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“So what would you have done if one of the umbral undead came after you?” asked Fenn as we walked back toward where her party was apparently waiting.

“I can outrun them pretty easily,” I said. “Same as you.”

“The big ones, sure,” she replied. “But they can spawn little ones, made up of fewer bodies but more perfectly crafted, and those not even I can outrun, which means that you’d have no chance. I’m assuming that you haven’t encountered one, because if you had you’d know your plan was basically suicidal.”

I shrugged. “It’s not like I have a lot of options.”

“True, true,” said Fenn. “Of course, option one, which most people who get the drop choose, is not to go to Silmar City. The deal with the Host isn’t a bad one, if you can make it to them.”

“Sure,” I said.

“So you came here by mistake then?” asked Fenn.

I didn’t have a reply to that, so I kept my mouth shut.

“Look, I don’t mean to scare you off, but the people I’m keeping company with on this fine day are going to want some answer, any answer, and telling them you were bumbling around isn’t going to cut it,” she said in a soft voice. “You don’t have to come right out with whatever the truth is, though obviously that would be preferable, but you might say something like, oh, I don’t know, you came to Silmar City because you thought it would have things worth taking, things that you could use to make a sure escape.”

“The planes have been dropping people for years,” I said. “A relative of mine told me that the graduation rates had been falling for years, because everything had already been picked through. So … we came here, because this is the place that no one goes.”

“Oh, well, that wasn’t convincing in the slightest,” said Fenn. “And not just because I knew that you were lying.”

“Is there a reason you’re helping me?” I asked. If you are. “Not that I mind.”

“A demon told me to,” replied Fenn in a cheerful voice.

“A … demon?” I asked. I was trying my best not to say anything that would give me away as completely clueless about Aerb, but Fenn was making it difficult. I would have naturally assumed that demons were a part of this world, but for someone to be open about a demon giving them instructions seemed like a fairly major thing that I’d missed thus far.

“Isn’t that the human saying?” asked Fenn. “When you do something you ought not do, you say that a demon told you?”

“Oh,” I said. “The imp of the perverse?”

“Ah, that’s the one,” said Fenn. “I knew I was close. We’re just about where I left the others, let me do the talking.”

We rounded a corner (given the odd angles of the streets, Silmar City was almost entirely composed of corners) and came across three men and a woman standing around. They came to attention as soon as they saw us, with hands going to weapons and postures shifting into defensive stances. They let up only a little when Fenn called out to them.

The fastest way that I can describe those four was that they were a pretty classic adventuring party. There was a big guy, nearly seven feet tall by my guess, covered from head to toe in thick full plate armor, holding a massive shield he’d scooped up from the ground when he’d seen us and a pistol three times bigger than mine, which was finely machined; he was the tank. Beside him was a rat-like creature with quills coming from his head, which I guess made him more of a porcupine, dressed in robes and with his hand resting on the grip of what I judged to be a katana; he was their damage dealer. The other two I judged to be mages of some kind, both human (and yes, it occurred to me that I was in a place in my life where I was referring to people by their species); the woman wore tight-fitting red robes with bones strapped to her in bandoliers, while the bald man was nearly naked and covered in tattoos. Had Amaryllis mentioned bone magi? And the last words I’d read before I’d run from the bookshop had been ‘tattoo magic’.

And in addition to being pretty close to what I thought of as a typical adventuring party, it didn’t escape my attention that their composition matched what Amaryllis had described as the ideal strike force: five people, casters of various flavors, a brute, a blade … Fenn was the odd one out, but if I’d had any faith in her statement that she was a simple looter, that was out the window now. Unless this is just what simple looters are like in this world, in which case I am fucked.

“I found a friend!” called Fenn. “I was just telling him how we’re all looters.” That was the most obvious form of ‘I’m giving you the story I gave him so don’t contradict it’ that I had ever heard, so obvious that I assumed I was just meant to treat the looting story as a polite mind-your-own-business type of fiction.

“You have made many missteps today,” said the porcupine samurai. “Do not leave us again. And we are not in the business of picking up strays.”

“Sorry Juniper, he’s very rude,” Fenn said to me. “Quills, Juniper has lost his friend and I was hoping that we could help him. The more the merrier, right?”

“No,” said Quills (a name that I wasn’t going to risk calling him, not until I’d heard it from his own rodent-like lips), “We are here with a purpose, one which is the business of no one else.”

“Oh, well, if you put it like that,” replied Fenn with a roll of her eyes. “Juniper here fell out of a plane, and his friend did too. Does that change your opinion on the matter?” As an aside to me, she said, “Quills takes an interest in people falling from planes.”

Quills looked at me. “Describe your friend.”

“Uh, he has short blonde hair and a weak build,” I said. “Last I saw, he had a rifle on his back, but he might have lost it when we got separated from each other.”

Skill increased: Deception lvl 6! (Further skill gains from telling lies are capped by joint primary stat POI.)

“You are just the most atrocious liar I have ever met in my entire life,” said Fenn. She rested a hand on my shoulder, which I resisted the urge to shrug off. “And I was raised by wood elves. Look, you can tell us the truth, you’re not going to get in any more trouble than you’re already in.”

“I’m in trouble then?” I asked.

“You’re in the heart of an exclusion zone,” rumbled the man in armor. His helmet concealed his face and muffled his voice.

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like you’re an errant schoolboy,” said Fenn. “I’ve certainly never thought of myself as a schoolmarm. In point of fact though, you’re looking for your friend and we might be able to help, but we can’t help if we have no description from you, can we?”

“Red hair, pale blue eyes, a maiden, but with purpose to her,” said the bone mage. Her fingers trailed over the bones strapped to her. “Intelligent, resourceful, daring.”

“Well, that’s more of a description than anyone gave me ,” said Fenn with a huff. She turned to me. “Does that sound like your friend? There are, I gather, a few questions that Quills would like to ask her.”

“Fenn, silence,” said Quills. “Juniper, how did you come by an acquaintance with this young girl? That question should be harmless enough for you to answer and might lead us down productive avenues of conversation.”

The eyes of the tattoo mage glowed brightly, literally glowed with yellow light, then burnt out with a fizzing sound as a small tattoo on his chest faded. “We need to move,” he said calmly.

“Where are we going?” Quills asked Fenn. She twirled her finger in the air and pointed down one of the streets, then without saying anything started jogging in that direction. The others began following her, except for Quills, who stayed with me. “You’re coming with while we relocate,” he said.

I didn’t ask what would happen if I didn’t, mostly because I didn’t want to cement my place as their prisoner, and instead just jogged on after everyone else. Quill stayed behind me as we ran. I figured I was just about one sword stroke from a messy death, depending on how much he thought he needed me.

We regrouped in a burnt out shop, which smelled heavily of ash. I was mildly surprised that the whole city hadn’t been burnt to the ground in the absence of human intervention, but the walls seemed thicker in this place than I was used to on Earth, made with heavy stone rather than wood and drywall.

“It’s safe here?” asked Quills. “You’re certain?”

“For now,” shrugged Fenn. “You know I’m only a half-elf, right?”

“Give us a perimeter,” Quills said to the tattoo mage.

“I have six left,” he replied.

“Understood,” nodded Quills. When the tattoo mage left, Quills turned back to me. “How do you know this girl?” he asked. His eyes were watching me, and I was looking him over, trying to read him like he was so obviously reading me, but he was a freaking anthropomorphic porcupine and that was far too distracting. “Did you meet on the plane? No, you would have been bound and gagged. You met after you were on the ground?”

“Yes,” I said, to save me the shame of being read like a book. I wasn’t good enough at lying, not yet, and I apparently wasn’t going to get better anytime soon, not if the message about skill caps was to be believed. “She gave me a fake name, Cypress, but she had a plan for us to get out. The Fuchsia Coterie was there, killing people, and I didn’t have better options.”

“The Color Riot is involved?” asked the bone mage. She sighed at Quills. “This mission is getting increasingly fucked.” Her hands went to her bones again, touching them one by one. “We have a mission outline, and a good one, with the tools we need to accomplish it. We’re saddled with,” she waved in Fenn’s direction, “but that’s a calculation that probably would have worked out, had we not been diverted in mid-stream to this other fucking mess. This isn’t any way to run missions. If you have two objectives that need to be accomplished, you don’t just spread a below-strength team thin and hope they can do both, you prioritize and pick the one that might actually be accomplished.”

“Are you done?” asked Quills. The bone mage nodded. “First, you’re saying too much in front of our guest, who need not be burdened by petty smugglers’ squabbles. Second, our focus was shifted from one task to the other, which we are, I agree, relatively ill-equipped for, specifically because it is one which should be easier, and more importantly, is very much time critical. Third, the tasks interrelate with one another. She knows where it is.”

“And how does she know that?” asked Fenn. “Who the hells is this girl you’re after?”

“I would tell you, if you needed to know,” said Quills.

I kept my mouth shut. I had told him that Amaryllis gave me a fake name, and he had apparently bought that bit of truthful deceit. I felt like I should level up just from that. How famous was she, anyway, if Poul was able to recognize her on sight? Why was she famous, if there were literally hundreds of other princes and princess? It would be like someone recognizing, I don’t know, a state senator or something. This wasn’t one of those academic “I wonder why the world is the way it is” questions that I sometimes got stuck on, I legitimately needed to know this in order to know how I should behave around these people.

“Where was she going?” Quills asked me, which was on the long list of questions that I didn’t want to answer.

“Sorian’s Castle,” I said. I paused for a moment, trying to think of what I could say that wouldn’t expose me as dream-skewered, be incredibly stupid, or otherwise jeopardize my life. “What are you going to do with her, when you find her?” Questions seemed safe, and so far Quills hadn’t treated me like I was undeserving of answers.

“He’d tell you, if you needed to know,” said Fenn with more than a trace of bitterness in her voice.

“Fenn oversteps her bounds,” said Quills, “It is one of the worst habits she’s displayed thus far, among many. Cypress, as you call her, will be debriefed and then released.”

Ah, so they are going to kill her. Because if they weren’t going to kill her, why wouldn’t he just say that they were taking her back to civilization? Wait, the magic number for teleportation is five, which means that if they were taking her back, one of them would have to stay behind. Presumably there are some limits on these teleportation keys so that having one doesn’t let you just dump as many people as you want, because Amaryllis treated it like a sensible limit to unit size.

“But you’re taking the teleportation key?” I asked. I registered surprise from Quills and the others. “She told me about it, that’s why I agreed to come to the city. That key was meant to be our way out. It’s your primary mission, but you don’t know exactly where it is, which is at least part of why you want her.” I hoped that I wasn’t saying too much. There was at least some value in seeming dumb and ignorant, but I wasn’t sure what their training or mission objectives said about people who had outlived their usefulness. “I can help you,” I continued on. “I traveled with her for two days, I know how she operates, what tricks she’s likely to use. We really did become friends. I can talk to her, help convince her to give you what you want, if she’s not naturally inclined toward that.”

“And your price?” asked Quills. “The keys can move five, and we can’t come back for you.”

“Protection while we travel,” I said. “A weapon, maybe, if you can spare one when you go.” I looked to the two mages. “Magic to improve my chances of getting out of the Risen Lands.”

Quills looked me over. “We’ll require your weapon,” he said. “And Leonold will bind you. Otherwise, I accept your offer.”

The tattoo mage stepped forward and reached out a hand toward me. Up close, I could see the tattoos moving across his bare chest, very slowly but still moving, wriggling like living things. There were a few landscape scenes, but otherwise the tattoos were mostly creatures, items, and complex patterns. There was a tattoo that wrapped around the palm and back of his outstretched hand, showing spikes, and this one was rotating, moving faster than any of the others.

“It’s important that you not resist,” he said.

I took his hand, and he gripped me tight. The spiked tattoo touched me, feeling like cold metal on my flesh, and then I saw it appear on the back of my own hand, spinning across my skin.

Unlocked skill: Skin Magic!

Achievement Unlocked: Skin Deep

It didn’t stay there though; instead it migrated up my arm, like a chilly bracelet, disappearing beneath my jacket. I could feel it moving though, past my elbow, tickling my shoulder, and then finally wrapping itself around my neck.

Quest Accepted: Heading Off the Skin Mage - Leonold has placed the Fool’s Choker around your neck. Disable it, kill him, or circumvent it before he kills you.

“I’ve never been in contact with skin magic,” I said slowly.

Leonold raised an eyebrow. “I appreciate the respect,” he said with a nod. “But you’re mistaken. I could still feel the burnt out rune on your right hand.”

Right, from the airplane. Did that not trigger an unlock because it was part of the opening scene? I touched my neck, where I could still feel a faint line of cold. “And what does this do?” I asked.

“If I activate it, which takes but a thought, it will cut about half an inch into your flesh,” he said calmly. “You are familiar with the location of your carotid artery?”

“Purely as a precaution,” Quills said quickly. “When we leave, it will fade from you.”

I nodded at that, trying not to feel too panicked by the thought-activated noose around my neck.

“I’ll take charge of the boy,” said Fenn. “Teach him the ins and outs, as it were. I do this as a service to you, most noble porcine.”

“Porcine means pig,” Quills replied mildly. “But I’m sure that your famously haphazard upbringing has once again caused you to innocently botch the common tongue. We’re going to Sorian’s Castle. What can you tell us that’s of use?” he asked her.

“The corporate castles are death traps,” said Fenn. “Funny enough, they weren’t designed with the living suddenly becoming the undead in mind. There were a few hundred people living in each of them. When the buildings lost power, they switched to a backup, and when that backup eventually failed, all the doors opened, as a fire safety measure. Well, that meant that the undead were free to roam, but their stochastic motion meant that they all ended up in the same spots, and since they all lived and worked together, unanimity-of-purpose is higher, which means more umbral undead than you might otherwise expect from a highly populated area.” She shrugged. “Other than that, it’s your typical case of close quarters combat against enemies who can only be killed through precision or overwhelming firepower, plus it’s within the stalking grounds of the Biggun, whose entire existence is devoted to killing interlopers. So I believe the human term would be ‘cakewalk’?”

The bone mage swore and clutched at one of the bones by her chest, as though getting ready to throw it against the wall. “This is idiocy, Quills,” she said.

“Your opinion has been duly noted, Tova,” said Quills, which was apparently his actual name. “We knew that this was going to be difficult.”

“Difficult,” spat the bone mage. “Not suicidal. And we were supposed to have better intel.”

“We were,” nodded Quills. “It is my understanding that the political situation in the capital is more unstable than we’d known, and certain plans that this mission was contingent upon have failed entirely. This leaves us in an admittedly awkward situation.”

“Alright,” grumbled the tall man in armor. “I will ask the question I believe is on all our minds. The intent was that we would procure the teleportation key and use it to leave. In the event of abject mission failure, we were meant to radio for evacuation.” There followed a brief silence from beneath his helmet. “Were you to declare this mission a failure, do you currently believe that evacuation would be forthcoming?”

Quills’ nose twitched slightly. “The parameters for mission failure --”

“Just answer the damned question,” said Leonold, the tattoo mage.

“I’ve heard nothing explicit to that effect, but I believe we’re on our own,” said Quills. “It might be different if our second objective were achieved.”

Everyone seemed upset with that, save for Fenn, who was holding back a smile. She caught my look, shrugged, and grinned at me.

“To Sorian’s Castle!” she said. “May we succeed on our merits or die in ignominy.”

“There would be no ignominy,” said Quills quietly. “This mission would be buried under so many layers of classification that our names would never see the light of day.”

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Alexander Wales

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