The closest thing to public bathing I had ever experienced was in the high school locker room, which had rows of showers lined up and nothing in the way of privacy. I’d say it was obvious that the showers were segregated by gender, but that was manifestly not obvious to the people of Barren Jewel. I paid with money Fenn had given me, stuck my clothes in a cubby, walked out with a towel provided by an attendant, and was greeted by a sea of flesh.
From the outside, the public baths were a big, ugly building, unpainted and unadorned except for a texturing that looked like it would scrape my skin off if I brushed against it. Inside though, a wide open space with tall, sculpted pillars holding up a glass ceiling that let in the last of the waning light. There were sconce lights at regular intervals, each with their own flame, some of them so high up I was left wondering how they were lit. Everywhere there was color, from the turquoise and gold tile to the green and red murals on the wall that depicted an elaborate pastoral landscape. In a way, it was the opposite of the streets of Barren Jewel; there I had seen plain buildings with colorful people walking between them, but here it was a beautiful, lovingly wrought interior with plain, unadorned people, all either nude or with simple white towels.
Which wasn’t to say that I found the people unnoteworthy, because there were skin colors we didn’t have on Earth, people with odd proportions and strange protrusions, men with tusks, women with feathers, and the occasional upright animal with wet fur. Most of the people looked human, but the ones that weren’t drew my attention.
“It’s rude to stare,” said Fenn from beside me, which made me jump. She had a towel wrapped around her, leaving her with some modesty. When I looked at her arms, I realized that I had never seen them uncovered. She had keloid scars in precise patterns starting at the joint of her shoulder and running down to the middle of her forearm. They were curlicue, almost organic looking in their shape, but exactly identical on both arms.
“See, I say that it’s rude to stare, and what do you do?” asked Fenn.
“They’re very pretty,” I said.
Fenn turned away from me and shrugged. “They weren’t exactly my choice. And they’re non-functional, in case you’re wondering.”
I hadn’t been, because until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that one of the differences between ‘skin magic’ and ‘tattoo magic’ might be that there were other sorts of magic you could do with the skin. If I was right in assuming that skin magic extended to ritual scarification, then what else was there? Intentionally stretching the skin? Piercings? I had eight levels in the skill, but knew practically nothing about it. I was about to ask Fenn more, even given her obvious discomfort, but then I saw Amaryllis, who had shed her towel and waded into the water.
I didn’t really have enough experience to say whether this was true of all public baths, considering that the one in Barren Jewel was the only one I had been in, but it wasn’t a particularly sexy place. There were families bathing there with small children running around them, and though it didn’t seem like Aerb was in the middle of an obesity epidemic in the same way that the Midwest was, there were plenty of people whose bodies were far from what I’d define as aesthetically pleasing (in fact, there were a few people I thought looked malnourished).
It might have been because of that context that I found the sight of Amaryllis to not actually be the most erotic thing I had ever seen in my life, instead taking a close second. The position of first is not one that I intend to recount here, but it would suffice to say that I’d briefly had a girlfriend back on Earth, and she had been putting effort into seduction, even though she didn’t need to.
Amaryllis wasn’t trying to be sexy, or if she was, she was doing a really good job of pretending that she wasn’t. She waded into the water, pulling her hair into a tight bun as she did so, which brought her hands up over her head and showed off the muscles of her arms. She had dimples just above her butt and muscles visible along her ribs that tensed with her movements. If she’d really climbed up Sorian’s Castle it wasn’t a surprise that she was in amazing shape, but her curvature still spoke to softness and seduction. She looked back at me while she was doing up her hair with her fingers touching the back of her neck and it felt like my heart suddenly stopped when our eyes met, before it started again, pumping quite a bit faster. My breath caught in my throat.
(Look, I know you probably think that I’m a creep, because one of the classic creep things is reading some kind of sexual intent into things that weren’t intended to be sexual. Tiff was the only girl I had ever talked to at length about that sort of thing, and she’d said that one of the things that sucked most about the boy/girl dynamic was that boys, especially high school boys, would see a girl stretching out and they would not just look appreciatively at her tits, but they would also convince themselves that this was some kind of show specifically for them, or an unspoken overture toward something more. Really, sometimes she just needed to stretch out after sitting in a desk for an hour and a half. I tried to keep all that in mind as I watched Amaryllis, so I wouldn’t think that every little thing she did was some display for me.)
I went into the water until it was waist deep, then tried to wash myself clean and think about something other than the fact that Amaryllis was naked so close to me. That work became a lot more effective when Fenn handed me a bar of soap with a rope through it. Fenn herself had shed her towel as well, revealing her slender elvish body, and gave me a grin and a wink when my gaze momentarily slipped below her eyeline.
I’d just about gotten clean when the fighting started. My first awareness of it was my wrist being grabbed and pulled. I tried to yank back from it, but the grip was like iron, and when I turned to look at my assailant I realized it was Fenn, who was quite a lot stronger than she looked. She was making her way through the water and trying to drag me along as though I was the world’s dumbest man for not simply following her.
I saw the blood in the water shortly after that though, accompanied by screams and the movement of other people around us, which was all I needed in order to start moving as quickly as I could. I looked back to the center of the water to see a pitched battle of magics. I probably would have stopped to watch in awe if not for the pressure of Fenn’s hand around my wrist. All I had were impressions, of a naked man leaping high above the water and blasting red light through a crowd, of a naked woman riding a wave away from the action, and in one spot, a place where time seemed to be flowing backward. There were clothed people too, in among the bathers, armed with guns and swords, cutting through people.
We ran, Fenn at the lead holding my wrist with one hand and gripping Amaryllis’ hand with the other. We had stayed close to the edge and were among the first ones out of the water, in part because Fenn had started moving before there had been any sign of trouble.
“Grab your stuff, meet outside!” shouted Fenn, and with that she let go of my wrist, leaving me to run toward the changing room all on my own. When I got there though, I saw the attendant who had handed me my towel was dead on the ground, his throat slit, and three men with weapons were waiting there with hard looks in their eyes.
Without thinking about it too much, I cranked back my fist and put the entire force of my racing pulse into it. The man I was going for apparently wasn’t expecting a naked man to attack him with blood magic, because his only reaction was a look of surprise before I shattered a number of bones in his face and what felt like half the bones in my hand.
New Affliction: Broken Bone!
Risen Bile member defeated!
We collapsed to the floor together, me because I hadn’t been thinking about slowing down, and him because I’d apparently hit him hard enough to kill him. I felt a sharp bite in my ankle as I rose to my feet, but it hadn’t been the other two coming after me, only me cutting myself on the fallen sword. I picked it up with a wet left hand and turned to face the other two, but other people were slipping into the changing room now and the two of them were working against the throng of people, stabbing at them. In the distance, I heard the loud staccato claps of gunfire.
Now, you’re probably going to think that this is stupid, but I rushed those two men, naked, wet, injured, and using my off-hand. I might not have, if I hadn’t seen them kill a child. Maybe it was the jarring feeling of one moment trying to adapt to cultural views that made me uneasy and the next running for my life, or maybe it was the small part of me that wanted to right a wrong, but I swung my sword in at the side of one of them and though he was armored enough that I didn’t cut into him, I did force him to turn toward me while his friend held the doorway.
That was about as far as I had thought things through, if that. He came at me like a madman, screaming over the sounds of battle and swinging his sword like he meant to overpower me with his every strike. I parried and dodged, and by the third time I realized that he wasn’t actually a very good swordsman, and in fact, probably worse than I was. All he really had going for him was some leather armor and ferocity, plus the fact that he was using his main hand, and while I’d grant that counted for a lot, he was the first person I’d come across who I thought I might have been able to take in a fair fight.
I dodged another three slashing strikes, getting more sure of myself with each one and ignoring the messages that were coming up, until I found what I thought was an opening and lunged forward, aiming at his chest. Instead, I hit him right at the bottom of his throat, stabbing him through and losing my sword as he spun away from me in flailing panic.
Risen Bile member defeated!
That was when I ran, leaving my clothes in their cubby because I couldn’t spare the time to look through them all, down the hallways and out the front door of the bathhouse. I came out onto the streets of Barren Jewel, still fully nude and bleeding for my efforts. I stood there in the now-cool air breathing heavily and looking around. I was drawing some stares from people, but I was the first one out and no one seemed to be aware that something terrible was going on in there. I wanted to scream for help, but I didn’t know what I would say, and after a few seconds time I realized that getting questioned by the local equivalent of the police was exactly the opposite of what I needed.
I was saved from indecision when Fenn and Amaryllis came out of the bathhouse, both of them in their robes. Fenn took one look at me and let out a laugh, then threw me a towel she’d been holding.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“Alright,” said Fenn when we were safely home and she’d checked that her bow was right where she’d left it. “I think hiding that key in a tattoo was just about the smartest thing anyone has ever done.”
“What the hell happened there?” I asked, cradling my hand. I was sitting in a towel on the smaller of the two beds. My feet were disgusting from walking through the streets without shoes. I counted myself thankful to not have stepped on anything.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Fenn. “That was one of the crazier things I’ve seen in my life.”
“I think they had at least two goals,” said Amaryllis. “They were going after a few particular people, but they were also killing indiscriminately.” She shook her head. “At first I thought that it was directed against us.” She turned to Fenn. “We were very lucky.”
Fenn shrugged. “Or very unlucky, depending on how you figure it,” she replied.
I looked between the two of them. “Not to trouble the two of you, but I’m in quite a bit of pain here.” Gingerly moving a finger sent pain shooting up my arm. So far as I could tell, there was only a single broken bone in my hand, though it had felt like more when it happened. “I think another trip to the bone mage is probably in order.” My feet stunk from running in the street, and if the first trip to the bathhouse hadn’t been a disaster I probably would have suggested that we return there.
Fenn grimaced. “We don’t have unlimited funds. It wouldn’t be hard to find paying work to bring in some tcher, but that would take time. Besides, you’re the blood magic wunderkind, can’t you just heal yourself?”
“Possibly,” said Amaryllis. “He learned the fundamentals quickly.” She turned to me. “I never had any training in the healing side of blood magic, so you’ll have bear with me. If you pick it up as quickly as you picked everything else up, you should be able to mend that bone within about ten minutes.”
“Yeah,” I winced, “That would be great.”
“Alright, most of what physicians do, especially with broken bones --”
“Oh, we’re doing this little lesson now?” asked Fenn. “Because if we are, I’m going to go find some food. I don’t have a magical pick-up-powers-from-simple-descriptions brain, and I find lessons to be quite boring.”
“Bring us back something,” said Amaryllis. She rolled her shoulders and stretched. “I’m hoping that this won’t take long.”
When Fenn had gone, Amaryllis took a moment to look over my hand, making me hiss in pain a few times before she gently set it back down. A bruise had blossomed on it.
“Most of what physicians do, especially with broken bones, is to set things right such that the body can properly heal itself,” said Amaryllis. “That natural healing is what the lower levels of bone magic stimulate, as you’ve already experienced. For blood magic, I’m given to understand that it’s very similar. The blood in your body provides nutrients and oxygen, it clots your wounds, and it provides the basis for a whole host of other healing when you’re injured. So in a similar way to how you use the heat of your blood for Aarde’s Touch and the pulse of your blood for the Crimson Fist, you need to focus on the healing property of your blood. I … have never felt it myself, as I’m not a proper practitioner, and I don’t know the helpful analogies.”
“Okay,” I said slowly as I looked down at my hand. “Just … feel the healing. Promise you won’t be upset with me if I get this right away?”
“Why would I be?” asked Amaryllis, but she seemed annoyed by the mere question.
“Nevermind,” I replied. I focused on my hand, and specifically on the broken bone, the bone that came down from my middle finger. (Metacarpal? That sounded a bit too much like a pokemon to be right.) I tried to think about my blood healing me, clotting the wound … doing whatever magical blood stuff it was supposed to do. I tried to think back on what it had felt like to have my broken arm heal back on Earth, but that had taken eight weeks and went too slow for me to notice anything except the itching of the cast and the dull throbbing of pain.
I was at it for about ten minutes, with no lessening of pain or skill pop-ups, before my attention began to drift, and it was another five minutes after that before I said anything.
“Is luck a real thing?” I asked.
“You’re supposed to be focusing on healing,” said Amaryllis. She narrowed her eyes. “You did this when you were supposed to be keeping watch too. Do you have attention problems?”
“No,” I said. “Not usually. I was just … thinking that it would be easier.”
“You thought it would take you less than fifteen minutes to learn something that takes multiple years of intensive study for others to learn?” asked Amaryllis.
“Well … yeah, kind of,” I replied. “I picked up blood magic and skin magic pretty quickly and I was under the impression that those should have taken multiple years of study each. In games there are sometimes gates to certain spells like attributes or skills. Normally I’d get a message, but this is pretty far from being normal. So the fact that I haven’t learned it quickly says to me that maybe it’s going to take a different approach.”
“You’re going to have to draw this ‘character sheet’ out for me,” said Amaryllis. “It’s probably better to have a physical version that we can manipulate and mark up.”
It was a little bit shocking to me how quickly I could go from trying to think unsexual thoughts about Amaryllis, to killing people who were basically a mystery to me, to feeling annoyed about Amaryllis taking ownership over my power. She was right; it probably did make sense to write things down, especially those things which weren’t obvious from just looking at the game layer itself, like what ability capped which skill. A message log seemed like it would really have come in handy, especially when other things were going on. But still, it was my weird game power thing, not hers, and I didn’t like or trust Amaryllis enough that I was ready to accept the “we’re in this together” thing with open arms.
“Define luck,” said Amaryllis.
“Um,” I replied. “I’m not sure that I can.”
“Elves are lucky,” said Amaryllis. “If you bet against them in a coin toss, you’ll lose nine times out of ten. If you try to shoot them, the bullets will miss more often than they should, though still within the realm of what’s strictly possible. Half of this comes from changes in the world around them that they have no obvious mechanism to meaningfully affect, while the other half comes from their own actions which they undertake for reasons which aren’t always clear to them.”
“Fenn began pulling us out of the bathhouse before anything had actually gone wrong,” I said.
“Yes,” Amaryllis replied. “She’s a half-elf, which I would assume would make her less lucky by any of the standard metrics, but I’m not actually sure how or whether genetic dominance plays a part. Curiosity satisfied?”
“Why’d you ask me for a definition?” I asked.
“To see what you meant,” replied Amaryllis. “On Aerb there many people under delusions about how the world actually works, who think that there’s such a thing as luck which applies in all sorts of circumstances that it demonstrably does not. Gamblers will say that they’re rolling hot, or that the dice are due for a streak, or things like that, and though the Athenaeum of Mathematics and Metaphysics has done enough research to rule that out, these myths persist. The same goes for things like carrying around a frongal bone or spitting in a fountain.”
“We came to Barren Jewel today,” I replied. “The bathhouse we were in was attacked today. Is that just some horrible coincidence? Because that doesn’t exactly seem likely to me.”
“You’re saying that it was bad luck,” asked Amaryllis. “Not just bad luck, but an effect that someone could presumably measure?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. Really, I was thinking that it was the contrived sort of thing that would happen in a game, except for the fact that it didn’t appear to involve us in any way. In a game, the attackers would have been sent after us because of some cryptic prophecy, or because they had some way to track Amaryllis, therefore compelling us to action, or maybe it would be that Fenn was a mole feeding information to the enemy. But they hadn’t been after us, at least not noticeably, and we’d left without anyone monologuing at us or discovering some vital clue. It seemed too much like coincidence, but also too pointless, which was why I was thinking about my 0 LUK.
Fenn came back while I was in the midst of my second session of trying to heal my broken bone, which was now red and swollen. I was happy to cast aside the fruitless exercise in favor of some food. It was street food, a small, fried animal of some kind, wrapped in thin waxed paper. Fenn didn’t say exactly what it was, beyond “food” and I wasn’t inclined to press her on it.
“The bathhouse thing was apparently the work of a group called the Risen Bile,” said Fenn after she’d finished her portion of critter. “The city guard are out in force, but who knows what it is they’re going to do about it. Word on the street is that they have something up their butts about nubile women like Mary and I bathing in the sight of lustful men, I’m not sure I buy that though.”
“Mary?” I asked.
“We’ll need something to call her in public,” said Fenn. “It’s Amy, Mary, or Liss, and I picked the one that I like best.”
“I don’t really care what I’m called. No luck on the blood magic, by the way,” said Amaryllis.
“And that’s why I picked up some bones,” said Fenn with a smile, waving around a tiny little rib.
“There’s no one to teach him,” said Amaryllis. “And before you suggest it, we’re not going back to the bone mage in order to learn.” She looked at me. “You didn’t acquire bone magic in the time you were there, did you? I’d think that would be the sort of thing that you’d inform us of.”
“No,” I said. “But I didn’t acquire blood magic just from hearing about it, it was from the actual practice of it. Same with skin magic, kind of. Just seeing tattoos and knowing that they did things wasn’t enough, it was the feeling of a tattoo sliding over my skin. I think maybe if I had been more aware of it, I might have triggered the skill from the parachute tattoo. That’s just a theory though.” I took the bone from Fenn’s hand. “I guess now would be a fine time to test it.”
I tried doing what I had seen Magus Bormann do, holding the bone in one hand while concentrating on my injury. She had described it as pulling, but that word didn’t mean a lot to me. Maybe it would have if I could have felt some power in the bone, but it just felt like a greasy bone to me.
“What kind of animal was this?” I asked, hoping that I wouldn’t regret the answer. Please don’t be rat, not after what we saw in the sewers.
“It’s a gunzel,” said Fenn. “They keep them as pets in some places. Here in the Barren Jewel they’re really popular because they’ll eat up rotten manna.”
“Mana?” I asked. “Like magic?”
“Manna,” said Amaryllis. “Extend the ‘n’ sound. Also called Barren bread. I suppose we might as well teach you the words of power.” She held her hand out in front of her. “Besoneth.”
Spell discovered: Alvion’s Flesh!
And there, without any ceremony or lightshow, a small loaf of bread appeared from nowhere and landed in her hand. “Terrible stuff. We won’t be eating it unless we don’t have a choice. The milk is more palatable. She held up her hand in a small fist just above her mouth. “Ilimoneth.”
Spell discovered: Alvion’s Blood!
Milk poured down from Amaryllis’ fist, directly into her mouth. She swallowed it without pause, then coughed once and made a face.
“I’m surprised that a princess would have ever tried Barren milk,” said Fenn. For once, this wasn’t said as a joke or insult.
“I once thought it important to know what the poorest of the poor ate and drank,” said Amaryllis. “It’s helpful in the context of public policy to understand the reality of the people you’re governing. Barren milk and Barren bread are foundational foods for the poor, and even the middle classes sometimes use them to stretch their budgets.”
“So this gunzel,” I said, trying to get us back on track, “It traditionally eats leftover manna? Its life before becoming street food would have been as a scavenger in the city?”
“No,” said Fenn, blinking at me. “You think that would make any sense, for a vendor to rely on scavenger animals caught in traps or something like that? That’s daft. You’d make a horrible businessman.”
“So … farms?” I asked. “Someone keeps these creatures in a cage, says the spell to make them food and milk, and harvests them?” The image of a factory farm immediately came to mind.
“More or less,” said Fenn. “I’m not sure on the specifics myself, all I know is what I asked about. I didn’t think you would need the creature’s life story to get with the healing.”
I wasn’t sure that I did, but I tried to think about this creature as I turned the bone over in my hand. I tried to think about what life would be like for a gunzel, and failing that, I tried to think about what life was like for a chicken that was kept in a cage and fed the cheapest possible food in order to produce meat. Moments of fear as the rarely seen handlers came by, uncomfortable restrictions within the cage, a desire for freedom, perhaps, though maybe more than that just the will to keep on living and growing in spite of it all. Not even necessarily the mind, if gunzels or chickens had them, but the body’s efforts to turn slop into bone and muscle. That seemed like it was at the heart of END, the body’s perseverance, and that was what I was trying to pull on.
Unlocked skill: Bone Magic!
Achievement Unlocked: Sticks and Stones
Spell discovered: Physical Tapping
I felt the magic leave the bone, gone as soon as I’d grasped it, like a kiss on the wind. My broken bone didn’t feel any better, nor had I been able to perceive any change in myself. Yet I had felt the magic of the bone, just for an instant, and more importantly, the game had confirmed that I was on the right track.
“I’m going to need some more bones,” I said with a smile.