It wasn’t first light, but twilight had come over the Datura Desert, enough to banish the multi-colored stars from the sky. It wouldn’t be long before the sun (somehow) rose over the infinite plane of tessellating Aerbs (no seriously how) and splayed light on us once more.
I was a bit more concerned with the yelling, which was coming from Fenn, and once I saw it, the totality of my attention was turned toward the beast that was leaping over the dunes on a path straight toward us. One fun fact about the thaum-seekers that I don’t think I’ve shared yet is that they’re really, really fucking fast. They have crap acceleration, but given enough time to get moving, their powerful muscles allow them to chase down pretty much any form of transportation that’s not teleportation. This particular thaum-seeker had apparently seen us, and it was coming right for us.
I heard the thunk of the void rifle, and looked over at Amaryllis, who had positioned a pack behind her to give her something to lean against. She was peering down the barrel of her handmade weapon with a calm chill. Fenn was the one who had been yelling at me to wake up, and she was standing there with her bow drawn and arrow nocked. As I watched she loosed an arrow, which flew through the air and struck the thaum-seeker to no obvious effect.
I scrambled to my feet and picked my sword up off the ground. I was still waking up, but it still struck me that against a beast like a thaum-seeker, a sword was really not the weapon that I wanted to be using.
“No magic,” said Fenn as she drew and fired another arrow in the creature’s direction.
I had just enough time to remember a nighttime story that my father had read to me, which had always scared the crap out of me even though it was supposed to be cute fun. It has terrible tusks and terrible claws and terrible teeth in its terrible jaws.
And then it was on us, swiping wildly as it went over our heads and slammed into the cliff above us. I don’t know why I had expected it to turn on a dime when it took it so long to pick up speed, but I heard a crunch of bone as it hit the rock and it tumbled down to the ground where it sprang to its feet, swiping claws through the air. I raised my sword, which was knocked from my hand in a spray of blood which came mostly from its razor-sharp claws cutting off two of my fingers at the second knuckle. I screamed in pain.
“Duck!” Fenn called from some distance away, and I flattened myself to the ground without needing another word from her. A second later, a now-familiar volley of arrows flew over my head and drove straight into the thaum-seeker, killing it instantly.
“Okay, so I shot my wad a little bit there,” said Fenn. “But it looked like --”
“We need to move,” said Amaryllis. “Now. Joon, heal me?”
I went over to her, trying not to stare in shock at my missing fingers, and began picking up the bones beside her. I was bleeding, less badly than I would have thought, which was probably because the thaum-seeker hadn’t made that clean of a cut. I placed my bloody, disfigured hand on her ankle and used my other hand to touch the bones. I pulled as hard on the power in the bone as I could, targeting the particular aspect of endurance I knew was inside it, then picked up another one and repeated the process when the first crumbled to ash.
Fenn had already started up the cliffside. There had been ample handholds before, and it hadn’t been a true vertical, but I must not have woken to the thunk of the void rifle, because there were clearly irregular holes drilled into the cliff at awkward intervals where no other grips were available, at least for the first fifty feet. Fenn was taking advantage of those and moving quickly, not stopping to steady herself or look very carefully at where she was going. For a moment I thought she was leaving us to our fates, but when she was thirty feet up she found a small ledge to stand on and drew her bow again.
“It’s a nice day for a climb,” Fenn called down to us. “When you’re ready, that is. Two shots left, by the by.” I burned through another of the bones and prodded Amaryllis’ leg; she winced and shook her head. “I’d say take your time,” Fenn continued. “But we have company approaching from all sides, six -- nope, seven -- in total. My guess is more to join the party shortly.”
It took another two thick bones of healing for Amaryllis to rise to her feet and begin the climb, her void rifle strapped to her back and everything else left on the ground below. I followed after, trying my best to climb with one good hand, worried that if I used both I would get the handholds all slippery. I was moving slowly, slower than Amaryllis, who climbed like vertical movement was as natural as walking, as though she’d never been hurt at all. Fenn was still on her ledge, now with an arrow nocked, and she kept glancing to the two of us and muttering under her breath. I’d left my sword behind, having lugged it across the desert and only used it long enough to have two of my fingers removed.
“Take the next shot you get,” I told Fenn.
At this point I was praying that the thaum-seekers would prove to be terrible climbers, but that was a flight of fancy. What I was hoping for was a level up. I considered myself overdue for one, seeing as the last one I’d gotten had been from Fenn killing Leonold, back in Silmar City, and I’d both finished a quest and killed two people since then, plus those that Fenn had taken down. I’d thought that the thaum-seeker would be it for certain, but nothing had happened, and I wasn’t entirely sure that a level up would regrow my lost fingers, but I was really hoping it would.
Fenn loosed another of her artillery shots, aiming far away from me. I heard the whistle of them moving through the air as they multiplied through their flight, then arrows driving into flesh and striking sand. I didn’t stop to look down and see the results, because I got a helpful message from the game.
And yet still no level up. Fenn only had a single artillery shot left and she needed to be a good distance away to actually use it, but I was focusing too hard on climbing to think about how fucked we were. Just after I blinked the messages away, I heard a number of dull thuds in a row as thaum-seekers slammed into the rocks. Alright, so they’re suicidally inclined toward killing us, good to know. And then I did take a moment to look down, and saw them climbing up after me, not terribly graceful, and not able to use the handholds as effectively as I was, but still moving faster than I was.
“Sorry Joon,” shouted Fenn as she threw her bow over her shoulder and began climbing again. That was fine, her normal arrows were plainly ineffective and her artillery shot wasn’t any good up close, so if she’d stayed on the ledge it would really be more about moral support than actually helping me.
I got a little more reckless with my climbing, grabbing onto handholds and moving forward without testing my weight or practicing the motion of switching from one handhold to another. To be honest, I probably would have dumped stat points into PHY as an emergency measure if I thought that I could have spared the time to do it.
I heard more thudding, crunching sounds from down below, and I felt each of them through the rock I was desperately gripping onto. Fenn had quoted seven, but they hadn’t stopped at seven, they seemed to just be pouring more and more on. I glanced up higher than the next handhold for the first time in a long time and saw Amaryllis looking out over the ledge right next to the tall walls of Caer Laga itself, with Fenn another twenty feet below her. She hadn’t said where exactly the wards were, but I was hoping it was there, because my pain in my hand was starting to overwhelm the adrenaline.
I was forty feet from the top when something hit my left foot hard enough that I was almost pulled from the rocks by the force. I screamed in pain when I realized that razor-sharp claws had cut through both my shoe and foot. I looked down and saw the thaum-seeker lifting itself up and drawing back for another strike. My foot was dripping blood down into his face. I moved just in time to avoid his swipe, but if we kept doing this I was going to be stopped in place, and there were others climbing up around him.
Alright, time to get stupid.
My heart was hammering away in my chest, fueled by its need to offset the blood I was losing and whatever mixture of neurotransmitters my brain had determined were acceptable to deploy when faced with near-certain death (i.e. all the good stuff). It didn’t take me long to find the movement of my pulse, and I braced myself against my foothold and handholds just in time to catch the beat of my heart. The power of blood magic launched me twenty feet into the air along the surface of the cliff.
I was mostly saved by the fact that the cliff wasn’t at a true vertical, but it was a close thing, because my injured hand slipped from a handhold and my injured foot spasmed again the rock, leaving me momentarily stopped from tumbling back down by only a single hand. It took me time to find my footing again and steady myself, time that the thaum-seekers spent clattering their way up the cliff. I could barely hear them over the sound of my ragged breaths. That left me another twenty feet from Fenn and Amaryllis, both standing beside Caer Laga, so I steadied myself and used the power of my blood to do another supernatural leap.
Fenn and Amaryllis were waiting for me, both laying down on the flat ground with their hands stretched out. Fenn grabbed my right hand and Amaryllis grabbed my left, but my right was covered in blood down to the elbow from where my missing fingers had been bleeding, and I quickly slipped from her grasp, off to the side, which started pulling Amaryllis. I landed one foot on an awkward piece of rock jutting from the cliff and managed to stop myself from falling. Amaryllis was halfway off the cliff, still holding onto me but not secure herself.
“Coming up,” I said, before pushing off from the foothold with another surge of blood magic and landing in a heap with both of them on the slender piece of flat ground. I scrambled to my feet and looked down at the approaching thaum-seekers. We had barely seen them on our way to Caer Laga, but at the first use of magic they must have come in from all over the desert. There were dozens, maybe hundreds, with more of them racing in. This high up we could see all the way to Barren Jewel, which was little more than a smudge on the flat desert.
I finally had a chance to check my vital stats and saw that I was at 15/27 health and 69K/75K blood, better than I thought I had a right to. Behind us was a wall too flat to climb, with windows too high to reach, and there was no path we could take. The thaum-seekers were closing in fast. “We have to get behind the wards!” I shouted.
“We are,” Amaryllis replied.
I watched as one of the great red beasts slipped a claw up above the ledge and my mouth opened in shock as that claw was vaporized. The thaum-seeker lunged up regardless, and I witnessed it being peeled back like someone was doing a destructive scan, revealing strange bits of bone and flesh that took away first its hands, then face, then head. The legs and lower half of the torso fell down, having not quite risen to our level.
I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
The rest of the thaum-seekers stopped where they were on the cliff face, and the ones on the desert a hundred feet below us came to a halt, save for those that were still barrelling across the sands to us, but even those slowed down, digging their claws into the sand to gain traction or tumbling across the dunes to kill their momentum. They didn’t retreat; they simply stared up at us.
“Well that’s frickin’ creepy,” said Fenn. “We’re confident in this ward business?”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “Mostly. Caer Laga has been standing abandoned for generations. The wards weren’t supposed to degrade with time.” It felt like there was more to that thought, but she didn’t say the rest of what she was thinking.
“Then let’s get our butts in gear,” said Fenn. She looked up at Caer Laga. “That is quite the wall to scale. And not much in the way of windows.” She pointed at the narrow windows. “I suppose it wasn’t enough that this place was built in the middle of an exclusion zone, a hundred feet up, but the windows had to be arrow slits too, just in case some silly fuck decided to … god, I don’t even know what your ancestors were thinking.”
“They’re not that narrow,” said Amaryllis. “I think we can slip through, if I can get up there.” She unslung her rifle and began firing at the wall, carefully making handholds. I wondered how confident she was in whatever changes she’d made to the void rifle. I wasn’t sure what catastrophic failure would look like, but wasn’t eager to find out.
“You okay Joon?” asked Fenn as we heard the thunk of the rifle, over and over. Her attention was directed down at the unmoving thaum-seekers that peppered the rocks. “You should really learn to climb better.”
“I should learn to use a sword better,” I replied. I looked down at my hand, which was still trickling blood. I was missing the pinky and ring finger of my right hand, which was shaking badly. It began to hurt more as I came down off the high of fearing for my life. “Fuck.”
“You’ll live,” said Fenn. “I thought you were supposed to do some magic healing thing soon.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m … not entirely sure what happened.” I sat down with my back against the warm wall of Caer Laga. Blood loss was going to become a problem again, I could tell that, and if I was going to get dizzy I wanted it to be as far from the cliff as possible. “I’m hoping that it wasn’t just because it’s been you doing most of the work.”
“Well, if the game is going to punish you for being smart about things, then it sounds like a shit game to me,” said Fenn.
“Sure,” I said. “But if you were making a game where people can get more powerful by killing goblins, then --”
“Don’t speak of goblins like that,” said Amaryllis.
“Oh,” I said. Note: ask about goblins later. Were they the bookish variants? Or was this just some fantasy political correctness thing? “Well, imagine that you made a game where someone was supposed to kill the undead, but instead of using a rifle and sneaking around, they built a giant trap and lured all the undead into it. You’d want to say ‘nu-uh, that doesn’t count’.”
“Why?” asked Fenn. “Is this a human thing? You set up an objective, but you need to have that objective accomplished in some circuitous way, and then you slap people on the wrist when they figure out a clever trick?”
“Unspoken rules,” said Amaryllis. Thunk. “We had to remove a general for violating them during war games.” Thunk.
“Anyway,” I said. “If it were me, I’d put an xp penalty on things that you killed with the power of that bow. That hasn’t been a bad heuristic so far, so … I’m not asking you to stop, but if that’s how we resolve encounters, I’m not sure that I’ll get that much out of them.”
“Feh,” said Fenn. “Well, the ugly beasties are still staring at us. I was hoping they’d give up.”
“Holds are done,” said Amaryllis. “They’re awkwardly angled. I’ll go up first, alone for now.”
“We’ll be safe here?” asked Fenn. “That ward won’t activate on us if you’re too far away?”
Amaryllis hesitated for a brief moment. “You should be fine. Besides, there are several wards here, I can feel their bindings when I pass through them. That one, the one that the thaum-seekers were hitting, I think it was only for them, projected away from the physical structure for added protection. There are different ones for people, which shouldn't start until we're past the walls. My will should allow you past those. Like I said, you'll be fine.”
Fenn sighed and sat down next to me. “Let us know when we should follow.” She rested her head and closed her eyes.
I watched Amaryllis climb. I had known that she was well-muscled (a flash of her at the bathhouse went through my mind, that one specific image trapped like amber of her putting her hair up and looking back at me), but watching her climb was awe-inspiring. She used not just the dime-sized holes she’d drilled into the wall, but small imperfections in the stone exterior, sometimes seeming to stand on a perfectly flat surface. At other times she pulled herself up with her upper body alone, all of her weight put onto a few fingers. Through all this, she was still carrying the void rifle across her back. Climbing was apparently just one of the things that she was really, ridiculously good at.
She came to the lowest of the windows and with a careful series of motions, took the void rifle from her back using a single hand, placed the muzzle against a specific portion of the window, then using the same hand got her fingers in position to squeeze the trigger handle. Thunk. If I had been asked to do that at ground level after having ten minutes to practice, I was fairly sure that I would have failed nine times out of ten. Both my companions are higher level than me.
After Amaryllis slipped inside, Fenn spoke up.
“So,” she said. “What are the odds that she abandons us?”
“One percent,” I said.
“Alright,” Fenn replied. “I will take those odds.”
“I don’t have any money,” I replied. “I actually don’t have anything but the clothes on my back, and I’m down half a shoe.” I looked at my foot, where the heel was bleeding. “So I’m not sure what we’re betting.”
“An unspecified favor,” said Fenn. “If she doesn’t come back, you owe me a hundred favors. If she does come back, I owe you a favor. You said hundred to one, right?”
“Seems like you’re just giving me a favor,” I replied. “If she was only pretending her tattoo had failed, and really intends for us to die here, there’s no way for you to collect, is there?”
“Who knows,” said Fenn. “We might end up in the same hell. There’s no death clause on this bet, Joon. If we starve to death out here, or if the ludicrous wards up and kill us, then I’m a-coming for you to make you pay up.”
After twenty minutes had passed, I was getting a little bit nervous, not just that Amaryllis might have left us, but that something might have happened to her inside. It was dead quiet. The thaum-seekers were still below us, arranged in exactly the same positions, waiting on us to come to them, or whatever their thought process was (if they had thoughts). Fenn was silent, and I was too injured to want to make conversation. Come on, level up.
Amaryllis finally climbed back out the window when a half hour had passed, much to my relief. I nudged Fenn, who had fallen asleep (or pretended to). “One favor,” I whispered.
“Took your time,” said Fenn.
“Got the glove,” said Amaryllis, pulling a single black glove from her pocket. She had shed her robes, her rifle, and her shoes, leaving her in a t-shirt and pants. The glove was the single blackest thing I had ever seen, so black that I would momentarily lose my idea of the shape of it when its individual parts overlapped each other.
“I thought it was supposed to be two gloves?” asked Fenn.
“I guess not,” said Amaryllis. She slipped the black glove on. “All I had on this one was the word ‘extradimensional’, but so far it seems to suck in whatever the glove touches and then spit it back out on command. It should be the solution to getting the two of you inside. There’s no way Joon is going to make that climb in his condition.”
Fenn frowned. “You want to stick us into a glove,” she said.
“Just for a moment,” said Amaryllis. “I can make the climb before you run out of air, if there’s air to run out of inside the glove.”
“How safe do you think it is,” I asked. “If you had to put a number on it?” A 1 on a 1d20? A 1 on a 1d100? I probably would have taken a 1% chance of death at this point, if there weren’t better options.
“I tested it inside,” said Amaryllis. “It can fit at least two covered armchairs, both of which I returned to existence without any damage to them. Usually heirlooms don’t fail catastrophically if you exceed their bounds. I can make the climb faster with bare feet, you shouldn’t have any problems with any time limit.”
“I’d be more comfortable with rope,” I replied. Amaryllis’ face fell. “Not that I don’t trust you, but we have some time.”
“I found the jar too,” said Amaryllis. “It was sealed. There was a warning on it. All our food is at the bottom of a cliff that’s still covered in magical beasts who would like nothing better than to kill us. They seem to be content to wait. If I’d found any rope, I’d be throwing that down to you now. The faster we can get inside, the sooner we can split up and search for something that will let us extend the time it takes for us to starve.”
“You had me at starve,” I replied. That was an old D&D joke, one that we’d collectively run into the ground. Amaryllis didn’t laugh, and neither did Fenn. Neither gave the traditional continuation, which was ‘but starve was the last thing I said’.
“Fine,” said Fenn. “Juniper, if I die, avenge me.”
Amaryllis rolled her eyes. “Hold your breath as long as possible, and don’t try to leave until you have to, I don’t want you falling out of the glove while I’m climbing, because that could kill us all. It takes ten seconds to charge up, so try to time your breathing to that.”
Fenn went first, sucking in a huge amount of air while Amaryllis gripped her forearm with a gloved hand. After ten seconds had passed, Fenn disappeared entirely and without any obvious effect. Amaryllis quickly moved to me, and I began taking in deep breaths, trying to find one to hold. At nine seconds I started holding my breath, and at ten seconds the world went black.
I found the way out right away, almost instinctively. It was like I was in a space no more tangible than a soap bubble, and all I needed to do was to direct a thought at it to pop myself out. If not for that, I might have panicked, but I could feel at the back of my mind the possibility of escape if I really needed it. I wasn’t particularly claustrophobic, but it was completely dark, I was holding my breath, and I was weightless, with my clothes drifting away from my skin until they were tugged back.
I started counting, for lack of anything better to do, and tried to figure out where Amaryllis would be on the wall, based on how fast she’d climbed it before. She’d be moving faster now, both because she had a route and because she was carrying cargo with a time limit on it. How long could a person hold their breath? In D&D you could hold your breath for double your CON score, so about twenty six-second rounds, or two minutes, if you were an average human. I didn’t know what the game used for that, though I suspected it would be END. Obviously there was no math that I could see or rulebook I could consult, but I was hoping that I could at least last a minute, maybe two.
My counting was getting faster the longer I was in there, and I tried to consciously slow it down to compensate, but either way I was starting to get that panicking feeling of needing to take a deep breath of air by the time my count reached the triple digits.
I came back into the world disoriented and gasping for air, with a sudden jolt of pain as my wounds were exposed to fresh air. Then all that pain went away in a glow of light.
Quest Complete: Mothballs - You have arrived at Caer Laga and laid claim to the heirlooms within. You may return to Caer Laga at any time with your teleportation key.
It had been too long since I’d felt that light touch me, the fingers of it gently gracing the pleasure centers of my brain. I felt somewhat hollow as it receded from me, a feeling that hadn’t come with it before, and it was with regret that I returned to the real world.
We were in a stone hallway, more spartan than I might have expected with nothing adorning the walls. But then, this place had been constructed in a hurry as the land was turning to desert around it, hadn’t it? There’d have been no reason for them to make it luxurious.
“Better?” asked Amaryllis. I nodded and flexed my hand, where my fingers had returned, whole. I wondered whether we would find duplicate fingers if we went back down to the desert floor.
Fenn was standing next to Amaryllis with her hands on her knees, breathing heavily. “Ya know,” said Fenn. “Elves can hold their breath for an hour. Guess I didn’t get my dad’s lungs. Also, let’s never travel by glove again.”
“Come on,” said Amaryllis. “Let me show you to the fruits of our labors.”