he might be,” I said. “I assume that’s going to be difficult, because I have to imagine that a lot of other people with better resources have already tried, but I knew him, so that at least gives me something of an edge.”
“Joon comes out with a strong pitch!” said Fenn. “Can our princess deliver a better counter-offer?”
“The Lost King is most likely dead,” said Amaryllis. “It’s been five hundred years. At best, he’s in one of the hells, at worst, both his soul and body have long since been destroyed. Even if we assume a best case scenario, the original plan we made when I was still sick was that we should endeavor to complete as many of Juniper’s quests as possible in order to make him more powerful. That’s instrumental toward finding and retrieving the Lost King.”
She folded her arms, and I noticed she was wearing a different shirt from the night before, this one with “Boning by the Bay” written on it. I was partially successful in suppressing a giggle.
“Neither of those are plans,” said Grak, wiping the back of his mouth with his hand. “What is the list of quests?”
I closed my eyes and looked at my character sheet, then read them off one by one.
|◼ Straddling Worlds: There are others like you, those with dreams of a place called Earth. The so-called dream-skewered are studied at the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny. You can travel there to find out more.
◼ God Botherer: There are gods in this world, titans of power and masters of domains, each their own creature with their own special rules. Tread carefully around these creatures, especially if you wish to someday join their ranks.
◼ The Lost King, Found?: Five hundred years ago, Uther Penndraig, figure of legend, King of Anglecynn, and ancestor of Amaryllis, disappeared from this world while on a quest of grave importance. This enduring mystery must have an answer for those brave or foolish enough to seek it, mustn’t it?
◼ 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.
◼ Summer’s End – Return to the place where Fenn received her scars and bring justice to the elves. (Companion Quest)
◼ They Say You Can’t Go Home Again – He had a life, before you, and you had a life, before this.
(I left that last one off, because it was creepy and I didn’t want to do it.)
“Okay, well I think we all know which of those I would prefer,” said Fenn as she plucked a piece of bacon off the plate. “It feels good to be the best, most important companion.”
“Amaryllis is more important,” said Grak.
“Grak, did we not bond with one another watching over these two hoomans?” asked Fenn. “Did we not fill several jars with unicorn blood, working in perfect harmony, did we not butcher the beast together, did I not cackle maniacally as I watched you try to chase down the naked jaybird?” She asked this last one with a finger pointed Amaryllis’ way and a grin on her face. “Alright, I can see where the cackling might not have been that endearing, from your perspective.”
“Amaryllis controls investiture of the entads,” said Grak. “She is also the most traveled, giving us the widest range with the key.” He took another bite of pancake, munching it with his wide teeth. “She is also the second-least annoying, after me.”
Fenn narrowed her eyes. “Betrayer.”
“We should do them in order of how easy they are,” I said, “We’ll have to factor in the difficulty we might have in moving. I think at a certain point it’s going to make sense for us to just use the normal systems of travel that everyone else uses, just in the interests of keeping a low profile.”
“Straddling Worlds, then,” said Amaryllis. “But Boneitis is more important in terms of keeping you healthy.”
“It’s really not that bad,” I said, “I think boosting my END curbed it. The worst I felt was during training, and — I should write out an updated character sheet and a list of discovered rules again, but it looks like I’m going to be capped on what I can do when we’re just sitting around making up training exercises.”
“How are new quests formed?” asked Grak.
“I’m not too clear on that,” I said. “Sometimes I’ll get one when someone tells me something, or when they ask me to do something, and there are some quests that come in parts, meaning that I get the next one as soon as the first part is done.” I took a breath. “So if anyone has anything they think is a quest, you can try to offer it now and expand our options.”
“I need one thousand pounds of gold for my penance,” said Grak.
“Ugh,” said Fenn. “First of all, we already know that, second, that’s not how you deliver a quest.” She cleared her throat and then started in on her best dwarf impression. “Juniper Smith, I have grievously wronged my clan and must return to them with a sizeable fortune of gold as my penance. I will not be greeted warmly upon my return. Your presence by my side upon my return to Drilly Ird would be the warmest possible closure to this chapter of my life.”
Quest Accepted: All That Glitters – Return to Darili Irid with Grakhuil once da has gathered enough gold to satisfy da nad self-imposed penance to da nad former clan. Speak with Grak to learn more. (500/1000) (Companion Quest)
“That … actually worked,” I said. “I think maybe the difference is that I was invited? It switched from being something that he was going to do on his own to something we’re going to do together?”
“I did not invite you,” said Grakhuil. “This matter is personal.” That much was clear from the quest text, and the words ‘self-imposed’ brought both clarity and questions to what it was he really wanted, beyond gold.
“Well it’s going to take another five hundred pounds of gold,” said Fenn, “And I will fight anyone who wants to use group loot to that end.”
“I have no argument with our arrangement,” said Grak, folding his arms across his chest.
“And you still have no quest to return me to power?” asked Amaryllis. “Do you think it would work if I asked you to be my knight?”
I let out a breath. “I think it might interfere with the Lost King quest, if I’m being honest,” I said. I watched her ice blue eyes, hoping that I could catch any traitor thoughts there. “The entire political structure of Anglecynn for the last five hundred years has been built on the fact that the Princes and Princesses are only ruling in his stead, if he comes back, there’s going to be at best a massive reform.”
The idea of dragging Arthur out of whatever hole he was hiding in and bringing him back from the dead, only to have him continue the rule of Anglecynn, caused some dissonance in me. What was my end-game here, after he was back? I didn’t think there was an Earth for me to return to, and certainly I didn’t want to be slapped back into a simulation of the Kansas I had left. I didn’t imagine that Arthur would want that either, but after a lifetime on Aerb, maybe he would have disagreed. I wasn’t entirely convinced that the game wouldn’t end then; it seemed to me like that was the ultimate quest.
“I will accede that’s a possibility,” said Amaryllis. She folded her arms across her chest, mirroring Grak, though her expression was more mild than his permanent resting frown.
“They don’t have to be personal quests, right?” asked Fenn. “They can be anything?”
“Based on the evidence, they just need to be something that I can accomplish.” I rubbed my neck. “So far as I can tell, they don’t even need to be particularly reasonable for a person to do.”
“And if you’re right about the nature of this world, then you’re directly responsible for everything from the undead to the unicorns, right?” asked Fenn. “So some would say that you have a moral obligation to clean up all the messes you made.” I didn’t like where she was going with this, and my imaginings were just that, fictions made real (or at least more real) by the Dungeon Master of Aerb.
“You’re saying that I should fix everything in the world?” I asked.
“No, nothing like that,” said Fenn. She pointed a finger at Amaryllis without looking at her. “Encyclopedia girl, tell me how many –”
“I will suffer through being called Mary, and I will suffer through what I don’t doubt are an endless series of horrible clothes you picked up for me, but I am a princess of Anglecynn and the most direct descendant of Uther Penndraig and I will NOT respond to ‘encyclopedia girl’,” said Amaryllis.
“That’s where you draw the line?” asked Fenn with surprise. “Someone is in a bad mood this morning. Very well, Princess Amaryllis Penndraig of the Kingdom of Anglecynn, tenth of her name, Slayer of Gold Mages, Drinker of Unicorns, The Immobile Woman, I humbly ask you to tell me how many major or minor exclusion zones might be ended by a rag-tag group of heroes.”
“None,” said Amaryllis.
“Bullshit,” said Fenn.
“If these things could be done by a single person, or even a small group, they would have been,” said Amaryllis. “Do you think the international community is so negligent that they would let Fel Seed sit on his throne in the City of a Thousand Brides if there were any option to do otherwise? It’s flatly impossible to kill him, by any means, not even in theory.”
Quest Accepted: Gone to Seed – There is a place on Aerb considered worse than the first four thousand hells. Fel Seed sits on a throne of living flesh, unable to spread beyond his domain, but with a rule of horror within it. You know his weakness.
“Fuck,” I said.
“Were you deliberately tempting fate?” asked Fenn.
Amaryllis shrugged, and I saw a slight smile that disappeared almost at once. “It can be done then?”
“The game seems to think so,” I said. “It also thinks I know his weakness, which, uh, might be a problem, because I really don’t. Let’s not do that one.”
“Well I’m not suicidal,” said Fenn, “Unlike the three of you, I have a vested interest in living. If we can give Juniper’s brain a hundred quests, we don’t have to actually do anything with them, but sometimes the game drops hints that might be useful.”
I agreed with her logic, but I really didn’t want to have the Fel Seed quest sitting there in my head to look at, because if the game put that quest there, then it meant that there was at least a chance it wasn’t impossible, and even if I wasn’t responsible for him, I did have a moral obligation to end him if I was the only one that could do it. He probably wasn’t real, the simulated people he was torturing probably didn’t have actual computing power dedicated to them, they didn’t have real lives … and yet, you could do conditional probability, the odds that those people were real multiplied by their pain and suffering, and surely the numbers would dictate that I should at least give it consideration.
“Thirteen,” said Amaryllis. “You won’t be able to do anything about the ones like Blue Fields or the Datura Desert, but there are thirteen enpersoned exclusion zones which you might be able to defeat, if you rise to the heights that Uther Penndraig obtained.”
Quest Accepted: The Slayer of Horrors (0/13)
“Okay,” I said. “Well I’ve got a meta-quest for that, but I’m actually not suicidal,” anymore, “thank you, and I was thinking that we could do something that’s easy for once in our lives. Are there people we can meet, places we can go, things we can do that don’t necessarily involve combat, or at least where combat is with people who aren’t trying to kill me.”
“I believe there are two ancestral caches left which Aumann would not have been able to break past, even if he knew about them,” said Amaryllis. “One is within an exclusion zone, the other one might as well be. The castle in Glassy Fields is both warded and encased in razor-sharp shards of glass, with the vidrics sure to attack us on approach. It dates to just after Uther Penndraig’s disappearance, which should make it of special interest to you. It was never considered worth the probable costs to retrieve whatever might be there. There’s a reason that no one loots the Glassy Fields.”
Quest Accepted: Through the Lashing Glass – Far inside the Glassy Fields exclusion zone, the only place on Aerb where glass magic still works, lies a castle coated in shards. The treasures within are unknown to the world, but you could unearth them, if you dared.
I gave her a thumbs up at that, and she nodded.
“The other is three miles down the Boundless Pit, abandoned since the tuung claimed it, but warded against them,” said Amaryllis. “I believe it should contain a suit of armor with a short-range investiture, assuming that the wards around it haven’t been broken past and that the tuung haven’t made an effort to detach it from the pit walls, which they might have. The place was built by an architect under forge frenzy, and contains its own defenses that make it a formidable conquest; since Weik Handum isn’t secure, and cannot be made so, I would suggest that Kuum Doona be made our new base of operations, if we can get to it, though only a fool would chose to defy the tuung lightly.”
Quest Accepted: A Room of One’s Own – The Boundless Pit is a mile wide and infinitely deep, a chasm from which little returns. The tuung call it their home, and imperial law agrees, but infinity is a large place, and a secure home stays stuck to the wall, waiting to light up with activity once more. Kuum Doona awaits.
“Okay, got that one too, but I’m not sure that we really need to end every single quest suggestion with a dire warning about how foolhardy or deadly it would be,” I said.
“Though woe betide any who might attempt it, we could look into getting me some kind of awesome magical hat,” said Fenn as she grinned at me.
“Okay, fine,” I said. “I don’t actually think any of that expanded our options, not unless anyone wants to go into yet another exclusion zone.”
“The Boundless Pit isn’t an exclusion zone,” said Amaryllis with a slight frown. “The term has a very specific meaning, even if you disagree with the imperial designations.”
“Okay,” I said. “And given that we can’t stay here without having to constantly worry about whether someone is going to show up and find us, I think that’s probably a reasonable near-term goal. I must be close to leveling though, and in my ideal world, I would do that without combat on the line, especially given that I still need my bones healed. To me, that means our next step is either finding someone who can do soul magic, or going on either the Straddling Worlds quest or the God Botherer quest. Because God Botherer doesn’t seem like it’s going to end at simply meeting a god, that means that we’re down to either going to the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny, or we’re going to try to find someone who can take a peep at my soul.”
“Unless Mary has a supremely trusted soul mage on call, I vote for the athenaeum,” said Fenn.
“Me too,” said Grak. “I would not trust a skilled soul manipulator.”
“Noted,” I said.
“We still have to worry about Larkspur,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t believe that he would dip into the kingdom’s supply of elf luck again, but that’s a possibility that we need to be prepared for. More to the point, he has power both within Anglecynn and the Empire of Common Cause which he could use to make our lives difficult, even if we aren’t moving against him. From there, he would likely try to kill me, or capture the rest of you in an effort to kill me. So long as Anglecynn’s FSD is after us, we’ll have to keep moving around like rats, afraid of the light. It’s ammunition to use against him, if,” she hesitated, “If I ever have a future in Anglecynn.”
“You’re saying we kill him,” said Fenn. “Figure out a way to lure him somewhere, then slice his stupid head off.”
Quest Accepted: Slice His Stupid Head Off – You still have to worry about the Foreign Security Director of Anglecynn, Larkspur Prentiss. He’ll have you running like rats, afraid of the light, so long as he lives. Figure out a way to lure him somewhere, then do as the quest title says.
I stared at that message, then blinked it away.
“Something happen?” asked Fenn.
“No,” I said. Just the quest text quoting the two of you. Are these being written on the fly or are the talking points being inserted into the conversation by the Dungeon Master? Really hoping that it’s the former. “I got a quest to kill him.”
“The detection wards I placed just pinged,” said Grak, who sat up from his chair. “They’re a half mile out, we should leave before anyone arrives.”
I frowned at that, but moved into action. We had a plan for this, and I wasn’t about to deviate from it. I ran up the stairs to my room while the others went to theirs, snatched up my armor and my messenger bag, which had all my worldly possessions that weren’t in the glove, and then ran back down into the basement, to the one room in Weik Handum where teleportation wasn’t blocked. Grak had put up his own wards there, to ensure that no one could come in through that back door, and when I arrived he was moving his wand, bringing the ward down.
“Wish we could see who it was,” said Fenn as she came into the room, with Amaryllis close behind her. “But not so much that I’m willing to risk getting a bullet in the brain.”
“Where are we going?” asked Amaryllis, who shut and barred the door behind her. She looked incongruous in her t-shirt and shorts, a serious expression on her beautiful face and an excited energy that I knew was only a few moments away from turning deadly if she needed it to.
“Speculation and Scrutiny is the consensus,” I said. “If we’re rats, then I can live with that in the short-term.”
“I’ve never been there,” said Amaryllis as she held out the key. “We can’t use the touchstone.” She closed her eyes, and I could see rapid movement beneath her eyelids. “I can put us a hundred miles away, on some train tracks, it should be in the middle of nowhere with, at most, some farmers around. There, or back to my room in Cranberry Bay?” (The room was paid through for the rest of the week, with strict instructions not to disturb, just for this sort of eventuality, but there was a chance that a sufficiently widely cast net could have tracked us there and set up an ambush, or at least given an alert.)
“Train tracks are fine by me,” said Fenn. “I’ll prepare my expert-level train-dodging skills.”
“Do it,” I said.
And a few seconds later, with a brief moment of blinding pain, we were standing on train tracks that sat on a raised embankment between two large, ordered rows of flowers. There was no rushing train to greet us; instead there was a short woman with a cloak of leaves and a long staff, her skin green and hair a light brown, the race crantek if memory served. She was in the flower fields, staring at us with no surprise on her face.
Fenn’s bow was in her gloved hand in an instant and she had an arrow out a fraction of a second after moving the bow from one hand to the other, all in a series of smooth motions. I placed my hand in front of the arrow as soon as I saw what was happening.
“I’m pretty sure that’s our next companion,” I said.
The short green woman gave us a small smile and a friendly wave.