|6 POW||18 Unarmed Combat||18 One-handed Weapons||15 Two-handed Weapons||15 Improvised Weapons|
|6 SPD||15 Thrown Weapons||15 Dual Wield||12 Pistols||12 Bows|
|6 END||12 Rifles||18 Parry||18 Athletics|
|4 CUN||18 Dodge||12 Engineering|
|4 KNO||0 Horticulture|
|4 WIS||6 Art||12 Blood Magic||12 Bone Magic||6 Gem Magic|
|4 INS||12 Skin Magic|
|2 POI||6 Flattery||6 Comedy|
|0 LUK||6 Romance||10 Intimidation||8 Deception|
“So, we have a teleportation key,” said Grak in a conversational tone as we walked across the forest floor with trees towering above us and blocking a fair amount of the light. The dwarf tugged on the dyed-grey braids of his beard as we walked and occasionally moved his warder’s monocle to his eye to peer at the house we were walking toward.
I was carrying Amaryllis, who was out cold, cradling her in my arms. Her yellow, withered arm and the red marks where her nails had once been were painful to look at, so I mostly kept my eyes forward instead of looking down at her. She tensed in my arms occasionally, fluttering her eyes open for long enough to make sure that I was still carrying her and then falling back into something like sleep.
“The first thing I learned when I joined this crew,” said Fenn, “Is that you can’t expect to get answers to your questions right away, and you can’t expect that people will tell you things that it might have been good to know.” She held up a finger. “For example, it was only three days ago that I learned our pal Juniper was friends with Uther Penndraig.”
Grak sniffed. “I don’t like elf jokes,” he said.
“They’re half-elf jokes,” said Fenn, twitching her pointed ears. “And I do have to say that they’re an acquired taste. So far Juniper is the only one to have acquired them, and it took him quite a while.”
“Nah,” I replied. “I liked you from the start.” Carrying Amaryllis was less of a strain than I thought it would be, but then again, I was fresh off a level up and she had lost weight while she’d been locked up in the castle. I didn’t like seeing her so frail.
“Aw, I liked you too, little hooman,” said Fenn.
Grak coughed into his fist. “It isn’t in dwarf nature to be roundabout,” he said. “I was trying to do you the courtesy of allowing you to give an explanation for the teleportation key of your own accord. Tell me where it came from.”
“It belonged to Anglecynn,” I replied. “They were using it to … violate imperial laws regarding exclusion zones, I guess, or something like that, and they were trying to keep the fact that they’d lost it quiet. We grabbed it out of the Risen Lands exclusion zone.” I was skipping a few bits in there, not because they weren’t important, and not because I was actively trying to keep anything from Grak, but because it seemed like it was going to take forever to explain. That was the same reason that I said ‘nevermind’ when Fenn asked me what a Rickroll was.
“And what is this warded place we’re going to?” asked Grak.
I looked down at Amaryllis sleeping in my arms. “Fenn?” I asked.
“No clue,” she replied cheerfully. “When we left the lands of the undead, the place Amaryllis chose to take us was Barren Jewel, where we had a delightful misadventure in the desert.”
“In the desert?” asked Grak with a raised eyebrow.
“She picked Barren Jewel because it was a place where we could acquire a safe spot to use the teleportation key, where we could get some healing, where no one would be looking for us, and close by to a supposedly-secure location where we could acquire lots of valuables,” I said. “So working from that, I would guess that she chose this place under similar criteria, though,” I looked around, trying to see some hint of what lay beyond the forest but finding only trees, “I don’t think we’re terribly close to civilization here, unless I’m missing something obvious, and my guess is that we’re probably short on some other relevant criteria as well.”
“Hence checking for wards,” nodded Fenn. “Might be this was one of the places that Princess Amaryllis was expected to go, one that they’d have sent people to once they figure out she was alive, or at least once they knew that she wasn’t dead, if they do know that. I guess all they know is that they don’t have a confirmed kill.”
“How long was she captured?” asked Grak, who was taking all this in remarkable stride.
“Seven days total,” I replied.
“Aumann would have interrogated her,” he said. “He would have broken her bones and peeled off her skin until she told him everything that she knew. He had a revision mage to undo the damage and wipe her memories. He was sending people out to locations that she named.”
“And he’s dead now, so that’s,” I stopped. “Moot. Except it’s not, because if he was sending out people, he might have sent them here, except … the keys only go to touchstones or places you’ve been before, which means that they would have had to set down wherever the closest one of those is and would be making their way here right now.” I cursed under my breath. “And unless Aumann was running really tight infosec, which we know he wasn’t, then information about Amaryllis might have leaked back to her so-called family.”
“That’s if Aumann didn’t tell them directly,” said Fenn. “I mean if you’ve got a belligerent princess you know would gut you at a moment’s notice, are you really going to keep her around like a caged tiger waiting to attack? I wouldn’t, but that’s partly because I know her. She’d figure out a way to slip poison into my cup halfway through the first day.”
“He was sending people out to hit all the supply caches,” I replied. “He wouldn’t do that if he was planning to sell her to the highest bidder.”
“Of course he would,” said Fenn. “You remember what he said to us, the value of a thing is in what people will pay, it wouldn’t be enough for him to sell Amaryllis to the people that want to kill her, he would do that and then go to the next-closest descendant of Uther Penndraig and say, ‘Hey, how much you want to give me for this magic rope I stole?’”
I grimaced at that, because she was right, that was exactly what he would do.
Up close, it looked like someone had built an estate house and then picked up the grassland like a blanket to tuck the house in for the night. I wasn’t entirely sure whether the house had been built on flat land and then earth had been filled in after it with new grass put down, or if the house had been carved into an existing hill. The terrain around us was mostly flat though, so I thought it was probably the former. Either way, it was a pretty, picturesque place in a clearing, with wildflowers all around it and a shaft of sunlight coming down that couldn’t have been more perfect if it had tried. There was furniture outside the house, most of it looking like highly polished driftwood, a long table with eight chairs arranged around it, a pair of benches set beside a fire pit, a swirling garden, and rocks placed in a decorative ways that made them seem as though they’d been found there.
“We get it,” said Fenn, “You’re rich.”
And yeah, this place was like a giant finger to the proletariat, not just because it must have cost an enormous amount to build and maintain, not just because there were no roads that I could see which meant that goods and people would have to be teleported in at outrageous expense, but because the place was cozy, Hobbiton cozy, rich-people rustic, and we were in the middle of an immense forest, but the word ‘gentrification’ did enter my mind.
“Nothing suspicious about the wards,” said Grak when he finished lifting the monocle to his eye. “No detection wards that I can find at a distance, and only the usual wards you’d find on a high-value building, proof against teleportation magics and unreasonably high velocities. Expensive wards, the work of multiple warders, a few of them ornamental.” He pointed to the rocks, then just above the large table. “Wards against water, so a dinner party doesn’t get rained out.”
“You think we’re safe to go inside?” I asked. Amaryllis had started getting heavy a quarter mile ago and though it wasn’t at all chivalrous, I really did want to put her down.
Grak nodded. “That means that anyone else would be too.”
We made our way slowly and carefully, looking at the windows. Fenn offered to slip a mask and tank on Amaryllis and put her in the glove so I could walk easier, but I vetoed that idea for obvious reasons. I was hoping that it wouldn’t come to that; there was a reason that Amaryllis had taken us to this place, and I was hoping that it was because she thought it would be safe but useless, a place for us to recuperate and plan our next move.
The front door wasn’t just unlocked, it didn’t have a lock. We moved inside to see a place that was much like the outside, making pretenses towards an organic, rustic feeling. An enormous fireplace dominated the living room, surrounded by plush furniture trimmed with polished branches. Based on the size of the hill the house was nestled in, the twenty-foot ceiling made this the largest room in the house, with doors leading in all sorts of different directions.
I set Amaryllis down on the couch and lightly touched her face, brushing aside stringy hair.
“We’re here,” I whispered.
She opened her eyes and looked at me. “Safe?” she asked, shivering somewhat.
“Probably,” I replied. “Get some rest. We’ll have some questions when you wake up.”
The three of us moved through the house one room at a time, looking in on each of them, Grak doing so with his monocle to search for any wards. Most of what we found wouldn’t have been too out of place back on Earth; they were bedrooms, bathrooms, a large kitchen and a dining table there, a small library with a desk that I was definitely going to check out later, but certainly nothing that seemed all that Aerbian to me. Sure, the construction was obviously not drywall and two-by-fours, and the pictures on the walls were of fantastical scenes and mysterious beasts, but there was nothing that screamed magic or parallel universe, at least not until we went down into the basement and found the souls.
There was a big glass barrel half-full of those little balls of light, jostling gently against each other on the bottom. Beside this was an engine of some kind, which was putting out a faint hum that had been blocked by the heavy door to the basement. It took my mind a moment to realize that what I was looking at; it was a generator, the reason that this place had power was because on Aerb they just casually used some kind of mad science process to make embryos bud off and create more souls, whose decay was used as a power source, and they kept it right next to the hot water heater like it was nothing.
Fenn went over to the barrel, pulled a glass plug from the top, and then pulled her own glass bottle from Sable, her magical glove. She emptied six souls into the barrel with hundreds of others, then put the plug back in place.
“That’s my good deed for the day,” said Fenn. “Takes a special kind of shitty person to send someone to the hells, no matter how much of an ass they are.” I agreed with that, I suppose, but there was a probably-not-morally-justified part of me that thought Aumann deserved worse than he got.
The only other room of note was a storage area in the basement, a huge place where the aesthetic of the above rooms had been mostly forgotten. Instead of wood floors, there was concrete, scuffed with use and with an open area that had careful marks painted onto the floor. I had seen something similar when we had gone to Caer Laga. This was where anything they were in dire need of could be teleported in, something that was usually done in bulk. What this place had, which Caer Laga didn’t, was a stockpile of dried foods and a walk-in freezer, ensuring that we wouldn’t have to resort to magic in order to stay fed. A cistern beside that was full of fresh, clean water as well.
When we went back into the main room, Amaryllis was up and had just finished starting a fire in the fireplace.
“This place is Weik Handum,” she said as she poked at a log. “It’s known to many. We might have to leave in a hurry.” She turned toward us, finally locking eyes with Grak. “I’m sorry for my curtness earlier.”
“It’s fine,” said Grak. “A dwarf understands.” He stepped forward and held out his hand. “Grakhuil Leadbraids, of the clan Ligoda.”
Amaryllis gave him a curtsy, using her withered yellow hand to pull her shift slightly to the side. “Amaryllis Penndraig, tenth of her name, of the Kingdom of Anglecynn, long may it stand.”
I could practically hear Fenn rolling her eyes. “We need to get you healed up,” said Fenn. “The boy too.”
“What’s wrong with Joon?” asked Amaryllis, snapping her attention to me. “He leveled up just before we came here.”
“Bone magic,” I said. I rubbed the back of my neck. “Apparently it’s a bad idea to drain your own bones for their magic.” I could feel Grak and Amaryllis looking at me. “It wasn’t really like I had a choice, I was running for my life and needed the burst of speed, I’m pretty sure that I would have died otherwise.”
“And fairies don’t help,” said Amaryllis, more as a statement than a question, because she didn’t think so little of Fenn and I that she thought we wouldn’t think of doing the obvious thing. “Symptoms?”
“Um,” I said. “Loss of appetite, anemia, and I’ve been breaking the bones a little too easily.” I had gained ambidexterity by raising my Dual Wield skill high enough, but now I hardly used my left hand for anything if there was any way that I could help it. There were other changes, I was sure, but it was hard to tell what they were, because I knew that paranoia was overtaking me. Was that twinge in my stomach the first sign of major organ failure? Was the hitch in my breathing coming on too fast because my lungs had been thrown out of balance? That was impossible to say without a doctor, and probably even then it would take a specialist.
“Okay,” said Amaryllis, rubbing her forehead. I noticed that she was favoring her left hand, even though she was right-handed. “Then we need a plan.”
“We’ve got nearly a thousand pounds of gold,” said Fenn. “I’m pretty sure that this is the kind of problem that you can just throw money at.”
“You have five hundred pounds of gold,” said Grak. “Half of what was in the vault is mine. Those were the terms.”
“Fine,” said Fenn. “But then we still have nearly five hundred pounds of gold, which means that we have a ridiculous sum of money to spend on getting the both of you healed.”
Amaryllis turned to Grak. “I assume that when the key is ready again, you’d like to be dropped off somewhere?” she asked. “Our options in that regard will be limited, obviously, but I’m sure we can reach an accommodation.”
Grak shifted. “Juniper offered me a share of your personal wealth, in exchange for my aid in the rescue.”
Amaryllis stared at him. “Everything I have is stored in that glove,” she said, pointing a yellowed finger at Fenn. “I do not have vast riches any longer. Every day that passes, more of what was once mine is claimed by the other members of the Lost King’s Court. There are places, such as this one, and there are secret caches left behind by my ancestors for times of need, but there’s no bank I can draw on.”
Grak shrugged. “It seems to me that staying with the three of you is the most direct path to paying the penance to my clan, if there are some terms we can find amenable.”
“Look, my character’s entire motivation is the loot,” said Tom. “He doesn’t really care that much about the cult of Epsilon, and he doesn’t believe that the gods would allow them to reincarnate a demon, so why should he accept an offer for a ‘fair share’ of the loot?”
Arthur frowned. “You’re right, actually,” he said. “I’m doing it because I think it’s the right thing to do, to appease my god, because I think that the gods won’t allow it but I’m their instrument for not allowing it, for the praise and adoration that provide the crux of my character flaw, because it needs to be done … I would go after them even if there was no loot, so why should I advocate for an equal share?”
Craig looked to Tom. “Doesn’t that just reduce us to being sellswords?” he asked. “I’m not sure that works from a keep-the-team-together standpoint once the adventure is over.”
“Here,” said Reimer, having finally found his place in the book that was open in front of him, “DMG, page 135, there’s a table for character wealth by level.” He turned the book around, offering for someone to look at it and confirm, which no one did. “The game’s assumptions about player power level rests on us getting equal amounts of treasure in line with our experience gain, it’s what makes the math on combat encounters mostly work out. If I’m following my alignment and backstory then yeah, sure, I would give up a share of the treasure if really pressed on it, but that screws up the game balance.”
“Yeah, but if you don’t screw up the game balance then you screw up the characters,” said Arthur.
“I can fix it,” I said. “You can hammer out an in-character agreement about how to distribute the loot, then I can wiggle things around on the backend so that you get less loot from the adventure and are individually compensated by your paladin’s order and druid circle respectively.”
“Does that work?” asked Craig. “I was under the impression that we were going to get thousands of gold for this adventure, if the church has thousands of gold to spend, why aren’t they spending it on us right now, it doesn’t make sense that they would wait around until after the quest is complete, if they think the quest is so critical.”
I sighed and rubbed my face. “Okay, fine, it’s an iterative thing,” I said. “It’s important for Uther and Zackum to defeat the cult for their own, personal, moral social reasons, but if they just give in on loot negotiations then they’re going to be constantly starved for resources, especially when it comes to the next time, and they know that the risk/reward proposition is already favorable enough with an equal split. And from a keep-the-team-together aspect, the sellswords know that they’ve got a good thing going by being able to pair up with two half-healers that will keep them alive and raise them from the dead.”
“Okay,” said Arthur. “Now let’s do all that in character.”
We took some time to draw up terms. Grak would be paid a pound of gold for every two weeks he spent with us, but it would all be kept within the glove until such time as he wanted to cash out, mostly because it would be impossible for him to carry that much gold around. He would get a third share of any treasure that we found or stole, and temporary access to whatever heirlooms Amaryllis saw fit, with the understanding that it was in her best interests to keep our warder armored up. Other than that, he didn’t really care what it was we did. (A pound of gold every two weeks came out to a yearly salary of just under $2 million dollars, which seemed like a ridiculous sum to me, especially since I wasn’t getting paid at all.)
“Alright,” said Fenn, once we had a simple, written (completely unenforceable) contract. “Now for my terms.”
“There are things we need to do,” said Amaryllis. She’d taken a seat in a large chair by the fire, and was looking like she was running low on energy.
“Looking over our haul is one of those things,” said Fenn. “And I’d rather work things out before that.”
“Fine,” said Amaryllis, waving her hand.
“First, I get to keep Sable,” said Fenn, holding up the glove, which was so black it was impossible to see the contours of her fingers. “Not just for the duration of our quest to loot Lady Penndraig’s holdings and kill her enemies, but forever. If Sable turns out to need regular investiture, then Amaryllis, I’ll come to you whenever the time is about to run up.”
Amaryllis hesitated at that. Clearly Sable was more powerful than she’d thought it was from the outset. “Fine,” she said.
“Second, I don’t really have any interest in getting you back in a position of power,” said Fenn. “No offense, but the politics stuff is um, pretty boring, especially in the Lost King’s Court, from what I know of it. Instead, I want to pour our efforts into making Juniper stronger, which means fighting things and completing his quests. Not just for his own sake, but we're inextricably linked to him.”
“What do you mean by inextricably linked?” asked Grak.
“We don’t actually know,” said Fenn. “Probably soulfuckery, or maybe Juniper is a god. Anyway, I don’t object to visiting the no-doubt hundreds of homes like this one you have and looting them blind, or using the information you have courtesy of your former position in the labyrinthine political bodies of Anglecynn, but it’s Juniper first from here on out. Deal?”
“Deal,” said Amaryllis, a little too quickly for my tastes. Juniper was a lever that could move the world, and Amaryllis wanted to be that lever.
“Third,” began Fenn.
“How much longer is this going to go on?” asked Amaryllis. “I need to lay down.” She was already laying back in the chair, resting her head against it.
“Last one,” said Fenn. “Third, I want us to go to the Isle of Eversummer and avenge my father.”
Quest Accepted: Summer’s End - Return to the place where Fenn received her scars and bring justice to the elves. (Companion Quest)
“I just got a quest for that,” I said.
“It worked!” cried Fenn with a small clap. “Okay, we’re going to try more of that later on, get Joon all the quests his little game brain can handle.”
“What magic possesses Juniper?” asked Grak. “I’ve already gathered that he’s five hundred years old.”
“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “Going to sleep now.” She rested her head and closed her eyes.
To my surprise, Fenn picked up a blanket laying across the couch and threw it over her. “Juniper, it might be time you made with the explanation.”
I sighed. “Alright, so I come from a place called Earth, which is a lot like Aerb in some respects and very unlike Aerb in others …”
I have to admit, I had been working on the pitch for quite some time, since before we’d even met Grak. Starting with Earth seemed sensible, say that it’s another world that has some overlap with this one, play up the nature of coincidences and the mystery of how some things resemble each other, pretend that the melange of things that I’d seen in Aerb weren’t just my own creation (which was sort of true, because I had seen a few references to Earth things, albeit ones that I had put in my games), and only then, once all that was laid out, would I say:
“So, part of what’s special about me is that I see numbers in my head that correspond to my skills and abilities, which I can increase whenever I finish the quests that appear in my field of vision.” I said this very patiently and calmly, as though it was the most rational thing in the world. “There does seem to be some correspondence between these numbers and well-studied magics, as related to me by a bone mage.”
“And Juniper’s own special brand of magic marks you as a companion,” said Fenn, which I didn’t really appreciate because it would only complicate matters.
“I see,” said Grak. He looked to Fenn. “Do you have reason to believe that any of this is actually true?”
“Sure,” Fenn smiled, “Juniper is a great guy.”
I slapped my forehead at that. “I’ve done at least six impossible things,” I said. “I mean … didn’t you see me level up?”
“What is that?” asked Grak.
“There was a bunch of glowing light, I healed completely, it happened in the hallway?” I asked.
“When I came from the vault you were kicking a corpse in the head,” said Grak.
“Okay, well … then I can’t prove it,” I said. “Fenn can tell you all of the neat stuff I’ve done, how I’m basically a savant at learning new types of magic, which you’ve seen firsthand for yourself --”
“No,” said Grak. “I’ve seen faculty, but if you’re five hundred years old that’s no surprise, it was only your apparent age that confused me.”
“I’m seventeen,” I said. I think. This body may or may not be seventeen, because it probably belonged to someone else when I slipped into it, assuming that this world wasn’t just created ex nihilo the moment right before I arrived, which it probably wasn’t.
“Fenn said that you knew Uther Penndraig,” said Grak.
“That’s … Fenn, we’re going to have to talk about what jokes it is and is not appropriate to make in front of people,” I said. “But yes, I’m operating under the assumption that Uther Penndraig was originally from Earth. I would have known him nine months ago. Ten now, I guess.” I looked over to Amaryllis, who had resumed sleeping. I hoped that this was just a symptom of her stressful time with Aumann, rather than the rat rot, because if this was the way she was going to be, then I probably wasn’t going to be able to press her for details.
“It doesn’t actually matter to me,” said Grak. “Whether you’re fooling these two or whether it’s the truth, the deal we struck is one that accommodates me. The moment you ask me to act on this strange magic that only you can see, that’s where we have a problem.”
“One sec,” I said. I closed my eyes for three seconds and brought up the character sheet, then stopped for a moment on the screen with my skills and abilities. I had leveled up twice, which meant that I should have seen a ‘+4’ floating in the upper right corner, just outside the character sheet proper. Instead, it said ‘+9’. I’d gotten five extra points from somewhere. Hitting tenth level? That seemed likely, but the game was as always stubborn with giving me information, and there was still no game log to look through.
“What’s he doing?” I heard Grak ask.
“Accessing the mystical secrets behind his eyelids,” replied Fenn.
I flicked my eyes to the side and switched screens, casually looking for any other surprises, until I got to the one labeled companions. To my delight, Grakhuil’s biography was no longer greyed out, which meant that it was probably loyalty level 2 when those were unlocked.
Grakhuil Leadbraids, Loyalty lvl 2
Grakhuil comes from the largely parthenogenetic clan of dwarves in Darili Irid (loosely, Gold Hole). Due to da nad skill in the game of Ranks and overall empathic nature relative to da nad kin, Grak was selected to leave Darili Irid for the Athenaeum of Barriers with the plan that da would return and become the next master warder of the clanhome. Upon returning home, da was entered into a rare arranged pair-bond with another dwarf, and fled from Darili Irid after refusing the Kiss on da nad bond night. Da has spent da nad time looking to make amends for the damage da nad absence caused to da nad clan.
I opened my eyes and looked at Grak. “Okay, first things first, what do ‘da’ and ‘da nad’ mean?”
“They’re part of the dwarven dialect used by my clan,” said Grak. “‘Da’ would be the equivalent of ‘he’ and ‘da nad’ would be the equivalent of ‘his’. It’s nothing that you couldn’t have known by other means.”
“Okay,” I said. “But the meaning is different, because you’re just assumed male for the sake of everyone’s convenience?”
Grak nodded. “Knowing that does not constitute proof.”
“Just curious,” I said. I took a breath. “Your clan comes from Darili Irid, which translates to something like Gold Hole. You were chosen to go to the Athenaeum of Barriers because you were skilled in the game of Ranks, and you came back to an arranged marriage that you ran away from with a refusal of something called the Kiss.”
Grak stared me in the eyes and I hoped that I hadn’t just made some extreme faux pas, or at least not one that was any bigger than reading from someone’s biography. “What else?” he asked.
“Nothing, that’s all I have,” I said. “Hopefully that’s enough.”
“It is,” nodded Grak.
“Alright!” said Fenn. “Then let’s get to looking at loot.” She held her hand out to the side and began dropping things onto the floor.