We traveled across the desert together, trudging through the sand in our white robes, moving single file to hide our numbers so that one person could play trailblazer, a duty we rotated. It had been explained to me that magic in the general sense could be divided up into three categories: latent, passive, and active. Thaum-seekers (or thaum-suckers, depending on which of my party members I asked) could sense out and hunt down both passive and active magic at incredible range, but latent magic was mostly safe from them unless they were right on top of us.
Fenn’s bow was latent magic, unless she used its special ability, in which case the thaum-seekers would probably see it like a lighthouse on the horizon. Similarly, Amaryllis wore a magical tattoo on her arm concealing the teleportation key, which would remain as latent magic until she pulled it off and took the teleportation key out. And void crystals were “mundane” though every bone in my body was telling me that they were basically witchcraft.
That left me and the not-inconsiderable magical power that I was carrying around. I had a pack of bones, but was not to use them unless we got into combat. I had the blood flowing through my veins, but wasn’t supposed to even think about tapping into it unless it was a very serious emergency. Skin magic I couldn’t really use, because we hadn’t had any money left over for tattoos. That left all of the weird game character stuff that was unique to me, which we weren’t sure would count as magic at all. It was something we’d want to learn sooner rather than later, because if the thaum-seekers were drawn to me then we’d want to know before we were too far away from the safety of Barren Jewel, when we could still bail out on our trip to Caer Laga.
“It’s confusing to me that you even make a distinction between magic and not magic,” I said as we ate our first meal of the trip, something called portable soup, which reminded me a lot of ramen, minus the noodles. “On Earth we say magic when we mean something mysterious or supernatural, but blood magic seems like it’s got a major university dedicated to its study.”
“Never call an athenaeum a university,” said Amaryllis.
“Rule number 137 for surviving life on Aerb,” said Fenn. She wasn’t actually keeping track of the rules Amaryllis was giving to me, but the numbers did go up each time, and I had a sense that she would be surreptitiously thinking up clever ways to stretch the joke in the future.
“Okay,” I said. “But it seems to me like so-called ‘magic’ has been studied until it’s lost any sense of the supernatural and all mystery has been drained from it. I mean, there’s some wonder left in it for me, because the athenaeums are closed to me and for now it’s not safe for me to have even a disreputable teacher, but that’s not the case for the population at large. There are corner stores that will etch you with ‘magical’ tattoos.”
“What word would you have us use?” asked Amaryllis.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s just something I was thinking about.”
Fenn sat down and began slurping from her own bowl of soup, which she’d been letting steep. “Well I personally was thinking about the thaum-suckers racing across the desert to claw our eyes out,” said Fenn. “I think we’re clean though, and we should be well beyond the range of Alvion’s Word, so we can keep moving as soon as we’ve finished.”
So we walked through the desert, packs on our backs slowly lightening as we ate and drank our way through our reserves. Every time I drank water, I was glad that I was one pee stop closer to carrying less around. While we were back in our hotel, I had this great idea for adapting the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation to desert travel; it takes a certain amount of water to travel a certain distance, but carrying that water means you travel slower and use more water, so you need more water to get further, and that has to be added into your calculations. Eventually, you run into the tyranny of the desert equation. (I didn’t actually remember the rocket equation, so might be badly mangling that; I was a hard fantasy geek, not a space geek.) We were only going about fifty miles, plus some leeway, broken down into about five days of going ten miles across the sand dunes and past rocky outcroppings, one gallon a day, with a gallon weighing eight pounds, meant forty pounds of weight in water alone, plus a sword, plus a rifle, plus food, plus clothing, plus bones.
“I should have built a wind sail,” Amaryllis grumbled at the end of our first day.
“Oh?” asked Fenn. “I’m pretty sure that would have the same problem as my idea of taking some voetsa out to ride on, which is that we’d need to get them over the walls. Also, I'm not sure what winds you'd be planning to harness, because this air is practically unmoving.”
“Still,” said Amaryllis.
“On the bright side, we still haven’t seen any of the thaum-seekers, right?” I asked. “If we can make it to Caer Laga without running into one or having an incident, then we’re basically home free, right?”
“I don’t think we’re that lucky,” said Fenn. “But … maybe we could be?”
I had two ability points floating, yet to be spent on anything. As soon as Fenn knew that LUK was a thing, she’d wanted me to dump those points into it. Amaryllis thought that I should choose a primary and secondary attribute, whichever ones were tied to the most valuable skill, and ditch the bonus from putting the points into the three general abilities. I didn’t quite welcome the advice from either of them. I was still holding onto those two points, partly because I was suffering from decision paralysis and partly because I was hoping that the game would reveal some One True Path to me. There were still skills that I hadn’t uncovered yet; I didn’t want to commit only to find out that I’d given up on something amazing.
I let Fenn’s comment pass by without responding to it, and we slept in the surprisingly cold desert. I wasn’t surprised that the desert would be cold at night, since there wasn’t any foliage or moist air to keep the heat in, and anyway I knew that deserts tended to be cold at night. Still, even knowing all that and taking it into account, I was surprised by the cold.
Walk, walk, stop, eat, drink, walk, walk, rest. Fenn started the trip with a large volume of chatter, but by the middle of the second day she was mostly silent, focusing her efforts on putting one foot in front of the other. Amaryllis was much better at pacing herself.
And for me? I didn’t find it easy, but one of the neat things about my peculiar power was that training Athletics to 15 by lifting makeshift weights in our hotel room for hours on end made me well-suited for a trek across the desert, even though I was pretty damned sure that the muscle groups weren’t related. I almost offered to take some water or equipment from one of the girls, but decided against it because the last thing I wanted was to misjudge my abilities and fall down like an idiot three days in after being too chivalrous.
We walked during the day and slept during the night. There were arguments for doing it the other way around, but the temperature didn’t climb terribly high during the day, and visibility was low during the night. Our biggest concern was the thaum-seekers, not the heat or a lack of water, and on balance we’d decided that it was better to stay in one spot at night with someone keeping watch than to bumble around in the dark making noise. The thaum-seekers would pour on speed to get at active magic, and would track passive magic from miles away, but I was assured that if they came across latent magic they wouldn’t hesitate to go for the kill. In this world that meant anyone with skin, bones, or blood, and we happened to have all three.
Contrary to what Amaryllis had said, I didn’t have attention problems, but I hated keeping watch with a burning passion. Back on Earth I had been something of a daydreamer, and years of schooling had made me very adept at zoning out and thinking about other things. Trying to keep aware and alert was hard enough, but the real kicker was that my thoughts kept turning toward things that I didn’t want to think about when I was left alone with myself, same as they had for the last nine months on Earth.
Tiff’s room was on the second floor of her house, with a window that overlooked the roof of their back porch. The first time I’d come over to her place she’d popped out the screen and led me onto the roof to look at the stars with her.
(Tiff always felt like she had moved to town around the middle of high school, but that wasn’t actually true. She’d grown up in Bumblefuck, Kansas, same as the rest of us, it was just that she lived out in the country and she had mostly kept to herself, cloistered within her own group of friends. That group of girls had collapsed at some point freshman year, first with Laurel, a keystone member, moving away, and then with two of the girls dating boys a few grades ahead of us. Tiff was adrift for a few months, until she fell in with us. Her alternate trajectory into our D&D group always left me feeling like she hadn’t actually been in Bumblefuck until sometime before that first session with us. Whenever I was reminded that she had been there all along, it felt like a sloppy retcon, because how could I have not been aware of her?)
We sat on the roof of her porch, where she’d laid out a blanket for us. I was on my back, looking at the stars, trying to remember some of the constellations we’d made up together but not able to focus. She was curled up beside me in one of her father’s sweaters, three sizes too big for her so it covered her hands in the cold night. Her head laid on my chest, rising and falling with my breathing. She’d been crying earlier, but had mostly stopped, her shaky breath returning to normal. It was a month after Arthur had died.
“I’m worried about you,” she said in a small voice.
“Oh?” I asked.
She lifted up a hand that had been wrapped around me and poked me in the chest. “You’re hurting.”
I did as much of a shrug as I could without dislodging her. “He was my best friend,” I said. “It’s supposed to hurt. I’d have to be pretty fucking sociopathic to feel nothing.”
“I worry that you,” she stopped and bit her lip, “I worry there’s a part of you that’s sinking into it. It’s … well, my uncle, he has a CCW license, and the way he talks about maybe having to use it one day it’s like you know that he’s just high on this fantasy of getting to shoot someone to death.”
“You think I wanted Arthur to,” die, but I couldn’t get the word out. The words were coming out monotone anyway, devoid of the anger that I should have been putting behind them.
“No,” said Tiff. “No, no no no, it’s, the thing I’m trying to say is that it’s like you’re waiting to show people how much you’re hurt. And I get that. I want to scream at them too, to ask how they can just keep carrying on when he’s,” dead, she couldn’t say it either, “gone. And I know that I was this, interloper, I wasn’t his best friend, I know it’s harder for you.” She was quiet for a while as she blinked back a fresh round of tears. “I’m worried that you’re hurting, and there’s something alluring about the pain, because it’s a righteous, meaningful pain. I,” another sigh and a deep, steadying breath, “don’t want you to keep going down this dark path.”
“You think you understand me better than you do,” I told her.
She was silent for a long moment. “Maybe,” she said softly. “I’m trying though. I know there’s this void that can’t be filled. I know that. It’s the same for me --”
“It’s not the same,” I said, almost by reflex.
She was quiet again, until she started crying, but it was quiet, soft crying, not wracking sobs this time. I looked up at the stars, but couldn’t see them because I was blinking back tears. I didn’t mean to make her feel bad. I couldn’t hold back though, I couldn’t tell her the lies that she wanted to hear. She wanted me to say that I missed Arthur, but at least we could still take comfort in each other. I couldn’t say it though, because at the time I didn’t think it was true.
Tiff missed the next D&D session because of a doctor’s appointment, then the one after that because of a family thing, and then she stopped giving excuses and just didn’t show up, which was probably for the best given how those sessions went.
So my cold nights in the desert were pretty miserable, because they were doing a great job of calling up all these unpleasant memories. Maybe it was the isolation, the desolation, or the cold, or maybe it was Celestar hanging in the multi-colored sky and reminding me that sometimes things got ruined and could never be fixed.
Days were better, partly because I had company and partly because walking got me into a sort of zen state where time passed quickly. We navigated by the sun, or rather, Fenn did, and it was Amaryllis who did most of our pace-setting. That left me content to stare off into the distance, white robe shielding my eyes, looking at nothing.
We spotted Caer Laga on day four. The desert wasn’t totally featureless, it just didn’t have any plants, water, soil, or buildings to speak of. That left sand and rocks. It was atop one of these rocky bits that Caer Laga had been built, with the base of it starting some hundred feet up and no clear path up the cliff face. It was a rounded fortress with no battlements or crenellations and a circular sloped roof covering the entire thing. There were windows, but they were small and defensible. We were still a day away from it, but at least our objective was in sight.
Amaryllis suffered a fall not long after that. We were walking along a rocky ridge that one of the dunes was butted up against, hoping to spare ourselves an arduous climb up a second dune or having to take a longer path. One moment I was in my partial daze, the next I was watching her roll down the dune.
“Fuck,” muttered Fenn, who followed her down, skidding along the sand. I squared my pack and did the same, trying desperately to keep my balance.
“Are you okay?” I asked as soon as Amaryllis came to a stop. She was pinned down by her pack, clearly breathing but not moving.
“Ankle,” she said. “Hurts.”
“Well, that’s not how I thought this particular adventure would end,” said Fenn. “I thought it would be more of a claws and teeth type of thing.”
“Help me up,” said Amaryllis. We did, with me doing most of the work, first pulling her pack off her and then moving her so that she was laying with her back against the sloped sand. “I’m not sure this is it for us.”
“Like hells,” said Fenn. “We can’t risk having Joon heal you and it’s another eight miles to Caer Laga, which seems like it’s going to involve quite the climb.”
“Six miles,” said Amaryllis. “We have options. We can outrun the thaum-seekers. Or we can fight some and outrun others. We’re close.”
“Or,” said Fenn. “You can pull the key from your arm, we can go back to the Barren Jewel, and we can be luxuriating in creature comforts within the hour, then back here as soon as the two hour timer is up.”
“Where the thaum-seekers will surely be waiting for us,” said Amaryllis. None of this conversation was all that new to us, since we’d gone over exit strategies before stepping foot into the desert. We still had the room rented in Barren Jewel, with a section carefully marked out on the floor where we would teleport in and explicit instructions that nothing was to be disturbed.
“Can you walk?” I asked.
Amaryllis temporarily put some weight on her foot and then abruptly fell back down with a sharp gasp of pain. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Okay,” I said. “My vote is for dragging Mary to the cliff and healing her there, then climbing up out of the range of the thaum-seekers before they reach us.”
“How long will it take you to heal her?” asked Fenn. “Your hand took eight hours. We’re not going to have that kind of time.”
“I wasn’t as good then, and I had worse bones,” I replied. “It won’t be eight hours. That said … I don’t know. I’m still pretty new at bone magic.” And the game was still being stingy with giving me raw numbers. “I still think moving to the cliff is the right idea. We’re through most of our food and water already, I can transfer everything in Mary’s pack to mine, and we can fashion hers into a sled to pull her there.”
Fenn clacked her teeth. “We planned for five days, we were making fine time, now we’re going to be slowed down some, but … if we didn’t have our get-out-of-jail-free card, or if I were expected to do extra work, I would probably object more strenuously. Fine. Let’s do it.”
The whole thing was a little easier said than done, partly because Amaryllis was clearly in pain and I didn’t want to jostle her, and partly because she kept wanting to help, especially with the sled that we were making. It was clear that one of Amaryllis’ specialties was engineering, but having her direct me was a bit maddening.
Skill unlocked: Engineering!
That took some edge off the irritation though.
Five hours later, we saw our first thaum-seeker. It was sitting at the top of a hill, peering off into the distance, but not in our direction. From a distance I could only barely make out its red dog-like form. I had been given a description though, of terrible claws, teeth that extended well beyond its lips, and wide nostrils that dominated its face. I thought maybe I could see its teeth, but not much else.
“Frick,” said Fenn.
We moved down a slope and out of its line of sight, then stuck to the valleys after that. With the heavy packs and careful navigation we had to do, as well as the effort expended in taking circuitous routes or going up and down dunes, we’d been making about a mile an hour through most of the trip. With me pulling Amaryllis, it was going a lot slower. I was worn out from four days of travel, and I was also pulling a hundred and twenty pounds of princess, plus everything that had remained in her pack. By the end of the day, she was muttering a swear with every bump and shift in weight, and we were still about two miles away.
“What do you want to do?” I asked when we stopped for a break. I made a bowl of portable soup for her with a side of pemmican. Her face was sweaty. The ankle was badly swollen, and I noticed with distress that her right hand had gotten a lot worse since we’d been to the bone magus. The nails were thicker than they had been, almost completely yellow, and cracked down the middle, where they wept a clear fluid. That I hadn’t seen them before said to me that she’d been hiding them from us.
“Continue on,” said Amaryllis. “We’re not far.”
Fenn looked at me with a raised eyebrow. I saw her mouth the words ‘voting bloc’. This was really not the time for us to have a discussion about where loyalties lay, nor for me to be swayed by the desire to get in anyone’s good graces. I surreptitiously flipped her a middle finger, which she smiled at.
“We have an unanticipated climb ahead of us,” I said. “I know we brought pitons and rope, and I know that you’re a fantastic climber, but I worry that I’ll be suffering from exhaustion by the time we get there. Even if I can heal you, it’s too dicey, and we’d be trying to make the climb at night. I think we should teleport out. We can recuperate in Barren Jewel, and if they’re attracted to the scent of the teleport, we can wait them out a bit, then come back in and fight them off while making our way to Caer Laga.”
Amaryllis sighed. “Fine.” She reached over and touched her tattoo. “Fenn, I don’t suppose you’ve changed your mind?”
“As amusing as it might be to leave Joon twisting in the wind on this one, no, I haven’t,” replied Fenn. “Let’s get the hells out of here.”
Amaryllis reached for the edge of the tattoo with her cracked yellow nails, digging in slightly, wincing in pain, and pulling at the skin. I expected the tattoo to animate or move, with something similar to what I’d seen happen when Leonold pull rope from his arm. Instead, we just sat there while Amaryllis narrowed her eyebrows and tried to dig her broken nails into the tattoo to no effect.
“It’s not working,” she finally said.
“Well are you doing it right?” asked Fenn.
“This isn’t my first time using a tattoo,” said Amaryllis with a frosty voice. “It’s the tattoo that’s not working.”
“Because of the rat rot?” I asked.
Amaryllis curled her hand into a fist, hiding the nails. “I don’t think so,” she said. Nevertheless, she tried to awkwardly curl her left hand in and touch her tattoo with her healthy fingers. Still nothing happened.
“If you’re fucking this up on purpose,” Fenn began.
“I’m not,” said Amaryllis. Her face was flushed. “What would the endgame be? I could pretend the tattoo wasn’t working now in order to get my way, if I was the petulant child you think I am, but what would I do when we’d gotten to the cliffs, or once we were inside Caer Laga? If I were a sociopath you should trust that I’d be the kind that looks to the future and doesn’t get caught in obvious lies. It’s not working.”
“So,” I said carefully. “That would seem to be a problem, since we’re forty-some miles from Barren Jewel and have, conservatively, a day’s worth of food and water left.”
Quest Accepted: Exit Strategy - You are stranded in the desert with limited food and water, no access to magic unless you want to risk being gutted by feral thaum-seekers, and a wounded party member. Hope you prepared carefully!
“Um,” I said. “I just got a quest. The gist of it is that things aren’t looking great. Quest completion is probably getting out of the desert. It said … it said that it hopes I prepared carefully.”
“We did prepare carefully,” replied Amaryllis. “We should get going.”
“Shit,” said Fenn. “To Caer Laga? You said yourself that there’d be no reason to suspect that you’d be able to extract the key there if you can’t pull it here. From everything you’ve said, this place was shut down and left waiting more than a hundred years ago, which means there’s not going to be any food or water there either. Even if we heal you, scale the cliff, and get inside, what does that get us?”
“Heirlooms,” said Amaryllis.
“Wait,” said Fenn, squinting slightly. “The armor, a sword for you, a sword for Joon, the box, the gloves for me, the amulet, the jar for us, … you said the jar had healing properties?”
Amaryllis nodded. “If I’m right, and it’s there, and I can bind to it, then yes.”
“And you think that this healing will prevent us from starving?” I asked.
Amaryllis frowned. “I don’t know. But … I think it doesn’t matter. Our options at the moment are to try returning to Barren Jewel on quarter rations of food and water, or forging on ahead and hoping that we can find some salvation. On balance, forging ahead gives better odds.”
Maybe I should backtrack a little bit here and give you some history, which might help to clear up some mysteries. (If you’re one of those “blah, blah, blah, history” people, I’ll meet you at the next linebreak.)
Mystery #1: How is Amaryllis the most direct descendant of Uther Penndraig, if she’s about as old as a senior in high school and there are thousands of Penndraig princes and princesses? Well, you probably figured this one out for yourself; generations don’t always progress at the same rates. It had been roughly five hundred years since Uther Penndraig had left his two fully grown sons to go off on some presumably ill-fated quest, leaving behind what I’d slowly come to understand was an incredibly vast armory of magic. Amaryllis was ten generations removed from him, which came out to be something like fifty years per generation.
From that you can probably guess what her family line looks like; it was mostly men carrying the name and they were both long-lived by human standards and having children really, really late in life. This wasn’t just happenstance, not after the fourth generation, it was a specific reproductive strategy aimed at creating a solid family line that could take advantage of specific family heirlooms once held by Uther Penndraig. As previously stated, magical heirlooms followed succession rules, but these differed from heirloom to heirloom.
Amaryllis’ line was favored by any succession rule that favored brothers or sisters over sons or daughers, and by any succession rule that favored older generations over newer ones, and any succession rule that split things equally among a generation. That meant a lot of magical power resting in the hands of a single young person.
“But what of her mother and father?”, you might ask. Well, her father had been eighty-two when she was born, and died when she was two years old. Her mother became a power in her own right, because some heirloom successions favored husbands and wives over children, but she died (in what was likely an assassination) when Amaryllis was ten years old. Most of this I learned from Fenn, who had done a fair amount of asking around because she was an intolerable snoop.
Anyway that brings us to ...
Mystery #2: Why couldn’t we just teleport into the fortress, get the items, and then get out? That had been my first question, since not being able to do that seemed like dumb videogame logic to me. The answer was that the teleportation key only allowed you to go to one of the touchstones (which I thought of as magic homing beacons) or to a place that you’d already been, and Amaryllis had never been to Caer Laga. Her father and/or mother probably would have taken her to get it in her memory, but they’d both died when she was young.
But that raised another question, which was ...
Mystery #3: Assuming that Caer Laga was gracefully shuttered in full working order, why were there any magic items left behind? And the answer to this one turned out to go fairly deep. See, Caer Laga was in the middle of construction right when the blight began spreading over what later became the Datura Desert. They had time to finish the fortification and lay some powerful warding magic into the stones of the place. A redoubt in the middle of a wasteland where there are no resources to extract or choke points to defend might seem like a pretty crappy and pointless thing to build, until you remember that in the Lost King’s Court, assassination wasn’t exactly out of place. A redoubt in the middle of an exclusion zone is actually a really great place to lie low if you’re under attack, doubly so because if you’ve been there you can teleport in with a teleportation key, and if you haven’t been there you’re stuck -- well, basically doing what we were doing, but probably with better resources and a bigger team.
And naturally if you have a ton of magic items and most of them only work on you or your closest allies, you’d keep some back at your super secret fortress that you have set aside for when things go to shit. The exact details of these magic items hadn’t been written down, probably for reasons of operational security, with the thought that these details would be told to Amaryllis in person. They weren’t, because Amaryllis’ life had apparently been written by Lemony Snicket.
(The small part of me that had initially scoffed at the adventure as being plainly a stereotypical adventure was mostly placated by all this, but I was still trying to find some cracks in the world, some place where the myriad rules and facts didn’t quite line up with what I observed.)
We forged on ahead, even as darkness fell over the desert. I dragged Amaryllis, trying to keep her steady but sometimes failing to a grunt or gasp of pain. Fenn went a little bit ahead, making sure that the way we were going was clear. By the time we reached the cliff another three hours later, I was exhausted and aching. It would have been a great time to suck the power from a bone to reinvigorate myself, and an even better time to level up.
“So,” said Fenn. “Thaum-suckers don’t have shit on us.”
“We should plan out a route up the cliff face,” said Amaryllis. “It doesn’t look too difficult to me. Joon, if you could get out the void rifle and start firing up the cliff to get us some handholds and places to put pitons, that would probably be a good use of downtime.” She had made a few modifications before we'd left that 'theoretically' reduced the chance of malfunction.
I sat up from the ground where I had sprawled out and grabbed the rifle and began firing it fairly randomly in a line up the cliff. Thunk, thunk, thunk. I took sips of water in between, trying to pace myself on what remained of our supply. The rocks went a hundred feet up before they reached the bottom of Caer Laga’s wall, the equivalent of ten stories, and I wasn’t at all looking forward to the climb.
“He’s been carrying you across the desert for the better part of a day,” said Fenn. “We should rest here for the night and climb in the morning.”
“You’re not worried about the thaum-seekers?” asked Amaryllis.
“Of course I am,” said Fenn. “But I’m more worried about what’s going to happen if one of us falls to the desert floor after we’ve alerted them to our presence. I believe the human phrase is ‘certain death’, and we’re in a place where no one is going to collect and extinguish your soul. Petition to rest until first light, your highness.”
“Fine,” said Amaryllis, looking down at her ankle. “First light. I don’t think I’ll be sleeping much tonight, so I’ll take the first shift.”
I took that opportunity to lay back down in the sand and stuff my face full of pemmican, which was starting to grow on me. I fell asleep with my mouth full of protein and fats.
Somewhat predictably, I was woken up by yelling.