I tried to think about it in terms of tactics.
Solace had been versatile, able to switch between control, utility, and being a heavy hitter basically at will. When we’d fought against Larkspur, she’d taken out the majority of men on her own. She had been able to provide healing that far surpassed what I was capable of, and with her gone, a wide variety of potential injuries turned back from recoverable to fully lethal. That was especially the case if I was the one who suffered the injury. We had lost her scouting ability, easy access to the interior of the bottle, and fast travel in the form of bird flight. So tactically, I was pretty sure that I’d have to call it the single biggest loss that our party could possibly have suffered. We still had the bottle, hidden in the leafy cloak that Fenn was now wearing, but that was now nothing more than another burden.
And on a personal level? I had known her for a little more than a week, but I had liked her, even if druidic magic was a little maddening, and even if her way of seeing the world felt foreign to me, even on Aerb. I had the barest sketch of her role in the team, as something like ‘team mom’, or ‘the tempered one’, or … I didn’t know, that was the problem, and now I never would.
(There were also all the other familiar feelings that I took to be part and parcel with death, the unfairness of it, the might-have-beens, the rage against the gods, a mixture of anger and disgust at a world that allowed such a thing to happen, and a deep-down trembling sorrow that threatened to bring tears. It was impossible for me to separate out how much of that was Solace and how much was just the way that Arthur’s death had rewired the functioning of my brain. Those thoughts were burned in from overuse, scorched on my mind through nine months of thinking the same old things as I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and failing at falling asleep.)
“Don’t let this distract you,” said Amaryllis as we made our way to the door.
“Distract me,” I said, not liking the taste of the words. “She’s dead. I might be able to recover her, if I can work fast enough, or — or you said that soul decay in a glass enclosure takes three years, I could figure something out in that time, how to graft one soul onto another and preserve part of her, or how to shove a soul into a body, or something, what kind of god will I make if I can’t?”
“Uther was never a god,” said Amaryllis. “He was a man. Some things were beyond him. He’s not on record as having ever raised someone from the dead, and there were people that he desperately would have wanted to. If Uther at the height of his power couldn’t bring back Vervain, then I don’t think that you’ll be able to bring back Solace, not if you only have three years, at the most, to do it.”
I wanted to lie and tell her that I had a quest, but I was a horrible liar, and that was a horrible idea for a whole host of reasons. The fact that the lie even entered into my head meant that she was probably right, I was going to let Solace’s gruesome death distract me from the things right in front of me that really needed doing, like saving the locus, or healing my own soul, or, even in the short term, doing things like paying attention to the prison and whatever horrors it had in store for us. I tried to snap my attention away from the green blood still visible on my hands and ignore the slight tremor I saw there.
We were at the doors, the large ones that the bomb-carrying dirt golem had stepped through. Grak looked them over with a monocle, but the examination yielded little.
“We don’t yet know whether the prison was tricked or subverted,” said Grak.
“Does it matter?” asked Fenn. “Hostile is as hostile does. That was my rule, last time I was in prison.”
“If it still operates according to a set of rules, we might be able to use those rules,” Grak replied. “If there are rules, we will face different threats than if someone has taken over the entire system.”
“We can’t trust anything that we’ve seen so far,” I said. “And we don’t want to count on reflexes or telegraphed attacks to protect us from another void bomb. Fenn doesn’t have an infinite number of inch-thick steel shields..”
“I have five more,” said Fenn. “The one we set up to block laser fire was practically unhurt, so call that six total. Those lasers were good against unprotected bird-flesh, but not up to penetrating steel.”
“So we leap-frog forward, one shield at a time?” I asked. “Or just pick them up and move with them?”
“Too cautious,” said Amaryllis, looking the door over. “The golems are gone now, but I would bet that this isn’t the only way in, and once we’re in the depths of this place, they can come at us from all directions at once in the least favorable possible conditions for us.”
“You want a blitz?” I asked.
“A what?” asked Fenn.
“An intense, rushing attack?” I asked. Come on, that was one that Aerb’s creator should have had some made up reason to import over.
“Yes,” said Amaryllis.
“No,” replied Grak. “A blitz only makes sense if we aren’t expecting traps.”
“If we expect traps and operate as such, then we’re going to get hit harder by all the defenses that we know are there,” said Amaryllis. “We’re trading defense against the known for defense against the unknown.”
“And the unknown just killed Solace,” I said. There was no good place to wipe the blood from my hands. My armor was all metal, either mail or plate, with nowhere to get passably clean. I could have asked Fenn, but didn’t, because the denial of reality was one of the ways I dealt with death.
“Grak, do you have any read on what waits for us inside there?” asked Amaryllis. “How many more of the golems?”
“The golems are different,” said Grak. “They are the same magic at a different wavelength.”
“What the fuck does that even mean?” asked Fenn. “We’re going to need to go through this door sooner rather than later.”
“Entads can change over time,” said Grak. “They can have different aspects. It is possible that there was some drift in alignment. However, there was also drift in function. If independently moving creatures are its current design, earlier designs might be more like the statues. We might also be looking at something else entirely.”
“Meaning a full spectrum of threat?” I asked.
“Yes,” replied Grak. “That’s possible.”
“Shit,” said Amaryllis. “Fine, then no — what was it?”
“Blitz,” I replied.
“Then no blitz,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll take this slow. Fenn, let us know what you’re feeling.”
“Angry and impatient,” she answered.
“I meant in terms of luck,” said Amaryllis with a frown.
“I know,” replied Fenn, gripping her bow. “Now are we going to open this door or not?”
Grak put his monocle up to his eye and nodded. I moved forward and grabbed the handle as Fenn raised her bow, and I pulled back the door with my sword raised, expecting a fight.
Instead, we looked at a long hallway with thirty-foot high ceilings. High windows filled the upper twenty feet. Beyond that, the large, open dome that dominated the entire building was waiting. There was far more greenery than I had expected, an entire garden growing under the grey light of the overcast sky above. Nothing moved within, and I couldn’t see any signs of dirt golems either. In fact, I couldn’t even see signs of tracks across the flagstones of the floor. My eyes weren’t drawn to that though, they were drawn to the four suits of armor that lined the hallways, each of them tucked into little alcoves of their own. They were made of brass, with dark blue lining to them, holding swords but unmoving.
“Those suits of armor are going to attack us,” I said as soon as I saw them.
“No,” said Grak, lowering his monocle. “They’re just decorative.”
“They’re going to attack us,” I repeated. “It’s … if you accept that this world reflects the tabletop games that I spent my life playing –”
“I don’t,” said Grak. “They aren’t magical.”
I stared at him. “But you can’t see through the metal,” I said, “There could be something in there.”
“On it,” said Fenn. She raised her bow and fired an arrow at the nearest suit of armor, puncturing straight through its torso. It didn’t leak mud and showed no signs of reacting. “Satisfied?”
“No,” I said. “It’s … there’s no magic in there?”
“It’s less than the baseline for this place,” said Grak. “The armors will not move. Entads all have their points of visible, focused power.”
“Fine,” I said. But if it were my old group from Kansas, they would have spent a half hour dismantling those suits of armor from a distance, in the same way that they would bash in the skull of every corpse that they passed, just to make sure. I could fully fathom that this might not be a trap; that would have been my style, to set up an obvious trap just for the joy of a fake out. If not for that thought, I might have objected a little bit more, because obviously, and in spite of what Grak had said, this was a trap.
We started moving and were halfway down the hallway when Fenn said, “Fuck,” and fired her first arrow. I didn’t have time to curse at Grak, because I was already moving too, extending the Anyblade to its full, ridiculous length and slamming it hard into a suit of armor just as it started moving. I dented the armor, which pitched the suit to the side, but where that kind of blow would probably have left a person screaming in pain, the armor just got up, bringing its sword up in a smooth, practiced motion and settling into a stance that spoke to years of training.
I’d grown a little over-confident in my swordfighting abilities over the past few days, and that was made clear to me when I went toe-to-toe with a living suit of armor that clearly held a lot of expertise. I was using the Anyblade to its fullest, allowing it to shrink and grow in response to each attack, sometimes curving so that I could make a parry, but I was being forced to move quickly and unable to make much of a counter-attack, or at least, not one that could make it through the armor. And even if I did, the large dent I’d put in its side with my first strike didn’t seem to be slowing it down any.
Amoureux Sentry defeated!
“Decapitate!” called Amaryllis from behind me, but I couldn’t look back to see what results I could expect from that, and ‘hit him in the head’ didn’t seem like it was all that useful of advice against what was effectively an expert swordsman. I parried another attack and shrank the Anyblade down to a one-handed sword, then touched my restocked supply of bones in their bandolier with my deformed hand. I could barely feel them, but a connection was all it took, so I waited for an opportunity and pulled down SPD at what I hoped was the right time. I thrust the sword up, narrowing it to the thinnest possible point, and pierced the armor where the helmet joined to the gorget, putting my entire weight behind it, including a rush of force from the hammering pulse of my blood.
I was rewarded with a cracking sound like wood being split, and the suit of armor tumbled backward, still moving, but imperfectly so. I leapt on it, keeping my sword lodged just beneath where I’d expect a skull to be, and bore down with all my weight, again putting blood magic into it, and that was enough for it to stop moving and drop its sword clattering to the ground.
Amoureux Sentry defeated!
When I finally spun back to the others, I saw Grak on the ground, bleeding from the face, Amaryllis pulling her sword from the neck of one of the suits of armor, another suit in a crumbled heap on the ground, and Fenn backed into a corner with the fourth, doing her best with a sword and shield, which was frankly not all that good.. Hair was stuck to her forehead where sweat dripped down, and my brief glimpse of the fight — before running her way — was enough to let me know that she was relying on luck more than actual skill.
I grabbed the suit of armor from behind and threw it to the ground, then went at it with uncoordinated strikes meant to keep it down more than to do any actual damage. With it prone and me striking from above, we were nearly evenly matched, at least until Amaryllis came over and began flickering her sword on and off. It didn’t take long for her blade to intersect something vital, and it stopped almost at once.
Amoureux Sentry defeated!
“Should have fucking listened,” I said, hating myself for not pushing back harder.
“Go, heal,” said Fenn. Her cheek was bleeding and she winced as she spoke.
I ran over to Grak, who was still not moving. The cut on his cheek was bad, down to the bone, but I thought it was probably what had happened to the other side of his face, which was swelling and red, that had knocked him out. He was still breathing, and I went through the bones in my bandolier one-by-one, visibly watching him improve. Concussions weren’t at all good for humans, and I assumed the same was true of dwarves, but I wasn’t sure that it was the kind of thing that healing someone with bones could actually fix.
Skill increased: Bone Magic lvl 22!
After the fifth bone, Grak opened his eyes and started grabbing at the ground, then after seeing that it was just us, sat up and rubbed at his head.
“You should have fucking listened,” I said as I moved away from him and over to Fenn, who was nursing her wounds and waiting for me. She pulled bones from my bandolier and replaced them from her glove as I worked. I left a smear of green blood on her and felt the sudden need to collapse in a puddle. I kept on going through force of will.
“I should have listened,” said Grak from behind me, “I apologize.”
“We could have dealt with that whole fucking mess without risk,” I said, turning on him and jabbing a finger in his direction. “We just wasted time and resources because you refused to see what’s been in front of your face this entire time, the thing that I’ve been trying to tell you, and because everyone treated you like a fucking authority, because I didn’t put my foot down, we almost died. I saved your fucking life. It’s adventuring 101, every statue is going to come to life, every suit of armor is going to move, you don’t leave that shit lying around, it’s the same thing with corpses, you put a hole in their head as you go by so that they don’t rise up as zombies –”
“Joon,” said Fenn.
“I know,” I said, “We don’t use the Z word.”
“You’re being an ass,” said Fenn. I turned to look at her. “He’s not going to say it, because he was wrong, and Mary’s not going to say it, because she doesn’t want another fight with you, which means that it falls to me to tell you that you’re being an ass. And I love you, but you’re being an ass.”
I took a steadying breath. “We could have died,” I said.
“I apologize,” said Grak. “Aerb should not work the way your games do.” He sniffed slightly.
“Well, it does,” I said. I almost gave one of the suits a kick to let out some frustration before remembering that I was wearing sneakers and it was hard metal.
Grak was right though. Most of the time, a statue was just a statue, and a suit of armor was just on display as a status symbol. It was one thing to say that the world shared a lot of similarities with the games that I DMed, and another entirely to say that it was fundamentally warped around me to conform to the conventions of the genre, and not just the standard conventions, but the conventions as I saw them. I could understand that as a hard pill to swallow. If you didn’t buy that, then it fundamentally didn’t make sense to believe that these particular suits of armor were going to animate, or at least it didn’t make sense to believe it at a higher rate than suggested by the other evidence.
“Why were they dormant?” asked Grak. He asked it in my direction, like I would have a clue. “Why didn’t they run out to attack, if they were mobile?” I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to mount a post facto defense, or if this was him genuinely seeking the solution to a problem. I choose to rein in my frustration and pretend that it was the latter.
“I don’t know,” I said. “If I were forced to guess, then … huh.”
Well, because if you were making a proper dungeon, which this effectively was, then you couldn’t just have the party fight everyone all at once, you had to split it up into a large number of roughly level-appropriate encounters, because otherwise there would be a long slog through a mountain of enemies followed by looting the place blind, and proper game design dictated that you give as much variety as feasible so that when people got bored of the fighting, there was a puzzle, or a social encounter, and these were layered for optimal enjoyment.
But if you just had each room be its own encounter, then people would naturally wonder, “Well, why didn’t they hear the fighting? Why, when responding with overwhelming force seems like the winning strategy, would they not do that?”, and there were plenty of answers to that, but there did have to be answers, unless you wanted to be the kind of coward who threw up your hands and said that it was just a game.
“You said that entads could change over time?” I asked Grak.
“Yes,” he replied. His eyes were scanning the large dome and looking at the greenery there. Standing in this hallway wasn’t making any of us feel great, but focusing on a problem was helping me to cool down a little bit, and I was hoping that the same would be true of Grak. “Most entads are static, but some change. It’s more common for sentient entads to change.”
“Then my guess is that either there are independent parts of the prison working at cross-purposes, or parts of it that were set up long ago that the prison has diverged away from. The statues outside are of a different make than the dirt golems, it’s possible that they operate independently from each other.” I paused for a moment. “Plus whatever prisoners are here have been here for hundreds of years, and if they haven’t managed to escape yet, then they’ve probably at least learned the ins and outs of the prison.”
Grak frowned. “It is … plausible,” he replied. The pause felt uncomfortably long. “Entad architecture is rare. Sentient entads are rare. Sentient architecture, there perhaps a hundred in Aerb are. I have not them studied.” It was the first time I could recall hearing his Anglish slip in the entire time I’d known him. His face was screwed up in concentration.
“What would that mean, in practical terms?” asked Amaryllis.
“Bite-sized threats,” said Fenn with a nod. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and come across some clashing factions.”
“Let’s get moving then,” said Amaryllis. “Everyone is healed up? Are we fine on bones?”
“Just over two hundred left,” said Fenn, wiggling the fingers of her glove. “I’d thought that would be more than enough, but –” She stopped and glanced at me. “I didn’t think that Juniper would be our only source of repeat healing, and the fairies are only for legitimate I’m-going-to-die emergencies.” Because Solace was supposed to be doing the heavy lifting, and now she was gone.
“Then we’ll go slow and cautious,” said Amaryllis. “We have a simple objective, let’s not complicate things.”
“Contact,” said Fenn as soon as the words had left Amaryllis’ mouth, and it wasn’t quite unbelievable that what Amaryllis had said would coincide exactly with something coming around the corner, but it did seem uniquely improbable, unless the enemy was listening in on our conversation and wanted us to have a chance to finish talking.
“I wish to parlay!” called a high, woman’s voice from just out of view. An arm made of dirt waved at us from just beyond the end of the hallway. I could see the point of Fenn’s arrow tracking it.
Amaryllis looked to me and Grak with a raised eyebrow. “We would be willing to talk,” she called back to the golem. Fenn lowered her arrow with an exasperated sigh and kept her arrow nocked. We were all on war footing; I’d drawn my Anyblade without even thinking about it.
The dirt golem sidled into view, its too-human mouth giving us something disturbingly close to a smile. “Please, if I may,” it said, “I believe we got off on the wrong foot with our affray.”
“What happened, from your perspective?” asked Amaryllis. Her sword was in her hand, and she flickered it off, which to me sent mixed messages given how lethal it could be when it reappeared, but it seemed like it was intended as a defusing gesture. I lowered my own weapon, but didn’t sheath it.
“There was a problem with the message I was trying to convey,” said the golem, turning its head slightly. “My voice was lost, the statues reacted, and I thought it best to enter into melee.” That was much faster confirmation of my theory than I was expecting; the entity controlling the dirt golem considered itself different from the statues.
“And you’ve reconsidered?” asked Amaryllis.
“You are formidable fighters, to have destroyed those creations,” it said with a gesture to the suits of armor, “That one of your own died was met, by you, with dismay. And if resistance is met with destruction, then I must not block your pathway.”
“It … doesn’t think that it can beat us?” asked Fenn. “Well that’s a lucky break.”
“Unless it’s a trap,” I said. “I don’t think it is, given the level of sophistication the traps have had so far,” almost none, “but … that doesn’t mean that it’s not a possibility.”
“You won’t stop us?” Amaryllis asked the golem.
“Why have you come this day?” asked the dirt golem in response.
“We told you,” replied Amaryllis, keeping her voice far calmer and more pleasant than I would have been able to. “We seek a specific prisoner, one that you said was being moved to a visitation area, Fallatehr Whiteshell.”
“And it is only that you have something you wish to say?” asked the dirt golem.
“We’d like a conversation, yes,” said Amaryllis, which was just short of being a blatant lie. We were planning on extracting him, if we needed to, and we did expect to need to in order to get what we wanted from him.
“Then come,” said the dirt golem, “Come this way.” It tottered off into the giant dome, moving at a steady pace and pausing without looking at us when we didn’t make a move to follow. Just off in the distance I could make out small little dirt golems looking at us; these things had already proven that they had some form of silent, internal communications.
“Are we going?” I asked, keeping my voice low.
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “If we’re going to continue on at all, I think we need to take the peace offering at face value. For now.”