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“Nice to see you too,” said Fenn. “You’re welcome.”

Grak dropped to one knee. “Princess Amaryllis, I am honored to make your acquaintance.”

“We need to go,” I said. “No telling how long until he gets back.” I turned to Fenn. “I’m a fan of glove-out-the-window.”

“My things are in his vault,” said Amaryllis. “It’s down on the floor below. Ten seconds each for the blade and the armor, once we break past the wards.”

“Forgive me, princess,” said Grak as he rose to his feet, “But I don’t think that it will be so easy as with the ones that caged you. An absolute ward against velocity would prevent that trick from working.”

“Then we’ll figure something out,” said Amaryllis.

“Here,” said Fenn, taking out a fairy from Sable and handing it to Amaryllis. “You’re not looking too hot.”

“If we have limited time, we should go down to his vault now while we can,” said Amaryllis. She bit the head off the fairy and swallowed it without stopping to chew.

“No, we should leave,” said Fenn. “We can’t beat him and having your stuff won’t help you if you’re dead.”

“Agreed,” I said. “I have a quest to save you, it’s not complete yet, that means that it’s not a foregone conclusion that we can leave.” Grak gave me a funny look at that, but he’d have to have been an idiot to see everything I’d done and not have his questions. I was more focused on getting all of us out of there, because if I were running this game, I would be sorely tempted to force a final confrontation with the primary antagonist if it was at all plausible for that to happen.

“Contact, site C,” said Grak. “He was a lot faster the second time.”

Fenn held out Sable and grabbed an oxygen tank (with a mask) that materialized out of it. “Now.”

“His gold is in that vault,” said Amaryllis. “We can end him.”

I could see by Grak’s face set, and Fenn’s eyes roll. We weren’t exactly set up as a democracy in this party, and we didn’t have the conflict-resolution channels that it would have been nice to have, which meant that this was either going to be solved by debate or by seeing who could dig their heels in furthest, and we didn’t have time for either of those.

“We’ll go to the vault,” I said. Better that we do something than nothing.

Loyalty increased: Grak lvl 2!

I could see by the set of Fenn’s teeth that she was pissed off, but she started toward the stairs all the same, and the breathing apparatus vanished back into the glove as we moved.

We went down the other wing this time, past more rooms until we got to a solid iron door. Grak immediately ran his wand across the ground back the way we came and spent a valuable minute of our time on erecting a ward against high velocities before turning back to the door we’d been staring at. With his monocle out, he looked at the door and grimaced.

“Wards are heavy, absolute velocity, blood and bone to stop us, but all three breakable in five minutes. A few more are there too, which don’t matter. The physical door is a problem.” Grak reached forward and touched the heavy lock, which looked like it was going to require a key, the kind that Aumann was sure to keep on him at all times.

I stepped forward and drew the Anyblade, shifting the hilt around until it was roughly key-shaped, then stuck it in the keyhole. The Anyblade wasn’t meant for this work, I knew it, but I also knew that this was something that Reimer had done time and time again, until I started having every villain in the land use two-factor. It wasn’t terribly much work to feel the resistance of the springs and wiggle the blade-hilt around, though it probably would have gone a lot faster if that had been one of the things that I had practiced. Eventually I got it, turned the blade, and opened up the vault.

Inside were three suits of armor, five weapons, a handful of other things I assumed had to be magical if they were sitting there waiting for us (among them a pile of rope and an armchair), and there, right in the middle, a pile of gold. I was pretty sure that the entire thing could fit into a few cubic feet, maybe even a single cubic foot. It was far from being a dragon’s hoard (though those were always far too big to make any sense), but it was definitely worth millions of dollars. Call of the gold aside, it made it almost tempting to become a gold mage, if you could get so much power from such a (visually) small amount. There were a few gold coins and pieces of jewelry, but most of it was just in the form of stamped gold bars.

Grak began work on breaking the wards, while Fenn began probing at the wards using her fingers. I wasn’t quite sure why she was doing that, because she knew as well as I did that an absolute ward against velocity meant that you couldn’t do things like poke the finger of a glove across, because it would stop any and all movement at its border. A void rifle could get past it, because the void went through things without any velocity (bullshit, if you asked me, but the void was also “not magic”), and light was apparently not included as a thing that had velocity (because otherwise the room would have been completely dark), but there was very little else that would get past it.

Amaryllis had taken the void rifle and was sitting prone on the hallway floor sighting down it, applying pressure to the trigger with the index finger of her withered yellow arm. The red pit where her fingernail had been was weeping a clear fluid.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “When this is over we’re going to need to seek out some very expensive healing. ‘Rat rot’ is progressive.”

“I meant more … whatever you went through,” I said.

“Not the time, Joon,” said Amaryllis. She hesitated, as if remembering how to be a person. There was no way she had missed the copious amounts of blood on the floor by the elevator. “Thank you.”

Fenn laughed at that. “I’d say don’t mention it, but you almost didn’t.”

I wanted to say something then, to express how much trouble we’d gone through, or how much I’d been thinking about her, or even to ask her whether she had known or suspected that Uther Penndraig was dream-skewered, but Grak finished his work.

“Wards are down, spoofed my way past them,” he said with a feral smile that didn’t look quite right on a dwarf’s flat, wide teeth.

Fenn moved in at once, going straight for the armor, which I thought was weird until I realized that they were probably going to be the hardest things to move. As Sable started sucking them up one by one, I pulled out a folded up sack out of a tattoo on my arm and started loading the gold into it, one bar at a time. The gold bars were incredibly heavy, even with me knowing beforehand that gold is very dense and hard to move. A solid cubic foot of gold weighed something like 1200 pounds. Grak began helping me and we’d moved over about half of it, one twenty-pound bar at a time, when Fenn came over and grabbed the sack with her black glove. Sable took about ten seconds to suck up something, and it couldn’t do multiple things at once, but ‘thing’ was a loose definition as shown by the fact that it didn’t strip us of clothing when we went inside it. That was one of the reasons that I’d used a few applications of the Surface Sheath to put folded up sacks on my skin. While our sack of gold was counting down to vanish into the glove, I pulled out a second one, which Grak and I kept filling.

Thunk.

At the sound of the void rifle I abandoned my task and ran out of the vault to the hallway, drawing the AnyBlade and extending it to dagger length. I was just in time to see Aumann fall over with a hole in the middle of his forehead, his bracelet and necklace of ball bearings falling apart and scattering to the floor, the muscles under his red and white mottled skin going slack.

And then I was treated to the sight of those ball bearings reversing their motion and coming back to him as he rose up from the ground, with movements that made no sense unless physics were running in reverse. I dashed forward, sword drawn, none too hopeful about my chances, and brought the Anyblade down in the form of a two-handed greatsword that nearly clipped the ceiling, right as I saw the hole in Aumann’s forehead fill in with flesh.

The Anyblade hit him in the head and clanged off him, twisting in my hands. Aumann stared at me in confusion for just a second, then brushed the Anyblade with the back of his hand, sending it flying from my grip and through the wall, breaking several bones in my hand. Then he touched me and the world lurched sideways.

Affliction: Cowardice Removed!

When I came to I was in abject pain. My left arm wasn’t broken, so I used that to reach into my bandolier with a shaking, bloody hand and pull out more fairies, which I shoved into my thankfully also-unbroken jaw. Chewing was still a pain though, and swallowing was downright excruciating, because I had only a single hit point left, and the state of my body reflected that. Reimer had always said that health didn’t matter until you lost your last point, and that was manifestly not true in my case, but at the very least, everything else was recoverable.

I got to my feet with a gob of too-sweet marzipan in my mouth, grunting at the feeling of pressure on my newly healed legs. I was in an office of some kind, with books and papers scattered all around and a hole in the wall that was just about my size. I had no idea how much time had passed during my blackout, but it couldn’t have been that long, since my blood was still wet and not at all crusted. I limped forward as I kept on swallowing down fairies, running through my entire bandolier for the second time that day.

I was nearly to the hole in the wall when I saw metal balls zip past, fast as bullets, then a man’s voice, Aumann’s, say “There are wards”.

That was the first thing to give me hope. Aumann was powerful, powerful enough to flick metal balls away from him as fast as bullets, powerful enough that his telekinesis hit me as hard as a car, and he had a revision mage who was presumably going to stay close to him, but he couldn’t see wards, and a warder was at their most dangerous when they’d had time to prepare the battlefield. Of course, Grak hadn’t prepared the battlefield, but Aumann didn’t know that, and he would have seen his bullets slow down to non-lethal speeds.

Barrier wards were the easiest, most common type of ward, but there were area wards too, like the ones that they used to stop teleportation, and if I were Aumann, I would be extremely worried about gold magic denial that would keep me from being Superman, or something that would stop revision magic from healing me up from another void rifle shot. And if I were Grak, I would be putting up those wards as quickly as possible at the border of the vault they were all presumably hiding in.

Sable wasn’t cutting Aumann’s ‘connection’ to the gold, but I was pretty sure that our side would win any war of attrition, because even if Sable didn’t count as taking the gold out of his control, then surely directly destroying the gold would. And Aumann knew that we had the void rifle, and he had to be able to model us well enough to know that we were willing to give up a little bit of gold in order to depower him, which meant that he knew he was on a time limit.

Which left me, standing in a ruined office, with no weapons to speak of save for the tattoos that laced my skin, and no real plan. The Anyblade had been flung somewhere, I assumed that Amaryllis, Fenn, and Grak were hiding in the vault, maybe even with the door closed, and Aumann … if it were a game I were running, and anyone even moderately cautious was playing Aumann, this was right around the time that they would bust out the 11-foot pole.

Another metal ball went zipping by, but a few moments later I saw it flying back through the air the other direction. Revision magic, testing for invisible wards, which meant that the revision mage now had line of sight down the corridor. So long as the revision mage was there, Aumann could be more bold in moving forward, and he could test for wards against gold magic, and when he found none there was pretty much nothing stopping him from tearing his way into the vault and killing everyone inside it.

I looked around for a weapon and found a heavy metal paperweight on the desk, which I picked up and hefted. Against the gold mage, it would be useless, but against the revision mage … well, they had the truly absurd ability to revise themselves in the event of their death, injury, or incapacitation, which meant that he was basically unkillable (with a few asterisks, but not ones that applied to a guy holding a paperweight).

So I sat there, positioning myself next to the hole in the wall, trying to get as good a view toward the vault as I could, hiding so that if (when) Aumann walked by I wouldn’t be in his direct line of sight. I had the paperweight hoisted like I thought it would do something.

My breath caught in my throat as I saw Aumann walking closer. He held a cane in his outstretched hand, which he was swinging from side to side like a blind man. As I looked closer I saw that he wasn’t actually holding the cane, it was telekinetically stuck to his palm. If my guess was right, he was wrapping the cane in his tactile telekinetic field, which meant that as soon as he hit a ward against gold magic he’d be able to feel it and stop there.

Through the hole in the wall I saw the revision mage follow behind. He was a slightly overweight man with a ponytail, wearing a brown, buttoned-up jacket and khakis. We had staked out Trifles Tower a few times when testing how fast Aumann’s response to gold was, and I had seen the revision mage, Colwin, a few times, flying away with Aumann. I could just barely see everything from my position, Colwin following Aumann, and the vault door that was only partially closed.

When I saw a small hint of pure black come out from behind the vault door, I sprang into action, and a number of things seemed to happen all at once, some of which I would only learn about later.

Amaryllis popped out of Sable, materializing from the extradimensional space with her void rifle up at her shoulder and a fair amount of pressure already on the trigger. She fired off her shot a fraction of a second after appearing, putting a hole into Aumann’s head for the second time that day. Colwin put out a hand to start reversing that the moment it happened, but that was just about the time I came out through the hole in the wall and bashed him in the side of the head with a blood-magic-assisted paperweight.

It cracked his skull and left him falling to the ground, but then the both of us were moving backward in time, erasing my memories of any of that happening, and the second time around he ducked beneath my wild swing. I came at him a second time, reversing my swing to hit him with a backhand, once again fueled by my blood, and hit him full on in the base of his neck, and then we were going back through time again, erasing my memory again, and the thing was I knew this was happening, I had read all about it in the Commoner’s Guide, I knew that single combat with a revision mage was essentially pointless, I knew that I must have been landing those hits because there was no way that he was dodging from blows he couldn’t even see coming.

But I also saw Amaryllis, who to my fractured perception was teleporting down the hallway towards us, holding a sword hilt in her hand, and after the third time I hit Colwin, I stopped just shy, because Amaryllis was right next to him and he had a sword sticking straight through his head. I saw him move back and forth along it,

Isaac Aumann defeated!

Level Up!

Colwin Hearst defeated!

Quest Complete: Your Princess is in Another Castle - Amaryllis is safe from harm for now, and you with a big pile of gold to show for it you lucky dog.

Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 9!

Level Up!

Achievement Unlocked: Tenth

I was wrapped in a golden glow, tinged with red this time, and it was like a goddess had taken my brain out of my skull, trailing every yellow-white nerve from it, then stuck it into her mouth and ran her warm, sucking tongue along the tip of every nerve ending. It was bliss, pure and yet still unrefined, and once it was done I was left looking at my fingers in wonder, like someone had put me back together wrong. I still floated in the air and sent out a gust of wind, but I wasn’t even aware of it until afterward, as I was coming to.

And yet the bones of my ribs and my left hand were still devoid of their energy, and the quest to fix them hadn’t gone away, because no, the game hated me, it had the capacity to give me limitless pleasure and locked it away behind the all-too-brief moments when it decided that I had done a good job, it had the ability to heal me completely but for whatever bullshit reason it had decided that me doing the clever thing and using my own bones as fuel was too clever and had to be cured because life couldn’t ever be fucking fair, it was a constant march of brutality and pain with --

“Stop,” said Fenn. She was standing beside me with a hand on my shoulder, looking me in the eyes. My foot stopped whatever it had been doing, which, when I looked down, was apparently kicking the revision mage’s face into a bloody pulp. I looked back to Fenn, who was staring at me with wet, worried eyes. She stepped closer and shifted her hand, so she was grabbing my neck, then gave me a quick kiss on the lips. “I thought you were dead,” she said as she backed away from me. “If you do something that dumb again I am going to kill and eat you, do you understand?”

I wasn’t sure whether she was referring to me fighting the gold mage or me fighting the revision mage, but either way she was probably right. I looked over to Aumann’s corpse, which Amaryllis was squatted over. She had stripped off his clothing and was bringing a knife to bear against his rib cage, making a careful cut to his still-warm skin right next to a tattoo.

“Wait,” I said, moving forward. “Azalea.” The tattoo glowed for a second, giving off light blue sparks around the outline of the wrapped package, and when I stepped down to grab it, it came off the skin easily, the two-dimensional image expanding to three dimensions in my fingertips. I pulled off the twine and unwrapped the cloth, then looked down at the teleportation key.

“Why that word?” asked Amaryllis. She had looked exhausted from the moment we first rescued her, but now there was no longer a fire in her; whatever thoughts had been sustaining her, they were gone, leaving her vacant.

“Tattooist picked it,” said Fenn. “He probably saw the family resemblance.”

Amaryllis closed her eyes and nodded at some piece of cultural knowledge that had apparently passed me by. Vervain the flower mage had been Uther Penndraig’s equivalent to Merlin, and flower names were common among the Penndraig lines, but I had no idea who Azalea was and it seemed like the furthest thing from important at the moment.

“We should clear the rest of this,” said Grak from beside the vault door. “I see we’ve got a teleportation key, that should make the getaway a mite easier.”

The rest was cleanup, the kind of thing that you never want to deal with when you’re in the middle of coming down from having finished something hard. Fenn took the corpses of first Colwin, then Aumann, and after that we stole everything else that was left in the vault, putting it all into the glove, and even then we weren’t done, because there were, predictably, wards against teleportation within Trifles Tower, which Grak finally identified a gap in back on the top floor patio.

We left, with Amaryllis again operating the teleportation key, and after a painful moment -- a pain that caught me by surprise, because I had forgotten -- we were standing in a forest of trees so tall they would give redwoods a run for their money, standing at least a mile from a large house in a clearing, with a roof of grass and wildflowers.

“Check for wards,” said Amaryllis after she spent a moment looking around. Grak paused for a moment, and I didn’t know him well enough to make an accurate prediction about what he was thinking, but my best guess was that he was wondering whether this was his life now, going around with clearly insane people with mysterious powers who had stolen millions of dollars worth of gold and magic items and casually used a billion dollar piece of magic to move across the world. But he didn’t say anything about any of that, and instead pulled out his monocle to look around.

“Some around the house,” he said. “Built into the stones, at a guess, but we’ll know more when we get there.”

Amaryllis nodded, then just stood there for a moment, swaying, and I managed to catch her as she collapsed.

END BOOK II

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Alexander Wales

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