“The city of Barren Jewel lies at the heart of the Datura Desert, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of miles of sand dunes and rocky cliffs. It’s a city of cutthroats where the guards either turn a blind eye or are in on the take, a place of powerful magics lurking in the shadows, with just enough of a veneer of civilization over it that the rich can still sit on the backs of the poor. You crest the hill and get your first look at it just before nightfall, when the sight of city lights after your long journey might seem almost welcoming.” I was reading off my laptop screen, which was always awkward, even when I had done some rehearsing beforehand.
“It’s just a model,” said Tom, which he said after pretty much every description of a big city, and somehow it caught me off-guard every time and still managed to be funny.
“So wait, did we pass any caravans while traveling?” asked Reimer.
“No,” I said. “There’s almost no trade going to or from Barren Jewel.”
“So … why does it exist?” asked Reimer. “No, how does it exist? How do they get food and water?”
“Easy, Create Food and Water,” said Craig.
“That’s not,” Reimer began, then he opened his book and began reading without finishing his thought.
“That seems like it would require a lot of magic,” said Arthur.
“It does,” I shrugged. “The Datura Desert wasn’t always a desert, it was once thriving farmland and quiet woods. All that changed when a creeping blight started spreading across the land, killing plants and livestock. It was the mage Alvion who gave his life to create a well of magic in the city that would later become Barren Jewel, a magic that allows that place to thrive even as the lands around it have died.”
“Aw, I liked Alvion,” said Tom.
“He’s … a historical figure?” I said as a question.
“You’re thinking of Alvino,” said Arthur. “Who was from the Scattered Asches campaign and not even a mage.”
“Okay,” said Reimer. “Create Food and Water is a 3rd level cleric spell, they get one of those at 5th level, plus another if their domain is creation, so a single mid-low level cleric can provide 24 hours' worth of food and water for maybe thirty people, and a 20th level cleric would cap out at providing food and water for maybe two thousand people, if that was literally all they were doing with their magic.” He looked up from the books he had open. “So it doesn’t work out unless there are a hugely disproportionate number of really powerful clerics in the city.”
“We actually moved past that already,” said Tiff. “Joon said there’s some kind of magic that lets the city not have to worry about food and water.”
“All casters in the party are now able to cast Create Food and Water as a 5th level cleric once per day,” I said. “You feel the magic in your bones as soon as you’re within city limits, a promise from the great mage Alvion that you will not starve from the horrid blight that covers what is now the Datura Desert.”
“Eh, fine,” said Reimer. “But why do people live there? Why not move someplace else?”
“Yeah,” said Tiff. “Why do people live in Flint, Michigan, why don’t they just move somewhere where there’s clean water and functional city services? Why do people starve to death in Africa when they could just fly to America and buy food from supermarkets there? Why do those dumb Chinese peasants toil away in factories making cheap cellphones for pennies an hour instead of just moving to San Francisco?”
And that led to Tiff and Arthur having one of their famous “discussions” where they argued about upward mobility and late-stage capitalism, or something like that. They were a staple of what I’d call the Tiff-Arthur epoch of our D&D group, because Tiff had strong opinions and Arthur really liked arguing about things.
I wasn’t really paying attention, because I was trying to revise my notes on Barren Jewel to match what I had just improvised.
|5 POW||1 Unarmed Combat||3 One-handed Weapons||1 Improvised Weapons|
|5 SPD||1 Thrown Weapons||0 Dual Wield||12 Pistols|
|5 END||9 Rifles||2 Parry||9 Athletics|
|4 CUN||2 Dodge|
|4 KNO||0 Horticulture|
|4 WIS||12 Blood Magic|
|2 INS||8 Skin Magic|
|2 POI||0 Flattery||2 Comedy|
|0 LUK||2 Romance||8 Deception|
|◼ Straddling Worlds: There are others like you, those with dreams of a place called Earth. The so-called dream-skewered are studied at the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny. You can travel there to find out more.
◼ God Botherer: There are gods in this world, titans of power and masters of domains, each their own creature with their own special rules. Tread carefully around these creatures, especially if you wish to someday join their ranks.
◼ The Lost King, Found?: Five hundred years ago, Uther Penndraig, figure of legend, King of Anglecynn, and ancestor of Amaryllis, disappeared from this world while on a quest of grave importance. This enduring mystery must have an answer for those brave or foolish enough to seek it, mustn't it?
Amaryllis Penndraig, Loyalty lvl 5
Amaryllis is the most direct descendant of Uther Penndraig, the Lost King, which gives her special claim-in-fact to a fair number of his estates and heirlooms bound along cognatic or enatic primogeniture, ultimogeniture, and gavelkind rules. She was once a keystone member of a bloc of power within the Lost King’s Court, but now she has been cast out through means both semi-legal and downright nefarious. Her homeland of Anglecynn is forbidden to her now, at least until she’s gathered enough power to wedge open some doors.
To my surprise, teleportation was extraordinarily painful, and I say that as someone who had, in the past few days, had his arm broken with a pipe, twisted an ankle running from a mass of corpses, lost two pints of blood to undead rats, had a severed vein hastily cauterized, burnt through the flesh of my hand, and was pierced by three arrows thanks to friendly fire. The teleportation key Amaryllis held pulsed with green and then we were no longer in Sorian’s Castle and instead sitting in the sand beside a rocky cliff. The pain all happened in the interim, which didn’t seem possible, because I wasn’t aware of any time passing at all. The effect was distinctly unsettling.
“So,” said Fenn, looking over her bow to make sure that it was still fine. The half-elf was still dressed in the army fatigues she’d been wearing when I met her, now with more blood on them. “Do we have friends in the Barren Jewel or are we just crashing the party?”
“No friends,” said Amaryllis. “But no enemies either.” Her cheek twitched. “It’s just Barren Jewel, there’s no article in front of the name.”
“You couldn’t have dropped us in the city?” asked Fenn. “The gates won’t be down, because they’re never down. Supposedly they rusted shut a century ago.”
“The teleportation key is so valuable it’s a threat to our lives,” I said, as Amaryllis slipped it into her bag. “I don’t know how well it can be controlled, but if someone had seen us appear in a flash of light or whatever, we would have immediately faced some unpleasant complications.” I was gratified to see Amaryllis nodding along.
“Yes, but now we have a different problem, which is that we either have a wall to get over, or we have to talk to some guards and convince them that letting us in unmolested is a better idea than taking our stuff and stabbing us in the stomach,” said Fenn. She sighed and pulled off her pack, one I thought she had probably taken from Leonold’s corpse. “I have things to sell,” she said. “But I need to get into the city to do it. Without money, we can’t get room and board, and Juniper, even if you are remarkably durable, I’m guessing you’ll need some time to heal up.”
“Will you?” asked Amaryllis.
“I healed just before we ran across you,” I replied. “Unless we get into a fight, it’s probably not happening.”
Fenn was watching us with a grin. “Did you know that I like to be in on secrets?” she asked. “That’s something that you should know about me.”
“It’s not really a secret,” I said. I had kept it from Fireteam Blackheart, but that was more a matter of covering for the fact that I didn’t know a damned thing worth knowing. “I mean, unless it should be?”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis, “It should. The things that I’ve seen from you would make you worth an enormous amount of money to either the athenaeums, private individuals, corporations, or countries. Part of that depends on your growth potential, but while we’re in Barren Jewel, it should be as much of a secret as my identity.”
“Are the two of you intentionally teasing me?” asked Fenn with her arms crossed. “Come on, we’re in this together right, I’m a companion, I think it’s only fair that I get to know what everyone else knows.”
“We should be moving,” said Amaryllis. “We’re ten minutes from the walls right now, it’s just around the cliff. Juniper is hurt.”
“I’m dream-skewered,” I told Fenn. Amaryllis trying to compartmentalize information seemed like it was doomed to failure, and I was the best judge of my own injuries. “On top of that, I have some kind of special ability to learn things more quickly than I should, and I have information that I shouldn’t have.” Note to self: Figure out a way of phrasing that which is more concise while also sounding less insane.
“What sorts of information?” asked Fenn with a raised eyebrow.
“In your childhood you spent alternating months in the Isle of Eversummer and the colony of Rogbottom,” I said.
Fenn was already a pale woman, but with the blood drained from her face her skin was practically white. “What was the name of the ship that ferried me?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “All I have is a paragraph of description. Mostly it was things that I had already figured out.”
“Do I have a description?” asked Amaryllis.
“You do now, you didn’t before,” I said. “I don’t know what changed. Probably our connection.” I hesitated for a moment. “I’ll recite them for you both, in private, when we have some time.”
Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 4!
That came as a surprise to me, especially since Amaryllis was only at loyalty level five. I wondered whether that came down to the interactions that I’d had with them, or their individual personalities.
“How does the teleportation key work?” I asked. “You think about the place you’re going and then you go there?”
Amaryllis shook her head. “Either you go to a place that you’ve physically been before, or you follow the pull of a touchstone. It can be used once every two hours, no faster.”
“How do you not know that?” asked Fenn.
“Dream-skewered,” I said. “I don’t have any memories before about three days ago. Or I have memories, but they’re from an alternate Earth. Er, sorry, from an alternate Aerb. Uh, one with no magic. Ish.” I turned to Amaryllis, trying to ignore Fenn’s puzzled look. “So you’ve been here before?” I asked, looking at the desert that stretched out endlessly ahead of us and the cliffs behind us.
Amaryllis nodded. “You have a thought?”
“I’m not sure it’s worth anything,” I said. “We want a room within Barren Jewel, some place that we can stay for days if not weeks. I’m injured and the most conspicuous among us, plus I don’t have even basic knowledge of … anything really, customs, money, fashion, language, I’m essentially a blank slate. So if we need a room, the two of you should go in together then come back out and teleport me directly into a room, since I won’t be able to climb a wall.”
“How injured are you?” asked Amaryllis. “Can you wait outside in the heat and winds for two hours?”
“Huh,” I replied. “If I had to put a number on it, I would say that I’m at about an eleven out of twenty-seven. I’m not losing any measurable amount of blood though.”
Skill increased: Comedy lvl 3!
“I just got a point of skill for that,” I said. The best jokes were the ones that no one else got.
“Congratulations,” said Amaryllis. “That still leaves the problem of how we’re going to get over the wall.”
“As high as the one around Silmar City?” I asked.
“See for yourself,” said Amaryllis, stepping forward. Fenn followed, and I hobbled after, my leg throbbing in pain from where an arrow had been extracted.
Barren Jewel was not as I’d pictured it in my head. In my mind, it was something like Agrabah, a place with Moorish architecture and domed minarets. Instead, a twenty foot tall wall (with parapets but unmanned) surrounded blocky buildings with wires haphazardly running between them. I could see only part of it given how tall the wall was, but there was nothing particularly Middle Eastern about it. If anything, it was cribbing from brutalism; the tall buildings didn’t look like places where people were meant to be comfortable, nor did they give the impression that aesthetics had been considered at all, except perhaps that whoever had made them had deliberately moved in the opposite direction. It made me wonder where the ‘Jewel’ part of the name came from.
“What a beautiful sight,” sighed Fenn. “I’ve never been myself, but I’ve heard enough stories, and they don’t do the place justice.” She pointed at a slender building that rose up above the others, by far the tallest in the city, at least from our vantage point. “If that building was a person, it would be an assassin in the dark.”
Amaryllis blanched. “I’d hoped not to come back here. Juniper, what’s your plan?”
“I can punch fast using blood magic, the Crimson Fist,” I said. Amaryllis nodded. “Is there any reason that I couldn’t do the same with my legs?”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “There’s a style of blood mage fighting that uses the legs more than the arms.”
“That’s not quite what I had in mind,” I said. “I was planning on boosting both of you up over the wall.”
It took some time for us to set it up, and then just as I was listening to the sound of my heart with Fenn’s feet balanced on my hands, Amaryllis suggested that I try it with rocks first. I did that twice, getting a feel for it, and on the second time I was able to launch a hundred pound rock fifteen feet in the air, which caused a brief flash of intolerable pain in my leg.
Spell discovered: Crimson Foot!
Crimson Foot: Channels the force of your blood to gain kinetic energy in the form of a kick. Your foot is in no way protected by this spell. Drawing on this spell too often may leave you feeling sluggish. Consumes 3 drops of blood.
Spell discovered: Sanguine Surge!
Sanguine Surge: Channels the force of your blood to gain kinetic energy in the form of a leap. Your body is in no way protected by this spell. Drawing on this spell too often may leave you feeling sluggish. Consumes 5 drops of blood.
Huh. Two spells from trying one thing seemed generous, but maybe it was because I was trying to do something that wasn’t perfectly covered by what the game had in mind.
“I think we should be good to go,” I said. My health bar hadn’t budged, in spite of the pain.
Fenn went first, gamely stepping up with her bow tied to her bag and a prim and proper pose. She stood in my hands, lightly touching the wall for balance. She was heavier than the rock, by quite a bit given what she was carrying. I listened to the beat of my heart and tried to feel my pulse going through my legs, then began a countdown in my head timed to the rhythm. When I got to one, I lifted with my legs and put all my momentum into my arms, sending her sailing straight up, where she deftly grabbed the edge of the wall. I hissed in pain at the feeling of my injured leg, and unlike the time before, the pain didn’t subside. I clenched my fist and ground my teeth as I watched Fenn do a rather gymnastic pull-up that swung her up and over. She stuck an upraised thumb out for us to see just afterward.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” asked Amaryllis. She was eyeing me warily.
“I’ve been through worse,” I said, then when I’d thought about it for a bit, “I’ve been through worse today, actually.”
“Alright,” said Amaryllis. She unstrapped her void rifle from her back and rested it against the wall. “I’m leaving this with you. Barren Jewel is technically a minor member of the empire and there’s a ban in place. Use it if you have to. Get some practice in.” She licked her lips. “I’m sorry that I’m leaving you again.”
“You waited for me in Silmar,” I said. “There was nothing to forgive, but if there ever was, it would be forgiven.”
“You think too highly of me,” said Amaryllis.
I was puzzling that over when she climbed into my hands. She was less steady than Fenn was, but she was lighter, both because she was shorter and because she was carrying less. Her hair briefly got in my face as I crouched down; she smelled like the sewer we’d gone through together, and I was sure that I wasn’t much better, if perhaps with a bit more of the smell of blood on me.
It was harder to find the rhythm of my pulse this time. I wasn’t sure whether it was because my heart beat faster around Amaryllis, or because of the renewed pain I was in, but it was a full minute of her standing on my hands and me trying to concentrate before I pushed her up with a grunt. She let out a squeak of surprise at the movement, but grabbed onto the ledge, and I saw Fenn’s pale hands come out to help her up. Then I lay on my back beneath the wall for a bit, where I’d fallen over, feeling the pain of my wounds and the heat of the sun.
This sort of thing wouldn’t happen in a game, or in any sort of narrative, really. The hero didn’t get stuck outside a wall waiting for his companions to come back over and pull him to safety. If I were a very proactive protagonist, I probably would have leapt to my feet, gritted my teeth through the pain, and then used Sanguine Surge to leap up into the air and climb over the wall myself.
Or if I was the other kind of protagonist, the one who reacted to events going on around him … well, let’s see, the obvious thing to have happened was that when I boosted Amaryllis up I would have seen strange, armored hands grab her, or a tentacle, or whatever, or I would have heard her scream in pain, and then I would have been forced to do something about it. Or maybe some guards would come across me and force me into a dungeon I would have to escape from. Or I would see my health going down, or my blood draining from me, through some injury that I’d opened in getting my companions over the wall. Something like that, something to keep me moving and reacting so the plot would keep humming along.
I waited a bit, but there was only the faint hum of the city on the other side of the wall and an unpleasantly warm breeze, so I continued laying there, not moving.
I was tired. I wasn’t tired physically, because I had leveled up an hour ago and that had gifted me with the equivalent of a good night’s sleep. No, I was tired of this whole thing, being trapped in a strange world that seemed to be a smashed together from things I’d imagined, being ignorant of everything there was to be ignorant about, the lying, the killing … god, the killing. Carter and Tova had been the worst, because I had known them, but I’d killed seven people now. I wouldn’t have done it differently, but it still made me feel a little sick.
“Microhitler”, that had been the achievement I’d been given when Carter died. Craig had been the one to explain it, and I don’t remember where he got it from, but it was probably 4chan. Hitler killed 6 million people, so killing 6 million people could be defined as 1 hitler. Standard SI prefixes applied, so killing 6 people was one microhitler.
(If Tiff had been part of the group during that conversation, I am absolutely sure that she would have done her best Hermione impression and said that actually a Hitler should be defined as killing 11 million people, because it wasn’t just the Jews but the gypsies, homosexuals, et cetera, and actually Hitler didn’t directly kill those people, he gave the orders, and if you accepted that the Nazis were just puppets following orders then you disagreed with the Nuremberg principles.)
The “Microhitler” achievement implied other, more difficult achievements, and I was queasy at the thought that this was a game where it might be possible for a player character to kill six million people. Worse, it might be the sort of game where I would be forced into killing that many people.
I took solace in the fact that the game wasn’t being particularly game-like at the moment. No game I knew of would take a few hours out of the player's time for quiet, melancholic contemplation while laying in the fine sand. I was tired of this place, but it was finally done forcing things on me, at least for a while.
I woke up, and in doing so realized that I had fallen asleep. Amaryllis was slapping me lightly in the face as my eyes fluttered open. It was nice, to wake up to her blue eyes and her pretty face framed by her long red hair. Her clothes had changed and she was wearing a long white robe with a cinch at the waist and a headband over a hood. She still smelled like a sewer though.
“Still good?” she asked as she looked my body over.
“Yuh,” I replied. “You?”
“Fine,” she said. “Wall’s easier to climb from the other side. Ready?”
I let out a long sigh. “Yeah.”
There was that moment of pain again, that seemed to happen all at once while I was nowhere and no time was passing. It didn’t so much fade away as stop completely, leaving only a memory. Then I was in a dimly lit room with a large bed and a small one, with Fenn standing to one side grinning at me and candles flickering at our arrival.
“The hoomans have returned!” said Fenn with a touch of real glee. “Juniper, did you get in a fight out there, or did you look that bad when we left you?”
“If I had to put a number on it, I would say that I’m now a ten out of twenty-seven,” I said. “So yes, four percent worse.” I laid down on the ground, not wanting to stain clean bedsheets. The floor was cool stone tile, which felt good against my skin. I had heated in the sun while I slept. “Oh, I’ve also lost, um … two or three percent of my blood.”
“Seems irresponsible of us to let him bake,” said Fenn as she tapped her chin. “He’s not making much sense.”
“He has numbers in his head,” said Amaryllis. She knelt down beside me and started looking at my wounds. “They’re apparently moving in the wrong direction. We need healing, probably sooner rather than later.” She looked down at her hands, one with a burnt finger and the other scratched up by zombie rat claws. “I do too, for that matter.”
Fenn nodded. “While you were out I asked around, we have our choice of a disreputable bone mage or a disreputable blood mage. I’m sure that the upper crust have their own healers, but we probably want to keep a low profile, given the whole juicy secrets thing. Say, don’t you think it’s a bit unfair that I don’t have a secret?”
Amaryllis ignored her. “We should get going then. My preference is for a bone mage. Their services are more reliable and with less risk.”
“Also more expensive,” said Fenn. She stuck her thumb in her mouth and bit down on the nail. “We have some money from what I hawked thus far, but it was a raw deal given that I’m an obvious outsider with no contacts. If we’re staying here for a while, better for me to hold off on selling the loot until I have some toehold, don’t you think?”
“Juniper is a savant,” said Amaryllis. “He learned the basic principles of blood magic in the space of a few minutes this morning and got us over the wall this afternoon by applying those principles in novel ways. I don’t know whether this will extend to other skills to such an extent, but if he keeps up this rate of progress then he’ll be able to rival the gods within a month.”
“You’re putting your chips on him,” Fenn nodded. “Now that I get. It’s a bet, but not that foolish of one. Juniper, do you agree that you might rival the gods?”
“Um,” I said. “How easy is it for a skin mage to move tattoos around?”
Amaryllis stared at me with mouth agape. “... did you literally learn skin magic in the three hours we were apart?” She stumbled over that last part, just a bit, I assume because she didn’t want to mention that she’d left me to die. “A skin mage is expected to be able to control their skin to such an extent that they can move a non-magical tattoo by the end of their first year of training,” she continued. “Invested tattoos they can usually move freely, but for those applied by others … when you enter into the athenaeum as a student, they put a tattoo known as a Fool’s Choker around your neck --”
“Yes,” I said, giving a weak snap of my fingers. “That’s the one.”
Amaryllis kept staring at me for a moment, then turned to Fenn. “Juniper is a lever by which the world can be moved.”
“Well, that at least explains why you stuck around waiting for him,” said Fenn with a wry smile. Amaryllis frowned, but didn’t deny it. “Fine, we’ll go see the bone mage.”