Worth the Candle, Ch 60: Aggressive Negotiations

When we came out of the wards, Fenn was standing with her arm around the dirt golem.

“Productive conversation?” she asked.

“We’ll be staying around here for a little bit,” said Amaryllis, speaking more to the golem than to Fenn.

The golem slumped slightly to the side, and Fenn moved away from it.

“Unanimous?” asked Fenn, with a glance in my direction.

“Yes,” I said. “It took some convincing.” The golem’s slump became more pronounced as I watched it. “What were you doing out here?”

“Girl talk,” said Fenn. The golem fell to the ground. “I didn’t think that it went that poorly.” Her bow appeared in her hand. “So, my guess is that our prison-host didn’t like the news that we would be staying?”

“I think it only gave us a reprieve in the interests of getting us out of its way without further incident,” said Amaryllis. “I hadn’t thought that our peace was so easily disturbed.” She’d taken her helmet off for our conversation, but now was slipping it back on. “Prepare for trouble.”

“And make it double,” I replied, letting my sword grow to full length in my hand.

“What does that mean?” asked Grak with furrowed brows.

“It was — nevermind,” I replied.

“Earth stuff,” said Fenn with a nod. “He always gets this look in his eyes.”

Amaryllis looked down the hallway in both directions. “We should get moving. Deeper in, or back the way we came?”

“Deeper in,” I said. “The golem said he’d been in the gymnasium, let’s start there. I was really hoping that we’d get something like directions.” I looked down at the mound of dirt on the ground. It struck me as being enemy action; the only way I could fathom the breakdown of a golem in response to threat was by either a severely malfunctioning system or very high level reasoning about what that golem might give away by its continued existence. “We should hold off on going against the golems again until after they’ve made the first hostile move.”

“I suppose,” said Amaryllis.

“Kind of a hard principle to follow if you have a bow,” said Fenn. “I’m down to two artillery shots, in case I was the only one counting. Call them if you need them, but if I see a juicy shot I’m taking it, no matter who’s in the way.”

“Please don’t shoot me again,” I said.

“Oh, we’re dating now,” said Fenn, “I pretty much have to shoot you, otherwise the others will think that I’ve gone soft.” She gave me a grin, and I returned a smile.

“I already think you’ve gone soft,” said Grak.

“That’s just because you’ve gotten to know me,” said Fenn.

“We should go,” said Amaryllis. “I have to imagine that forces have already been moved into position since the moment we finished our first fight, but light might become an issue for us if we go too slowly.”

So we moved on, deeper into the prison, past the half-dozen visitation rooms that must have been the prison’s primary interface with the outside world back when it was in regular use. I briefly marveled at the shape and scope of the forge frenzy that had brought this place into being. I had no real idea how long it took to make a sword or a suit of armor, but months seemed like it was on the right timescale. For a building this size, it would have taken years, if not decades. From what I could tell, most polities were perfectly willing to fund a forge frenzy given that they would have control of whatever was made from it, but a place on this scale seemed like a serious outlay, especially since Anglecynn wouldn’t have known exactly what it would do.

If we’d been in a normal building, we might have had an easier time finding our way to the gymnasium, because normal buildings had sensible designs that were dictated by the emergent properties of people, or at worst, dictated by what the architect thought looked good — function or form. The penitentiary hadn’t been built under any such constraints. It wasn’t quite the Winchester Mystery House, but we couldn’t at all count on a sensible layout. There was a part of me that appreciated this on a game design level, but it also gave me an uncertain, claustrophobic feeling.

We eventually came to a small dome, with three floors exposed below it and a dozen dirt golems looking out over them. Our eyes were drawn to an immense brass suit of armor, nearly twenty feet tall, which stood with both hands on the pommel of a hammer whose head was more than twice the size of my own. Both it and the dirt golems, were unmoving. At twenty feet tall, it wouldn’t be the largest thing that I’d gone up against, but it would be the biggest thing I’d directly fought. Colossus, I shall call you.

“So, plink at it from a distance?” asked Fenn. She kept her voice low, which didn’t make that much sense, because even though we were quite a ways down the hallway from the entrance to the dome, the golems were staring at us.

“We don’t necessarily need to go this way,” said Amaryllis.

“They are guarding this path for a reason,” said Grak.

“I’m pretty sure a single hit from that hammer will kill any of us outright,” I said. “Maybe not Mary.”

“The immobility plate isn’t that resistant to movement in its immobile state,” she said, voice slightly muffled by her helmet. “It has limits.”

“So we cheese it,” said Fenn. “That’s the word, right Joon? Cheese?”

“Uh, yes,” I said. “But if it were me … scratch that, if I were the penitentiary, I wouldn’t put a giant guy with a hammer where you could kill it from a distance at no risk. If it’s a trap, then this is part of the trap. Besides that, plinking at it from a distance doesn’t seem like it’s going to work well if the armor is thick enough. The right arrowheads can pierce normal plate, but that’s not normal plate.”

Fenn looked to Amaryllis. “And if we had a secret weapon?” she asked.

“Uh, what?” I asked, looking at both of them. “Secret … from me?”

“I present to you,” said Fenn, holding out her gloved hand, “Drumroll, please.”

“I’m not clear on why you would need to keep anything secret from me,” I said.

“You don’t like surprises?” asked Fenn, lowering her hand slightly.

“Not in combat, no,” I replied.

“It’s too dangerous to use in actual combat,” said Amaryllis. “It’s probably too dangerous to use, period, if it works at all.”

“Grak, can I get a drumroll?” asked Fenn.

Grak gave a short sigh, then went to the closest wall and began rhythmically pounding on it. With a flourish Fenn produced an arrow from her glove, twirling it gently until bringing it to a stop so I could see the tip, where a small, simple, electrical contraption surrounded a purple crystal.

“I present to you, the very first Fellis collaboration, the void arrow,” said Fenn with a grin.

“And with the artillery shot,” I began.

“In theory,” answered Amaryllis. “It might fail. We didn’t want to waste the resources to test it.”

I stared at the void arrow. All you really needed to make a void crystal explode was a sufficiently powerful electric charge, which would cause it to radiate void out in all directions, eliminating matter from existence. From what I could see, the arrow was designed such that it would strike its target, which would complete the circuit, which would detonate the crystal. You couldn’t shoot the arrow too fast, because otherwise the mechanism would break completely, and it was possible that it would break anyway, but if it worked, then it would be an instant kill against unarmored flesh. And the artillery shot from Fenn’s bow, given enough distance, could make two thousand.

“Well that’s scary,” I said, swallowing the sudden lump in my throat. “I’m still not sure why I would be kept in the dark.”

“I’d have to use the n-word to explain it,” said Amaryllis.

I stared at her for a second. “Uh?”

“Narrative,” said Fenn with a nod.

I rolled my eyes at that. “Okay,” I said. “You kept it from me because … you think that this is my story, not yours, and keeping the void arrow from me until the last second would be better from a narrative perspective. That’s batshit insane, don’t ever do that again.”

“I don’t want to debate it now, but if we can infer from –”

“You don’t want to debate it, but you do want to get your point in,” I said. “No, let’s just fire the incredibly dangerous arrow and get it over with.”

Amaryllis helmet turned away from me and nodded to Fenn.

“So, in theory this is a weapon of mass destruction,” said Fenn, looking at the brass Colossus. “Assuming that Mary built this right, how far back should we be standing?”

I was actually curious about that myself: curious, bordering on alarmed. “What happens when the void effect hits a void crystal?” I asked. “Anything?”

“If they’re further than a foot away from each other, there’s a cascade,” said Amaryllis. “Less than a foot, and the void effect just consumes the crystal with no effect. I’ve already done the math, we’ll need significant distance and heavy mass for cover.”

“Sorry, walk me through the math,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose. I glanced at the brass Colossus, which was, thankfully, still unmoving. For the moment, talking was apparently a free action. “So what happens is, Fenn fires the void arrow, it presumably splits into two, then four, then eight, and so on, until it caps at two thousand of them, then one of them hits something and detonates, which then chains to all the others –”

“Voiding whichever ones are within a foot of the spherical void wave, cascading to those outside it, putting a limit on total void effect, yes,” said Amaryllis. She was incredibly hard to read with her helmet on, but I didn’t think that I could ask her to remove it just so I could be more at ease when talking to her, not without derailing the conversation.

“So at best, the total void effect coming our way is going to be equal to however many one foot-radius spheres there are, with each centered around an arrow and none overlapping,” I said, “Which based on the arrows that I saw in the forest might be as high as, oh, two hundred spheres, which means that the void effect coming at us once the artillery shot is fired will be enough to go through something like one hundred inches of solid steel.”

I saw Grak and Fenn give each other a look, something like surprise and fear.

“No,” said Amaryllis, “Void propagation is constrained by the inverse square law, it’ll eat through the same amount of mass at any distance, but for the projective form, that means if you conceptualize an inch-thick sphere around a projection at distance x which completely captures the void projection, then an inch-thick sphere at distance two x will only go through one fourth of an inch.”

“So at two hundred feet, which is where the bow caps, that’s … a half-inch of steel per detonation, when up close?”

“For projection, it’s usually given as a half-inch steel or other sufficiently dense metal at five feet from the center of the void projection, regardless of crystal size, so long as it’s under one foot,” Amaryllis nodded. “I told you that I already did the math.”

“I’m double-checking, in the interests of not killing us all,” I said. “And, obviously, that’s the benefit of consulting me instead of keeping it secret. So, forty times the distance, that’s 1/1600th the effect, which means that instead of one hundred inches of steel, we’d need something like a sixteenth of an inch.” Which was extremely doable, actually, and there was enough leeway to be off by an order of magnitude. And because Fenn’s bow multiplied with distance, we had some leeway even with a premature detonation. “Okay,” I said. “So it’s still stupidly dangerous, but probably, maybe, not as dangerous as fighting that thing and all the little ones that would join in.”

“Am I shooting this incredibly destructive arrow or what?” asked Fenn.

“All six barriers first,” said Amaryllis.

Fenn moved forward and started popping them out, one by one, and we took cover behind the last. She raised her bow and nocked the arrow, then ducked down quickly before firing. “Just testing,” she said. “How fast does the void move?”

“It’s effectively instant,” said Amaryllis.

“Okay,” said Fenn. She raised her arms above her head and did an awkward draw with only her hands and the bow, held horizontal, above the barrier. She managed to get it to full extension, then stopped suddenly and brought the bow back down without having fired it. “The thing is, I didn’t do the math, so I’m sort of trusting you here.”

“Or rather, not trusting us?” I asked.

“No, no, never,” said Fenn. “But when you said a hundred inches of steel, I thought, ‘you know, that actually sounds right’, and then when you said a sixteenth of an inch of steel, I thought, ‘that doesn’t seem right at all’, and I don’t think that this is how my life is going to end, but you said sometimes rocks fall and everyone dies, and I’m the least suicidal of us, so –”

“Just fire the fucking arrow,” said Amaryllis.

Fenn raised her bow again and did the same awkward draw as before, exerting an incredible amount of strength and control, more than I might have thought her capable of, if I hadn’t known her so well. She started to speak, with the strain evident in her voice. “The thing is, I’m the one risking my hands here –”

“Is this a bit?” asked Amaryllis.

Fenn fired the arrow and brought her hands down behind the safety of six inches of steel. I was fully prepared for an anticlimax after all that build-up, like the arrow simply plinking against the brass suit of armor, or failing to duplicate, or maybe even something worse than an anticlimax, like littering the whole place with two thousand undetonated bombs.

But we weren’t denied something special, and instead there was a loud whump of air rushing to fill the vacuum, and wind blew by us fast enough that it was difficult to breathe, for a bit. I started to rise to my feet, then thought about the possibility that there were still void arrows that hadn’t blown up, and stayed where I was. When Fenn popped up though, I followed her, and looked out on the destruction.

The explosion — projection, I’m sure Amaryllis would have corrected me — had happened at the far end of the room, a cascade of void that had, for a start, removed all the air from the room. The railings on the upper levels were gone, along with a significant portion of the upper levels themselves. Pieces of building were raining down from where supports had been removed or weakened. The brass Colossus was completely gone. The floor was missing too, scoured down at least a few feet by the void cascade, and though I couldn’t see the ceiling from my vantage point in the hallway, I had no doubt that was gone too.

“Neat,” said Fenn. “I’ll take a dozen more of those, please.”

I stared at the destruction in amazement as Fenn began gathering the barriers back up. “Okay, I’m still a little pissed off about you keeping that secret, but the results of the actual work speak for themselves.”

“It’s indiscriminate,” said Amaryllis. “We won’t be able to use it unless we want to kill everyone or everything in a pretty large radius.”

“And when do we not want that?” asked Fenn with a cheery smile. Her eyes widened slightly. “Think about how great that would have been in the forest!”

“We could have used it at the entrance to this place,” I said. “If I’d been informed of its existence.”

“I apologize,” said Amaryllis.

“But would you do it again?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis, unflinchingly fast. “We can talk about that later, when we’re safe.”

“I told you that she said she’d slit my throat if she had to,” said Fenn. “Shouldn’t be much of a surprise.”

“When did I say that?” asked Amaryllis. I imagined her furrowed brow beneath her helmet.

“Unicorn blood,” said Fenn.

Amaryllis sighed. “Juniper, there are certain things that are dangerous to so much as know, and if I knew any of them, I wouldn’t tell you those either, and you would probably agree with that, right?”

“Infohazards,” I said with a nod. Of course Aerb had infohazards, why would it not? One of the Thirteen Horrors I had a quest for was [REDACTED]; that was his name given in both the quest text and the description I’d read in The Exclusionary Principle, Seventh Edition, complete with brackets. It was heavily implied that he got more powerful the more you knew about him. To me, that hadn’t implied an entire class of memetic threats, especially because he was in an exclusion zone, but apparently I should have just assumed that Aerb would contain every single thing I had ever thought of, so long as it was at least loosely within the genre.

Amaryllis pulled up short. “You don’t have infohazards on Earth,” she said, more as a statement of fact than a question, but there was a note of puzzlement in her voice. Someone, somewhere, must have done an investigation of the dream-skewered in order to make that determination, which was sensible if infohazards existed. “They were a thing you invented?”

“No, just copied from elsewhere,” I said. “I mean, I did invent some, and –” I pulled up short. “Obviously those specific ones can’t be here on Aerb, because I know about them and no horrible fate has befallen me yet, but just to be safe I’m not going to ever write them down or say them.” Everyone was staring at me. “I didn’t use it often, because it’s hard to work into games where there’s this player and character split that you can’t really get around. There are, were, maybe five in total.” I stopped. “And anyway, Arthur would have known about all of them, right?” I stopped again. “Okay, leaving that aside, because we can’t talk about it or do anything proactive about it, if you ever have any information that you think will hurt me — that you think will hurt me in ways that I don’t want to be hurt — then I promise that I’ll try not to be salty about it, if and when I find out that you were keeping a secret from me. That doesn’t apply to your attempts to manipulate the narrative though.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” said Amaryllis, which really wasn’t the sort of answer that I’d been hoping for, and to cap it off she began walking toward the wreckage where the Colossus had been standing. I might have objected more, if I wasn’t trying to stop thinking about the cognitive hazards that might actually be real on Aerb.

“And you,” I said to Fenn, partly to distract myself. I was worried, but not that worried, because if the five infohazards I’d made were already being carried around in my head, then it was already too late, and thinking about it would make it worse.

“Hey, you know that I like secrets,” she said. “And I have a flair for the dramatic, and she made some very convincing arguments, so really, I’m kind of still on her side.”

“Well, we’ll talk it over,” I said.

“I mean, it worked, didn’t it?” asked Fenn. She hefted her bow and began following Amaryllis.

“It might have worked anyway,” I said. “We’d have to figure out some way to double blind it, or at least do A/B testing, but I don’t have any clue how that would work in practice given all the confounding variables.”

“Golems,” said Grak, with his monocle to his eye. “They’re coming to meet us.”

I was expecting another parlay, because the prison knew that we were stronger than it. Given that, talking was to its advantage. I wasn’t about to say that we had this place dead to rights, given the close calls, and given what happened to Solace, but it seemed to me that if I were a magical sentient prison, I would start in on negotiations so that I could escape with as little damage as possible. All we wanted was a single prisoner, and we were demonstrably willing to tear apart the prison to get him, so wasn’t it better to just hand him over? Of course, there was a school of thought that said you should never give in to blackmail or coercion, because that means that everyone will know that blackmail and coercion work on you. Which, when I thought about it, might have been why dozens of dirt golems were coming our way.

Most of them were like the ones we’d fought in the courtyard outside, simple creations with metal eyes I didn’t really understand the point of, given that the ones with only a mouth seemed entirely capable of navigating the prison without sight. It wasn’t that they didn’t worry me, but I at least knew that I could handle them in numbers, so long as I stayed in the open and didn’t let them wear me down. We’d fought them before, after all, and the second time was almost always easier, because you’d already done the hard work of getting educated on how the enemy moved and operated.

But unfortunately, it wasn’t just the dirt golems. I’d known since the game had called it a basic dirt golem that there would be variants down the road, and now I got a look at a few of them as they came our way. I saw a few adorned with vines and moss threaded through their dirt, along with a handful of flowers, and immediately suspected them of being casters of some sort. The others, of which there were two, were big, hulking creatures that moved around on all fours with large knuckles against the floor. They were smaller than the gate golem had been, but still big enough that there was going to be a real risk to getting within their reach.

“Go or stay?” asked Amaryllis.

“Stay,” called Grak, who was already drawing a ward at the end of the hallway, where the void cascade had done its damage but not removed the walls and supports completely..

“I’m less effective when pinned in,” I said, stepping beyond the ward he was putting in place. The ground got lower as we went further, which meant that we’d be fighting in what was essentially a wide pit made of stone where the prison no longer had any foundation and the void had hit the rock that island was made of. It was surprisingly smooth, given what must have been the chaos of the cascade.

The dirt golems weren’t terribly fast, but we only had seconds. Amaryllis stepped up beside me with her sword drawn. I took some comfort in knowing that even though we had our arguments, she would be there fighting with me without any hesitation.

“We’ll stay closer this time,” she said. “You keep up with the sweeping strikes, I’ll get the ones you miss.”

“And I’ll stay safe behind the barrier,” said Fenn, as she fired an arrow at one of the plant-adorned golems, the opening shot of the fight. The golem continued forward with an arrow stuck in it, slowly leaking mud as it trundled toward us.

(We could probably have run away, given that we were faster than them, but going on the run wasn’t the path to winning, not when we didn’t actually know where we were going, and not when the prison had plenty of opportunity to set up traps and ambushes in places that it could conceivably drive us toward.)

My own first strike was made with the full weight of blood magic, pushing the strength of my pulse down both my arms and swinging my enormous sword so hard it whistled through the air. I cut clean through two of the golems and into the midsection of a third, where my sword lodged only briefly until I shrank it down and pulled it free to gear up for another swing.

Basic Dirt Golem defeated!

Basic Dirt Golem defeated!

Basic Dirt Golem defeated!

Achievement Unlocked: Triple Kill!

I was watching the golems as I cut into them, paying more attention than last time and trying not to let adrenaline overwhelm me. They had sacks of brown goop inside them, and they began to fail when that goop started leaking out, but they didn’t actually stop moving until some critical amount was lost. That didn’t actually help my fighting style too much, but I was pretty sure that it was going to be important for fighting the big ones — who had been going slow on purpose, it turned out, so that they could put on a burst of speed that nearly caught me off-guard.

I rolled away beneath a massive fist and came up with another hard swing that took down another dirt golem, rewarding me with a message from the game, then turned back to face the gorllia-golem, which was pounding along on its knuckles to close the distance between the two of us. I moved back again, which unfortunately put distance between Amaryllis and I, but that was nearly unavoidable, and it was clear that our plan of fighting back-to-back wasn’t going to work out.

I came at the gorilla golem with another of my strongest swings, putting everything into it that I could short of burning through a bone. I cleaved cleanly through its arm, but it lifted the stump up and slammed it back down on the severed fist, cleanly reconnecting them, then swung at me hard with its other hand, narrowly missing me as I jumped backward. I lunged in close, riding the pulse of my racing heart, and slammed my sword straight up into its gut. I changed the shape of the blade while it was inside him, giving the part of it that was lodged in the goop barbs and curls, then ducked down to avoid another hit as the golem slammed a fist against its own chest. It took all my considerable strength to yank the sword out from the golem once I got my footing, but I was rewarded with a thick splash of its semi-liquid innards on my feet as parts of the packed earth broke away. I managed to scramble out from under it as it collapsed.

Brutish Dirt Golem defeated!

Amaryllis was dancing through the dirt golems, out-maneuvering them, getting away from their strikes, making the plate armor look like it was a featherweight, and occasionally stopping stock-still for a split second to let her armor lock in place and take the hit without much risk to her. She was doing better than in the previous fight, with a more defined rhythm and flow. I was hopped up on adrenaline and the thrill of battle, that urge to scream and roar over the corpse of the thing I’d just taken down, and watching her, just for a moment, filled me with something like pride.

And then I was back to murdering dirt golems in the pit, trying to put my blood into every movement and end the fight as quickly as I could. I pulled from the bones in my bandolier from time to time, usually END to stave off exhaustion, since the powerful swings I was using took an enormous amount of energy, especially with my sword as large as I was making it. We were cutting through the ranks at speed though, and dozens weren’t enough to stop us.

There were a few things that I’d failed to pay the proper amount of attention to. The first was the flower golems, which were staying back, but I did see an arrow zip toward the air toward them from time to time, and so long as they weren’t actually doing anything, I wasn’t going to move to engage with them. My best guess, to the extent I had the mental energy to guess, was that they — and the brutish dirt golem that stood near them — were waiting for us to get worn down.

The second thing I had failed to pay the proper amount of attention to was the water collecting at the bottom of the stone bowl the void cascade had carved out. I could see where the water was coming in from pipes that had been severed, and while there hadn’t been any water when the fight had started, it was easy to chalk that up to the esoteric systems of the prison, had I actually had that much time to spend thinking about the water. As it happened in my head, all thoughts were woven into the flow of my sword, the rhythm of my pulse, and the full-sensory absorption of the fight.

The first sign that anything was wrong was all of my muscles contracting at once (life tip: this is a pretty big sign that something has gone wrong, even if you’re not in the middle of a fight). It was painful and hot, like my whole body was being vibrated, and I was vaguely aware of having dropped my sword as I pitched over into the water, which only increased the hot pain. It didn’t last for long, but as I started to recover I was punched in the head, hard, by one of the dirt golems, and more of them were moving to surround me as I tried to shake that off too.

I touched a bone and pulled SPD from it, launching myself to my feet and slipping out from between the golems, but I wasn’t fast enough to escape without another hit to my armor, and I stood up, limping slightly and unarmed as the golems moved on me. A quick glance showed that Amaryllis had stayed on her feet, but she must have used her armor to do so, because she had been swarmed by the golems, who were beating against the immobility plate. It was, so far, holding steady, but the second big gorilla golem was finally making his move down to us. He was leaking brown goop from where a dozen arrows had hit him, but that didn’t seem to be slowing him down any.

“Casters!” shouted Fenn, from behind the protective ward that still seemed to be holding. I whipped my head to look at the two golems with vines just as one of them flicked something in my direction, and at that moment I felt the tug of luck on me; I touched my wrist, where the tip of a tail was showing, and pulled out a snake that I swung into the path of the small blue bead that was tracking my way. The projectile hit the snake, which immediately burst into spikes that came up from its skin. It looked terrifying and impractical as it fell into the water, and I could imagine that if I survived such a thing, I’d be half the fighter I needed to be.

Fenn called out to me and threw me a shortsword, one that we had taken from Aumann’s vault and then never actually figured out, though we’d done everything short of brute forcing magical phrases or using it in combat. The grip was a dark, hard wood with grooves for the fingers, while the blade was bluish-silver metal with rivulets in it. It was decidedly not my preferred weapon, but the Anyblade was at the bottom of the pit and probably under quite a bit of mud. With my off-hand I went to pull my returning dagger from my bag, but realized only belatedly that it had fallen off and was lost somewhere in the mud. Worse, something was slipping side-to-side within my hand and one of my fingers wasn’t working; there was only a faint echo of pain at the feeling of broken bones. Great.

I dashed toward the gorilla golem as it approached Amaryllis, leaping up and stepping on a few of the dirt golems to get there in time. Without the Anyblade, it was going to be a lot harder to take down, and now I was on an unfavorable footing, because I would have to protect Amaryllis too. I leapt five feet up in the air with Sanguine Surge and brought the blade down hard on the golem’s left shoulder, putting all my weight behind it.

Critical hit!

The arm fell down to the ground with a solid thud, and I slipped past the gorilla golem, taking a few hits from the smaller ones we’d mostly cleared out in the process. I stabbed through one of them, hard enough that it wouldn’t have time to do much before its goop spilled out. I planted my other hand firmly on the back of the brutish golem, feeling a too-faint twinge of pain in the process, and activated the tattoo I had readied; the Icy Devil began doing its work, chilling down the earth under my hand.

I tried to keep my hand in one place, but there were still enough dirt golems to be a problem, and the big guy tried to slap backwards with his intact arm, which I was forced to duck down from. I fought with the sword, facing down the few remaining dirt golems that hadn’t swarmed Amaryllis, keeping my hand in place as the temperature in the room dropped. I waited as long as I could, then saw the vine golem toss something small and white toward me, which I took as my cue to make my move. I spun around and drove my shortsword into the golem with all the power I could muster, aiming right for the cold spot. I was rewarded with a hard crack as the frozen earth was destroyed, and goop came pouring out of it.

Brutish Dirt Golem defeated!

And then my field of vision was overtaken with butterflies, small white ones, which went for my face and flapped there. It was only when I tapped SPD from a bone (using my chilled hand, sending a wave of cold over myself in the process) that I was able to swat them away enough to see that they weren’t butterflies at all, only white flower petals acting together like butterflies.

I took a hit from the side, at a place that must have taken a few too many hits before, because that one I felt, even though my ribs were almost as numb as my hand. I went tumbling to the side, down into the water, and the butterfly petals raced to follow me as the few remaining dirt golems moved toward me. I had some unpleasant flashbacks to the fairies we’d had to fight back at Caer Laga, and I still had no good defense against it. These, at least, were a nuisance, without the sharp teeth or ability to tear my skin. That said, there were a lot of them, enough to block my field of vision, and that was enough for me to take another hit, this one to the chest, which left me sprawled in the water for one dazed second before I got back to my feet.

From there I was trying to fight blind, listening to the cacophony of sounds and trying to make out from the water where the dirt golems were. I had to hope that the remaining caster had been taken out by Fenn, because while I could out-maneuver the golems, I couldn’t respond to the seemingly random effects of what appeared to be a golem that knew flower magic. My sword connected on occasion, and then eventually got stuck, which left me trying to swat away the butterflies as quickly as I could just so I could get a sense of where the golems were and move out of their way. There were messages popping into my field of view, with more of the dirt golems defeated, and I had to hope that whatever my party members were doing, it would be enough.

And then, with a final clearing of my eyes, I saw the last of the dirt golems fall, revealing Grak standing there, breathing heavily and clutching his axe. Fenn was down in the water, next to Amaryllis, who was surrounded by mounds of dirt but seemed unharmed.

“That was a slog,” I said. My fingers went to one of the bones in my bandolier and I started the healing process. I could already tell that I was going to need more than I had on me, but that was why we had a lot of bones ready to go.

“I’m fucking useless against those things,” said Fenn. “Even with a broadhead it takes half a dozen shots to bring one down.”

“I spent most of that fight trapped in my armor,” said Amaryllis.

“They shouldn’t have had other magic,” said Grak. “It was flower magic.”

“Well, they had it,” I said. “That’s fun. I’d guess that we can expect more of it. Are we safe for now?”

“I’m not getting the sense that we should move,” said Fenn. “The hallways are clear, anyway. And if I were the prison, I would have gone at us with everything I had the second time around.”

“Heal me,” said Amaryllis. “Please.” She took off her helmet and revealed a bloody face, with most of it dripping down from her nose to her mouth, and a few places where there was some swelling.

“Bones,” I said to Fenn.

“See, Mary was polite,” said Fenn, as she started handing me the bones stored in her glove. “She said please. Can’t you even say please to your wonderful girlfriend?”

“Please,” I said as I approached Amaryllis. I reached forward with my right hand and gently touched Amaryllis, with my fingers on her neck and my thumb touching her jaw. It was awkwardly intimate, the same as it was every time that I had to heal her. As I pulled the energy from the bone out and pushed it toward her wounds, I watched her face puff up more, go red, become bruised, and finally return to normal as I went through the bones. “Where else?”

“Left forearm,” she said. She wasn’t looking at me, instead staring up at a random spot away from me, which had always been my strategy with the dentist so I didn’t have to look into their eyes. I could see the dent in her armor where she must have been hit hard enough for at least a hairline fracture. Doing the healing from a distance like that was more difficult, but I’d gotten fairly good at directing the magic where I wanted it to go.

“We’re being worn down,” said Grak.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Not much longer, if they were guarding this way,” said Fenn. “Just another two or three more fights like that, until we have to fight Fallatehr and all the copies he made of himself, which will be its own thing.”

“We’re not going to fight Fallatehr,” said Amaryllis. She briefly glanced at me. “We shouldn’t want to, anyway. If we do, we’ll have to make sure not to kill him. The whole point is that we need his expertise.”

“Just saying it seems likely,” said Fenn. “And he seems like an asshole.”

“Any other healing?” I asked. Amaryllis shook her head. I began the process of healing myself; the pain was becoming sharper as the urgency of combat faded, but the pain was good, in a way, because it was a reminder that I could still feel something from my injured hand. I had a hunch that the healing process was exacerbating the condition of my hand, but the bones were so brittle now that they kept breaking.

“We should go as soon as you’re done,” said Grak.

“Many miles to go before we sleep,” I replied. I waited for Grak to correct me and tell me that it wasn’t actually miles, but I guess he was starting to understand when I was making a reference, because he simply turned away. “Do you think it gets harder or easier after that?”

“Harder,” said Amaryllis. “You always said that you pushed your players just to their breaking point, when it balanced on a knife edge.”

“And sometimes past that,” I replied with a nod. “I don’t know that’s a good heuristic for what we’re going to find in this prison. We shouldn’t count on the whole thing shifting around us just to accommodate a more pitched battle. And we really shouldn’t count on any given battle being fair, or doable.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 60: Aggressive Negotiations

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