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The tattoo mage’s eyes burnt out again not long after that, so we got moving, following Fenn’s guidance and this time making our way to Sorian’s Castle, which we weren’t too far from. I’d already seen it on the map, and it wasn’t too much larger than I was prepared for, which is to say that it was incredibly large and worthy of being called a city within a city. The walls were high and had arrow slits starting at the second level, with everything below that being solid stone wall. This struck me as being particularly idiotic, given that sightlines in the middle of the city were basically crap and a siege of this place wouldn’t be worthy of the name, not unless there were considerations that I wasn’t aware of (which was entirely possible).

I was still feeling out of my depth, naturally, but more than that, I was feeling like I was no longer in a game. A party of characters with their own strengths and weaknesses, trapped behind enemy lines with only their skills to survive and the only path forward through an area of danger … well, that was well-worn territory. The problem was, I wasn’t actually a part of it. If this had been a game, then I would have been an NPC that the players had captured in order to wring some use out of him, and I had DMed that situation more than enough times to know how that went. I’d been stripped of agency by virtue of being in a position where agency would get me killed, not just because of what I was assuming was an overwhelming disparity in terms of gear, knowledge, and training, but because I had a tattoo around my neck that the game had practically told me would kill me sooner rather than later.

I wasn’t even sure that they were the bad guys, where “bad guys” was defined as “aligned against Amaryllis”. I didn’t know whether Amaryllis was a good person or not, so calling the people trying to kill her bad was probably too much of a stretch, given the information available. More likely than not, if this world had parallels with the ones I’d created for D&D campaigns, there were layers of gray on one side and pitch black darkness on the other.

So things were stacked against me. On my side, I had: (1) Amaryllis was probably still out there somewhere and would probably give me aid if she could … probably. (2) Fenn was clearly a part of this mission under duress or coercion of a nature TBD, which could probably be leveraged. (3) Everyone except for Quills showed some dissatisfaction with this mission and the way it was being handled at the top, wherever that was, and they weren’t likely to turn on each other, but infighting was a useful distraction. (4) They had taken my void tunneler but not my sword, which probably meant it was useless or at least ineffective in terms of hurting them. That was probably true if the skin mage could cut my throat with a thought. It still seemed like a classic case of underestimation to me though. (5) I had the game elements, like the ability to level up and heal all my wounds, plus my ability to learn things far faster than should have been possible, plus hints and clues that the game incidentally fed me.

It was that last aspect I started work on as we moved around Sorian’s Castle. Taking on the tattoo had unlocked Skin Magic, which meant that I had the very beginnings of the abilities that Leonold had shown. I knew no spells, but I did have a piece of magic touching, or maybe buried into, my flesh.

(Now you might be saying to yourself, “Juniper, prodding at the kill-you necklace is a bad idea” and I would normally have agreed, but the quest I had been given specifically said that I could circumvent it. And yes, listening to the text messages inside my head was also not good standard operating procedure.)

The cold feeling was only there when I thought about it. If I paid close attention, I could feel the exact boundaries of it, the peaks and valleys of the spikes. That sense went far beyond my body’s natural ability to feel heat and cold. I pushed against the feeling, slowly, trying to imagine that I was moving the opposite direction across the same channel of communication.

Skill increased: Skin Magic lvl 1!

I’ll have to say, that surprised me. The tattoo hadn’t moved at all, but my sense of it instantly sharpened. I pushed against the tattoo again, slightly harder. It had traveled along my arm to reach my neck, and if its function was tied to its location, which I desperately hoped it was, then moving it down to a finger would make a half-inch cut result in nothing more than a severing. Leonold hadn’t checked whether I was a skin mage before he’d bound me, which I hoped was another instance of underestimation that would give me wiggle room.

I’d gained two more levels in Skin Magic before we reached the front entrance of Sorian’s Castle, and was no closer to having moved the tattoo. I’d also gained a level of Deception as well, which was quite unexpected considering the earlier message I’d got. Was it because I was trying to surreptitiously work at the skin magic without anyone noticing?

The front of Sorian’s Castle was a massive portcullis that rose up almost twenty feet. It was down, but a corner of it had been bent outward, enough that you could have comfortably driven a van through it. Beyond that there was a courtyard, and only then did I see the glass frontage that I expected from a skyscraper, even if it was hidden in a cove and most of the glass was broken. Light was coming in from the third floor of the castle, which seemed to consist mostly of pillars rather than walls, at least from where I was standing.

“No undead,” muttered Quill.

Fenn stepped forward, coming up next to me. She casually slipped her arm into mine and leaned against me, holding her longbow with her other hand. “That’s not terribly unusual,” she said. “They’re not exactly patrolling creatures, and if someone had come by any, that were standing near the entrance would have been drawn out. If someone had gone running past, even past lesser umbrals, they would have been drawn inside.”

As she spoke, she was squeezing my arm. A short squeeze, two long squeezes, a pause, two short squeezes … it went on like that, and I recognized it as likely being Morse code, but I had no idea what message she was trying to spell out. I looked at her as she spoke, and on a final squeeze she gave me a pleasant grin, which I met with a puzzled stare.

Fenn sighed. “There’s nothing for it but for us to go in. I’m getting the sense that we shouldn’t stay out here much longer.”

“Then we move, slowly and carefully,” said Quills. “I will take lead, Tova will be in the back with Leonold. Fenn, stay beside Juniper and be ready to unleash artillery on my command. Juniper, we will make no special effort to protect you.” He rested a clawed hand on the tall armored man. “Carter, I wish you luck.”

But before we could start moving, a wave of corpses came around the corner, eerily silent as it set down one of many limbs, carefully placed so that it avoided cars and lampposts. It was almost two blocks away from us, but my heart was hammering in my chest. This thing was only vaguely shaped like a creature. The arrangement of the dead within it had suggestions of arms and legs, and the eyes were so blindingly bright that I had to force myself to keep looking in its direction.

“Move now,” called Quills, running even as he spoke the word. The Biggun reared back one of its arms, using so many of the dead that there was no clear point of articulation, leaving the limb it showed looking more like a tendril. It snapped that tendril forward at startling speed, back and forth, each time sending a body flying through the air at us at startling speed.

Quills drew his sword and cut through one without breaking stride, giving me my first look at his long, thin katana, diverting both halves of it to their side of him. Another corpse hit the big man, Carter, right in his immense shield, but he took it without so much as a grunt of effort. Others slammed into the ground, splattering flesh and viscera and shattering bones. It was only because I was paralyzed with indecision that I saw one of the hurtling corpses smash into Leonold, hitting the completely unarmored man hard enough that his head should have snapped back or been sheared off - but it didn’t even move him, not a bit. It was Carter who jerked back with the hit instead. Linked through the soul to take the hits himself, those had been Amaryllis’ words.

I finally came to my senses and ran. I was at the back of the pack by quite some distance, which gave me the marginal benefit of not being where the majority of corpse-fire was landing. Quills cut several bodies down in midair, sometimes stopping his forward motion in anticipation of them so he could protect the others. Carter moved faster than I’d thought a man in thick full plate could, even accounting for everything I’d read that debunked full plate being restrictive. The two mages took a few marginal hits when pieces of bodies flew like shrapnel, and I saw those hits reflected on Carter in sudden, awkward movements of his body. Fenn … Fenn didn’t seem to be dodging really, in the sense that she was watching the incoming corpse-fire and reacting to it, but she always seemed to be where the body parts weren’t.

I drew my sword as I ran, trying to watch for a body flying through the air toward me as quickly as a speeding car. When one came, I dropped into a quick roll across the street, hoping that I wasn’t putting myself in exactly the position to take a hit.

Skill increased: Dodge lvl 2!

And then I was on the move again, still bringing up the rear as the others reached the broken portcullis. That at least would give us some cover from the corpse-fire, though if the interior of Sorian’s Castle was infested with zombies we were going straight into a pincer. An errant corpse smashed into a car right next to me and its top half went spinning toward me. I lifted my sword and caught it in the ribs, which was enough to arrest its motion.

Skill increased: Parry lvl 2!

The zombie was still living, I realized, or at least undead, because its eyes were glowing and it was moving. I let it slide off my sword as I hurried forward, now further behind than before.

“Artillery!” shouted Quills as I made it through the portcullis. We had company up ahead, three of the Zombie Voltrons and one of the smaller, sleeker versions, all of them bounding toward us from out of the ruined glass frontage, into the courtyard.

Fenn drew her bow, closed one eye and squinted, then released. Her arrow once again split in the air, first into two, then four, then eight, until it was a full volley ripping through the undead. Two of the Voltrons collapsed, but the third she didn’t hit, and the slender, ten-corpse zombie had rolled itself behind one of the ones penetrated by arrows. Errant arrows, of which there were many, crashed into the building behind the zombies.

Quills kept up his speed and ran straight toward the Zombie Voltron with his sword trailing behind him. When he reached it, he spun with sword outstretched, cutting a thin line right through it that caused pieces of it to drop to the ground. When it swung its arm-like appendage at him, he sliced straight through that too, and then followed it up with another cut to the creature’s nominal leg which caused it to slide down into a red-eyed pile.

Tova and Leonold took on the smaller one, her with bones in hand, striking at it with impossible speed and punches that I could hear crack bones, him with his skin aglow in colors. It was hitting them hard with its many arms and legs, until they had struck through enough of its hearts that it collapsed into pieces.

“Run!” screamed Fenn as she followed her own advice, disappearing into the castle’s lobby. Unlike the others, I had never stopped, and I weaved through the fighting, looking behind me only briefly to confirm what I suspected, which was that the Biggun had made its way down the street to the portcullis. It was releasing parts of itself, small blobs in relation to its size, but recognizable as one of the fast conglomerations, well capable of running us down.

We ran. There were more zombies inside, but Quills had a sword which was apparently capable of cutting through anything, and none of them were the dangerous, stuck-together sort. We raced up a central staircase in near-darkness, with the big brute, Carter, nearly falling behind, then up another staircase, then a third, until we were on the fourth level.

“Leo, time out,” shouted Quills.

The tattoo mage stopped right where he was and held out his hand, then ran in a small circle not more than ten feet wide with his hand trailing behind him. It started with a blue glow in his hand that built as he went, until his entire arm was covered in vibrant blue light. It was just before he finished that I realized everyone else was inside the circle and I was outside it; I took a step forward and Fenn reached out to pull me in, right as the circle closed and everything went black.

I felt the pulse of my blood, which was racing, and lit my finger on fire, which illuminated the six of us standing around, the floor we were standing on, and nothing at all beyond the circle that Leonold had traced.

“You’re burning our oxygen, asshole,” said Tova. Her hair was in disarray and a number of bones were missing from her bandoliers.

“Blood magic doesn’t oxidize, not unless he sets something on fire,” said Quills. “It’s the best light source I think we have. Small mercies.” To my surprise, he gave me a short bow. “Leonold, what does spell integrity look like?”

“It was a sloppy cast,” the tattoo mage replied. “We’re also sitting at six, not five, which cuts down our time. Figure an hour and a half until we’re not in fighting shape when we get out.”

“And where the fuck is that?” asked Fenn. “Seems like nowhere to me.” Her hand moved to the blackness around us, but Quills slapped her away.

“We’re outside of time,” said Quills. “Don’t touch the border unless you want to lose a finger. Carter, status?”

Carter finally removed his helmet for the first time since I’d seen him. He was hairless and his skin was blue; one of the kashoonk, if I remembered the races I’d created correctly. His face was bloody and bruised, and one of his eyes was swollen shut and leaking a white fluid. “Broken wrist, broken ribs, broken face, broke all the fingers of my left hand, bruised from head to toe, feeling like a raw piece of meat. I’m going to need half Tova’s healing just to keep me going.”

“Make it so,” replied Quills. Carter immediately set to work removing his armor, which was awkward for all of us because there wasn’t quite enough space for six people. Tova grabbed bones out of her bandoliers, looking them over and setting some aside. While they did that, Quills turned to me. “We are here largely on your word,” he said. “Is there anything you have held back? Any hint as to where she was going within the castle?”

I tried to steady my breath. I was breathing up their air and my usefulness was rapidly diminishing. Knowing a little bit about Amaryllis wasn’t going to help if we didn’t run into her, and I couldn’t imagine how she would possibly have gotten past what had greeted us in the courtyard. I had few pieces of information to parcel out and when they were gone, I was probably dead. If I held them close to my chest, I was also probably dead.

“I don’t know what you know,” I replied. “She said that there was a secret facility on the twenty-first floor.” Though the game said that it was on the top floor, and I’m not sure that’s the same thing. “The facility was meant to study the necrotic field effect, but they … lost contact, or something, taking their key with them.”

Quills shifted his nose from side to side. “She actually trusted you then.”

I nodded. “Maybe not wisely.” I wanted to let the fire on my fingertips wink out and hide. I had done the same thing she’d done when she left me for dead: I had made a calculation, and she had come out on the wrong side. It still made me feel like shit though.

“So who the hell is our mystery girl? Who gets marooned in the Risen Lands and knows everything there is to know about secret research facilities that violate the exclusion zone?” asked Fenn. She maneuvered in the tight space until she was next to me. Her hand rested on my shoulder as she looked to Quills.

“Amaryllis Penndraig, Princess of Anglecynn, Special Liaison on Existential Emergencies,” I replied. I was fairly sure that Fenn was the only one who didn’t know that, and now, at least, I could get some information from Quills.

“Oh,” said Fenn. “Well, fuck.” Her eyes momentarily went to Leonold, then to me, then down to the tattoo around my neck. She turned back to Quills. “So, you just want to have a friendly chat with this girl, most senior of the Penndraig line, before sending her on her merry way to die in the middle of Silmar City? Because it seems to me like either we’re meant to kill her, or you’re meant to take her out of here, and if it’s the latter, then that’s probably bad news for the least valued member of the team.” She tousled my hair with the hand that had been holding her bow upright, then caught the bow just before it tipped over and fell. “No offense to our stray, who would take that title if only he were a member.”

Quills’ hand was still wrapped around the grip of his blade, which he had not yet sheathed. “It is of no concern,” he said. “We will not find her. This mission has been reduced to our mere survival.”

I wasn’t willing to press the question, and to my surprise Fenn didn’t seem to be willing to either. She instead turned and kissed me on the cheek, then with a languid motion fell to the floor and assumed a sitting position.

Skill increased: Romance lvl 2!

“You’ll stay with us, for now,” Quills said to me. “I am blade-bound; our oath is our word. But the caution you received, that we would make no special effort to keep you alive, that is also true.” With that he turned away from me, sat down, and began cleaning his blade.

Tova was still working on Carter, holding a bone in one hand until it smoked while touching his bare flesh with her other hand. The healing wasn’t complete; his wounds got better, but his flesh didn’t become unblemished. When she had burnt through one bone, she tossed it aside and selected another, moving over his body (now bare save for a pair of briefs) delicately and occasionally asking soft questions he answered with monosyllables.

Leonold was tattooing himself by the light of my flame, using a small pot of ink and a needle. He grit his teeth as he did it, but made no sound. This was apparently part of the process for a skin mage, or a tattoo mage. I didn’t know whether that was a difference in terminology or a real difference in praxis, but I didn’t want to interrupt the man who had magic wrapped around my neck.

So having nothing better to do, I sat down next to Fenn.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I kissed you,” she asked.

“Not particularly,” I replied. “I thought that was just … your way of trying to get under my skin. Or Quills’.” I kept my voice low, but the space outside of time we were in was quite small, and Carter was taking up a lot of it.

“You’re cute,” said Fenn. She kept her own voice low to match mine. “Not what you just said, that was borderline offensive, but in general appearance and mannerisms. There’s something very human about you, has anyone ever told you that?”

“No,” I replied. “But … I’m not very worldly.”

“Well,” said Fenn. She scooted closer to me, until she was pressed up against me, and placed her head on my shoulder. I was hyperaware of the feeling of her pointed ear touching me. “Perhaps that’s what I mean when I say that you’re very human.”

“Don’t play with your food,” said Leonold from across the room.

“I’m only half-elf,” replied Fenn, not raising her head from my shoulder. “I have consumed very few people in my days.” She shifted slightly, then sat up and looked at me. “There’s something very cozy about being close to death, isn’t there? Something about wolves howling outside the door that sends an electricity through people? Or is that just my elf side speaking?”

She moved her head in close and used her nose to push my face to the side, then kissed me on the cheek. I let it happen. I was feeling exhausted, not so much physically but mentally, probably the result of having so much to process in so little time and the stress of looming death. It felt nice, but I was too wrung out to experience any real sensuality. She leaned forward more and brushed her lips against my ear.

“They’re going to kill us both,” she whispered, just loud enough so that I could hear it. She pulled back, brushing her cheek against mine, and then looked at me straight on. There was nothing playful or seductive about those dark green eyes. The look on her face was meant only for me; she had positioned herself to be unseen by the others. I wasn’t terribly good at reading people, not enough for me to decipher her microexpressions, but the sheer intensity of it alone was frightening.

“Of course, there’s much written on the subject of pre-battle coitus,” Fenn said aloud as she turned back to face the others. “Some are of the opinion that it saps men of their fighting spirit, while others feel that it calms the mind. Myself, I think there’s something to the notion that a little teasing can spurn a man onward to greatness.” She let out a sigh and disengaged from me entirely, so that we were only sitting next to each other. “So, you say that you’re not worldly. Is this your first time seeing a meatshield?” she gestured at Carter.

“I’ve … heard stories,” I said. “Never in person, no.” Was he literally called a meatshield? Was this world really that bizarre?

“He’s linked by the soul to the rest of the team and takes all the hits they would take,” said Fenn. “Very funny stuff, really, because you could punch Tova in the head and Carter would be the one to feel it. Of course, he’s the one with all the armor, so likely you’d break your hand in the process, which I suppose is not all that funny, except to outside observers. And before you try anything, he wasn’t linked to me personally, because I am for some reason not trusted by these otherwise warm-hearted smugglers.”

“Enough talking,” said Tova. “And Juniper, more light for this part.” After a second she added. “Please.”

I flared the fire until it consumed my hand, and got a message that I had once again capped my skill for blood magic. I watched as Tova took the thickest bone still left in her bandolier and traced her fingers over Carter’s blue-skinned chest. This bone stunk worse than the others, filling our enclosed space with a lingering acrid smell. Halfway through, Carter grunted and arched his back, letting out a whimper as he collapsed back to the ground. When it was finished, Tova was breathing heavily.

“Healing is as done as it’s going to get,” said Tova. “I have about a fifth of my total reserves left,” she gestured to her bones. “Enough for a single fight, or critical healing in a time of need.”

Carter began putting his armor back on. I wondered how often he had been hurt for the sake of others, how often he had gone through similar healing processes in order to come back into the fight. It seemed rather masochistic to me.

But Fenn hadn’t told me about the link he shared with the others in the interests of satisfying my curiosity, she had said it because they were going to kill us both. She’d told me about Carter because if I wanted to live, I would need to deal with Leonold, and to do that, I would need to deal with Carter first. I wasn’t actually sure why either of us were alive, if Quills and company really were bad guys, but I trusted Fenn more than I trusted them. I wasn’t quite planning on killing Carter and Leonold in cold blood, but that was partly because I had no real ideas on how to do that.

“We need to plan,” said Quills, standing up swiftly. “We are currently on the fourth floor, with unnumbered undead ahead of us and unnumbered undead following behind us. There are seventeen stories between us and our objective. Tova, you are a non-combatant unless Carter dies, in which case you are to use every scrap of your remaining power as rearguard. Leonold … status?”

“The usual bits and bobs, but if we’re talking things of note, then two of Prince’s Invulnerability, five of the Pseudo Perimeter, which probably wouldn’t even work in here, one more Fool’s Choker, and a single Faltering Candelabra,” said Leonold, occasionally pointing to pieces on his skin.

I felt at my collar as he spoke, pushing again at the tattoo. I had finally managed to budge it at level eight of Skin Magic, but “budge” was on the order of centimeters rather than moving it away from my neck, and the levels were coming much slower now.

“Prince’s Invulnerability lasts for about six seconds?” I asked. “Covers six people?”

Leonold stared at me. “Yes,” he said. “How’d you know that?”

Well, you see, there’s this game called Dungeons and Dragons in a place that may or may not exist called Earth, and there are spells created by Gary Gygax and the Wizards of the Coast, but there are people called dungeon masters who can make up their own spells to give to wizards, and that one was one that I made up before I got here.

“I read it somewhere,” I said slowly.

“Where?” asked Leonold.

“It’s not important,” said Quills. “The headaches have started, that means time is short. Juniper, don’t speak again.”

I closed my mouth, even though an idea was forming. Prince’s Invulnerability had been a mistake, one of those spells that I’d thought was really cool when I’d handed it over but which tipped the game on its side. The problem wasn’t the mechanical aspect of preventing all damage, it was the shenanigans that allowed; in the very first session they had it, the party made a dramatic escape by putting on the invulnerability and then jumping from the parapets of a lich’s castle.

(Yes, this did involve a lot of arguing about whether real-world physics superseded D&D rules when D&D rules were stupid and unrealistic, plus consulting with online calculators that took into account drag coefficients, plus a smattering of jokes about the airspeed of an unladen swallow.)

“Fenn,” asked Quills. “How many artillery shots?”

“One,” she replied with a frown. “You call it and I’ll make it, but you had better pick well. Also, if we’re counting assets, then you should probably put my charms there as well. I have not yet tried to charm the undead, but we’ll call it a last-ditch effort, shall we?”

“I am more hoping that your luck assists us,” said Quills, paying no more attention to her than to give her a shake of the head. “Juniper, you have some access to blood magic, but can I assume that it’s limited?”

I literally learned everything I know earlier today. “It’s nothing more than a party favor,” I replied. “But …” I hesitated, unsure how to proceed. There was so much that I didn’t know about this world, and I couldn’t ask questions without looking like a fool, or worse, revealing that I had a mental disorder that you could find in whatever the local equivalent of the DSM-5 was. “We should take the elevators,” I said.

“It might have escaped your notice, hooman friend, but there’s no power,” said Fenn. “Easy to see how someone could overlook that.” But in spite of her snark, I was breathing a sigh of relief, because she’d just confirmed for me that the doors I briefly glimpsed at the lobby level were, in fact, the doors to elevators, and not only that, that these elevators required electrical power rather than running on some crazy system of gnostic runes.

“You want us to climb,” said Quills, shaking his head, “Worse than stairs, because our options will be too limited in the event they follow, and attack from above would send us falling to our deaths.”

“No,” I replied, starting to get that warm feeling of excitement at a plan that might actually work. “I want to launch us.”

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Alexander Wales

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