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I drew a seven of tines, which meant we’d go in the middle 60° arc, then drew the virgin, which was card #57 according to my scheme. I considered the card somewhat suspect, but I had done a lot of shuffling and wasn’t going to reduce our probability spread by getting superstitious about the kabbalistic meanings of the cards. If the Dungeon Master had picked a specific card for me to draw on the basis of something that I had been giving some thought to as of late, then I doubted I would be able to improve matters by simply drawing another card from the deck.

Solace transformed me into a swallow again, then herself, and we took off together, flying side by side. I relaxed slightly as we passed the city walls, because that meant we no longer had to worry about a last-second ambush. It was mid-morning and a pleasant day for a flight, and I tried to take joy in it as I internally counted the minutes.

After an hour’s flight and (approximately) twenty-five miles in a straight line away from Boastre Vino, we circled around to a copse of trees with some large stones at the center. Grak had said that if we had much of a choice, he wanted us to be somewhere with lots of obstructions, because in accordance with Goettl’s Laws, it was easier to make a ward if you had something to brace it on. His plan was to tap completely dry in making the wards around us, in the interests of having as powerful (and numerous) of wards as physically possible, or if we engaged the enemy sooner, then to put up wards until they showed up.

As soon as we landed, Solace pulled the others out of the bottle by first diving inside and then having everyone spit out of individual trees, like a dendritic version of the birth process. I noticed there was no tree tunnel this time, and the fact that Solace was making an effort not to repeat herself seemed, to me, to be more than just showing off on her part. It was, maybe, a way to avoid falling into patterns or seeing the druidic magic as something that had to adhere to doing things the same way every time.

While Grak got to work, Fenn grumbled briefly about sightlines and then began to climb a tree, and Solace began walking around in order to scout out the territory. That left me with a slightly-rumpled looking Amaryllis, who was rubbing her eyes.

“The Elon Gar have a way to eliminate sleep,” she said. “The masters need ten minutes of quiet meditation a day, and that’s it. This is the first time I’ve ever slept in full plate. I wasn’t too impressed by the experience.”

“Can we talk?” I asked.

“Sure,” said Amaryllis, looking slightly more alert. “Something serious?”

“Um,” I said. “It’s about capital-L Loyalty.” In other words, sort of serious, but not deathly so.

“Oh. And?” asked Amaryllis.

“Well, Fenn passed level 10 Loyalty, I’m not sure whether she told you that or not?” I asked.

“No, she hadn’t mentioned it,” said Amaryllis. “And what does your internal system say that I’m at?”

“Nine,” I said.

“She’s at eleven?” asked Amaryllis.

“Sixteen,” I replied.

“Ah,” said Amaryllis. She hesitated. “Sorry.”

“No,” I said, “I wasn’t bringing it up because, yeah. That whole thing.” The bad blood. The mistrust. “No, when Fenn passed Loyalty 10 it unlocked this thing called ‘Twinned Souls’ that probably doesn’t have anything to do with the actual, literal soul, but makes it so that she’ll get stronger as I get stronger. I think it’s a balance thing, so my companions don’t get left behind me. And given that you’re just one point away, I was wondering whether there was anything that I could do that would, I don’t know. Help with that.”

“Huh,” said Amaryllis. “Give me a second?”

“Sure,” I said. I stepped back a bit and watched Grak move between the trees with his wand in hand, tracing out an irregular ward with the trees as anchor points. A border ward against high velocity was a must, given the risk of heavy-duty machine gun fire. Everything else was at his discretion, especially because my knowledge of wards was being increasingly off-loaded onto him. Raising Grak’s loyalty, somehow, was on my list of priorities, but it wasn’t terribly high, partly because I didn’t actually know how to raise loyalty, other than by trying to be a generally good and understanding person.

Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 10!

Companion Passive Unlocked: Twinned Souls (Amaryllis)!

I turned to Amaryllis. “What just happened?” I asked.

“Is that working?” Amaryllis asked.

Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 11!

“What are you doing?” I asked. “How are you … are you becoming more loyal on purpose?”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis.

Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 12!

“You can’t do that,” I said. I will admit to some slight panic on my part, maybe because there was something in the back of my mind that said trying to munchkin the game too badly was going to end with the Dungeon Master putting his foot down. “You can’t just, become more loyal because there’s something in it for you, that’s not how loyalty works!”

“Well, clearly you don’t know as much as you think,” said Amaryllis. She looked down at her hands, giving them a flex. “I think I can feel the change.”

“Please,” I said. “Tell me what you did, or what you were thinking?”

“Well, you already said,” replied Amaryllis. “Obviously my loyalty is because I get something from you, isn’t that it?” There was something slightly hostile in her tone. “Is that really what you think?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, it doesn’t make sense, Grak didn’t become more loyal when we decided to pay him a ludicrous amount of money, I just don’t think that it’s keyed to literal rewards. And I didn’t think that you could become more loyal on purpose, but maybe I’m wrong about that, and if I am, then you became more loyal on purpose after I told you there was something in it for you, so …”

“You don’t understand me,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t think I’m really all that complicated.” She sighed and ran her fingers through her short brown hair. “You understand that my plan, even early on, was to elevate you as much as possible, right?” she asked. “Once I saw how quickly you picked up blood magic, how easily you blew past what I had spent years studying, I thought to myself that you were the key to my return to power.” She rubbed her face. “That changed, over time, but the same thing has been at the back of my head from the start, which was that if you were the same as Uther Penndraig, then I was never going to be one of your knights of the Square Table. Even if I put my heart and soul into training, I was never going to be able to match the people you would pick up along the way. I’d at best be a wallet for you, or a love interest if I --” she stopped herself from saying something, “I knew that I couldn’t keep pace with you, and I knew that what I had to offer you wasn’t going to be worth much, especially if we couldn’t get me back into power in Anglecynn, and -- I’ve been worried about this for almost as long as we’ve known each other.”

“Okay,” I said slowly.

“You wiped that away,” said Amaryllis. Her posture had changed somewhat, relaxing. “You wiped that away without even thinking about it. There wasn’t some calculation going on in your mind where you were thinking that I might be more useful if I was trying to win your approval, or if I were in a position of weakness compared to you. You didn’t think about the power dynamic between the two of us. So,” she said. “Maybe I’m a worse person than you, because I would have had those thoughts, but if you didn’t, then yes, there were some things I needed to let go of and recurring thoughts I could toss aside. Hence, loyalty.” She rubbed her eyes again. “I’m sorry, I just woke up and I’m running on less-than-enough sleep.”

“I think that if you tell someone that you’re going to try to trust them more, you have to actually do that,” I said. “So a lot of it is on me.” I looked her over. She was right that I didn’t understand her. “Let’s not have every conversation between us go like this. So ... serious.”

“Agreed,” she said with a soft smile. She looked up to the tree tops. “So, you and Fenn?”

I felt my chest constrict at that. “Um,” I said. “Kind of. Not actually, in the sense of, uh, we haven’t -- it’s nothing official, or unofficial even, but, yeah. We’re sort of … thinking about it. I am, anyway, I can't say for her.”

“Thinking about it while sharing a bed?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow.

“Ah,” I said. “If you mean at the hotel, they were going to be two separate beds.”

“Were they actually?” asked Amaryllis, still keeping her eyebrow raised.

I thought about that for a bit. “When I give that some thought, no, they probably wouldn’t have been.”

There was sound from the trees overhead, and I watched as Fenn made her descent, moving with a grace and agility that screamed inhuman to me, though I was pretty sure that it was also the sort of thing you’d see on Youtube and think, ‘Wow, people sure can do some amazing things if they devote the time and effort to it’. She didn’t even seem to vary her speed at all, like she was doing parkour and using every action, pushing off tree branches, stepping lightly for just a moment, in order to ensure that she kept her movement eerily constant.

A small puff of exhaled air was the only evidence she’d been exerting herself over the course of her rapid seventy-foot climb down.

“Am I really that predictable?” she asked. “See, I was going to exclaim what a crazy random mix-up there’d been on the part of the hotel, I had this whole bit planned about how we would just have to make the best of being stuck under the same covers.” She grinned at me. “You know, I heard all of that. And before you start, you really can’t complain about someone eavesdropping if you watched them go up into the eaves.”

“Eavesdroppers sit under the eaves of the house,” said Amaryllis with a frown. “You’re thinking of rafters.”

“Eavesdropping, raftersdropping, it’s all the same to me,” said Fenn. She was smiling my way. I was blushing, and my heart was pounding, because it was all sort of out in the open now, especially given who I’d been saying it to. Amaryllis didn’t really look put out at all, but she was good at masks, when she needed to be. I had no idea whether she felt any romantic inclination toward me at all, with the unicorn kiss only serving to make me feel more uncertain. ‘Or a love interest if I --’ was still there in my mind, making me wonder, but if it came down to a choice between the two of them, I had now cast my lot, which had left Fenn smiling and made me feel wonderful.

(Maybe it was the (possibly) upcoming battle against whatever forces Larkspur could muster, which had already set me on edge, but the idea of a proper relationship with Fenn was terrifying in an exhilarating way. I’d fucked up both friendships and relationships before, she was my best friend, we were joined together by a mysterious force that we didn’t really understand, and from what I knew of her personally she wasn’t built for a long-term stable romantic partnership, or at least had about as much of a chance to learn how to do that as I had. So there were lots of reasons that it was probably a bad idea, but we were, apparently, going to be an actual thing instead of just flirting around the subject.)

“So how long are we going to wait for this guy to show up?” asked Fenn, thankfully changing the subject. I might have been imagining things, but I thought I saw a slight blush on the pale skin of her cheeks. “A full day here?”

“We moved once an hour, which was probably overkill, given that we didn’t have any close calls,” said Amaryllis. She turned her helmet over in her hands. “I would guess that if he comes, it will be between two hours and a full day. The longer the wait, the higher the danger to us, because I don’t doubt that he would use that time to rally whatever forces he thinks he needs to bring to bear.”

And that was what worried me. If he showed up, how much was he willing to risk overcommitting? How much was he going to pull people off projects, put them in danger, risk operational security, or incriminate himself? We were hoping that he was going to come in overconfident and underprepared, but it was all up in the air.

Grak took six hours to finish the wards, going in order of what he called the inverted pyramid of potential threat. The most important layers of warding were up within the hour, and more and more pieces of warding became functional after that. None of them were going to last particularly long; one way or another, we would be gone before the clock had run out on them. After Grak had placed the last of them, he came back to join us by the stones, sweating slightly. During the long wait, Amaryllis had fallen asleep, propped up against the rocks, and Fenn had joined her, with her head resting on a pillow in Amaryllis’ lap. Solace was lying in a shaft of sunlight, moving every so often to keep pace with it, like a cat; she had her garments pulled aside to reveal as much bare, green flesh as possible, which left her obscenely indecent by Midwestern standards. I hadn’t designed the crantek as nudists, but I don’t know what I thought halfway photosynthetic creatures would be doing walking around in clothes.

“I just spent a full week’s worth of concordance,” said Grak. “It’s been a long time since I’ve done that.”

“And you think we’re good?” I asked.

“No,” said Grak. “I think I’ve prepared against most reasonable vectors of attack.” He sniffed and looked at the women. “Void weapons are not magic. They would be a problem.” So naturally, if Larkspur knew for certain that we had a warder, or maybe just guessed based on whatever evidence he’d gathered, that would be one of the primary weapons he brought, and it wouldn’t matter whether there was an imperial ban, since he’d already shown himself willing to violate those.

“Thanks,” I said. “You might want to get some sleep, while you can.”

“I’m doing what I’m paid to do,” said Grak.

I looked him over. “I’m not sure I believe that,” I said.

“Which part?” he asked with a frown. “I am putting up wards. I am being paid to put up wards.”

“I don’t think that’s all there is,” I said. “I think we’re paying you handsomely, and we do need your hard-earned abilities, but … what are you after?”

“Penance for my clan,” said Grak, as I knew he would.

“And you want to pay that penance as quickly as possible, so you can return to them?” I asked. I didn’t say outright that his penance was self-imposed, but the quest I’d gotten for him had used that phrasing.

Grak looked away from me. “No,” he said after a time. I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t, which meant I could either take a stab in the dark or let it drop. I didn’t really have much else to do besides talk to him, but trying to get him to open up about something that I’d already given him a (rejected) option to talk about didn’t seem like it would be worth anything. Besides, I hated when people tried to do that with me, and more often than not I turned sour on them after they failed to take a hint.

“So,” I said. “Can you teach me how to speak Dwarven? Unless you were planning to sleep more?”

Grak gave a loud sniff. “Dwarves can go longer without sleep than humans,” he said. “It’s better I stay awake. I’ll need to give warning if I detect a crossing of the wards.” He sniffed again, with his wide nostrils flaring. “It’s called Groglir, not Dwarven, if you want the common tongue of dwarves. The language of my clan would not suit you.”

“Okay, Groglir,” I said. I had taken some Spanish in high school, but wasn’t actually sure how you were supposed to go about learning a language, let alone one from a different place, let alone one suited for a different species. In the worst case, Groglir would be unpronounceable to the human tongue because of the differences in physiology; the thick teeth and wide tongue would prove themselves capable of making two sounds that I couldn’t distinguish between, or one I couldn’t replicate, or one I couldn’t even hear. I was hoping that the game would act like a proper game for once, and have already arranged for me to not have to worry too much about things like that.

So Grak took the lead, and I started to learn some Groglir nouns. He would point to something, like a tree, and say, “Tree, mara, tree,” and then I would repeat after him. From time to time, he would go back to something, and I would try my best to recall what it was he’d said. At a certain point, when I had something like thirty Groglir words under my belt, he started in on noun morphology, which was ridiculously confusing, partly because Groglir was an ergative-absolutive language rather than a nominative-accusative language like English. (Technically speaking, on Aerb they spoke Anglish rather than English, but other than the slight difference in initial vowel, there was pretty much no difference.) Beyond that, in the same way that nouns could be either masculine or feminine in Spanish, Groglir had five noun classes, and they (obviously) didn’t even cleave along gender lines.

Once he taught me my first verb, dalkelor, meaning “opened”, I could make my first actual Groglir sentence, which was “Grakhuil in nogor dalkelor”, or “Grakhuil the door opened”, because of course the first language I came across in Aerb would also have subject-object-verb ordering, just to be extra confusing.

“You know a lot about language?” I asked.

“I learned Anglish late in life,” said Grak. “It was a necessity for learning at the athenaeum. My clan didn’t have the money to spend on a yearly translation tattoo. Children learn languages in the natural way. Knowledge and order help adults more. I learned Anglish using rules. My understanding of Groglir is governed by that same understanding.”

I did wonder how true that was to the mortal species in general, dwarves in particular, or whether it was just Grak specifically. My own understanding was that language was intuitive, which was one of the reasons that it developed so many idiosyncrasies. Learning rigid rules and then applying them uniformly seemed like more of a dwarf approach to things, but it was hard to say whether that was the truth or not, because I had only ever met one dwarf, and he had spent at least ten years away from his clan, changing enough in that time to want to leave his people behind.

By the time Fenn woke up, I had a small handful of phrases I could use, assuming that I didn’t want to change tense, and about fifty words that mostly related to things that were within pointing range. I still hadn’t gotten a pop-up that said something to the effect of, “Hey, you tried hard enough, you know Dwarven now!”, which is what I was not-so-secretly hoping for.

“Well, we’re not dead,” said Fenn with a yawn and a stretch. “How long has it been?”

“Eight hours since we arrived,” said Grak. “Nothing from the wards.”

“Wake Solace,” I said to Fenn, trying not to glance over at the partially nude crantek woman.

“I’m awake,” said Solace from her spot in a sunbeam. “I’ve been awake.” It was afternoon now, and the sun was coming through at an angle, but she was somehow still fully lit. When I looked up at the trees, I saw them bowing out, spreading their leaves to the side to allow a shaft of light in. She put on her clothes with slow, languid motions. “The field mice have relayed to me that all is quiet, and the trees agree.”

“Shit,” I muttered.

“If he doesn’t come, all we’ve wasted is time,” said Fenn. “I’ll get to poke an arrow through his skull another day, I reckon.”

“Yes,” I said. “But that means that we’re consigned to a pretty damned long time trying to work beneath the radar.” I rubbed my hand, trying to get some feeling back into it again. It was getting worse with every passing day, and I was worried that the endgame would be that I wouldn’t be able to use it on instinct anymore. “Not that we wouldn’t be, even with him dead, but without the driving force of Anglecynn’s FSD I have to imagine we’d have an easier time of it.”

“We have time,” said Amaryllis, who stood up and stretched out with a groan. “Glove carrier, food please,” she said in Fenn’s direction.

“Yes, your highness,” said Fenn with a bow. She held out her hand and a small table popped out of thin air to settle on the forest floor. She kicked it slightly and then moved it around, until the legs were more firmly in place, then began unloading enormous amounts of food from her glove, cold pasty pies, thick slices of meat, a colorful array of fruits, two loaves of bread, five bowls of what I took to be some kind of cold soup, and finally, a whole chocolate cake decorated with what looked like elongated cherries.

“I think it might be in our favor if he doesn’t show,” said Amaryllis as she grabbed a pasty. “That says something about his positioning and his strength, if he doesn’t think that he’s strong enough to take us on in this sort of scenario.”

“Or it’s bad, because it means he’s smart enough to have realized that we weren’t just stopping here for our health,” I replied. “That means he’s more patient and cunning than we’ve been giving him credit for, and he’s content to just sit back and make our lives miserable from a distance.”

“He’s not,” said Amaryllis. “And he can’t risk that I decide to settle down for a quiet life and start having children. I’m the most direct descendant of Uther Penndraig, but he’s the most direct male descendant, which gives him claim to roughly a fourth of what I have. Hyacinth is second most direct female descendant, which means that together they could lay claim to every heirloom that I have claim-in-fact to right now. Most of those, I assume, they already have physical possession of. But it stands to reason that giving up a fortune in heirlooms and places with wards keyed to me will mean that he’ll never be content, especially not when I might get pregnant at any moment and perpetuate that problem.”

“Is that how you think getting pregnant works?” asked Fenn.

“I am well aware of how it works,” said Amaryllis, quite dryly.

“All I’m saying is that I don’t think there’s much upside to him not showing up,” I said. “The information it gives us is minimal. We avoid a battle with him today, but we’re probably in for a tougher one tomorrow.”

“Or we just assassinate him,” shrugged Fenn. “That would work too.”

Solace raised an eyebrow at that.

“I don’t think we’re in the business of assassination,” I said.

“No?” asked Fenn. “Because what we’re doing here, setting a trap and then claiming self-defense, that’s so unlike going into his bedroom and slitting his throat in the middle of the night?”

“I agree with the elf,” said Grak.

“Half-elf,” said Fenn. Her ears twitched slightly. “I think maybe this is all moot, because we’ve got company.”

“Helicopters,” said Solace. She brought her staff down and struck the ground with it, closing her eyes as she did so. “Five helicopters, six men and a pilot each.”

“Can you tell if Larkspur is there?” asked Amaryllis. I saw that the teleportation key was in her hand; the plan was that in battle, it would go to Fenn, who was waiting impatiently next to her, all thoughts of food forgotten.

“No,” said Solace, opening her eyes. Her face had an intensity that I hadn’t seen from her before. This was a woman who had known battle. “Most were human, armed with metal weapons, two-thirds of their number armored, others I would assume to be mages. One of the helicopters is special.”

“In what way?” asked Amaryllis.

“I’ve said as much as the winds gave me,” said Solace.

“Thirty men seems like a lot,” I said.

“Go or no-go?” asked Fenn. “Either I’m up the tree to shoot a few thousand arrows their way or we should get the hell out of here.”

“Go,” said Amaryllis, handing over the key.

“I disagree,” I said. “Thirty men of unknown strength bearing down on us? That’s more than we were talking about.”

“We can cut their numbers down before they arrive,” said Solace. She twirled her staff in front of her and set it in the ground with her fingers gripped on the bird’s skull there. Immediately, the weather began to change, dropping by a few degrees as wind started to move and the skies darkened.

“I have faith in my wards,” said Grak.

Fenn took off without another word as the teleportation key disappeared into her glove, climbing the tree like it was no more difficult than sprinting across flat land. I felt a pain at her leaving, worried that we were fully committed to this fight. I’d been quietly voted down by my teammates, and if we left, it was going to be after a brief skirmish showed that the odds were badly stacked against us.

The winds were picking up, blowing gusts of cold wind our way. I had my Anyblade in hand, extended to full length and ready to swing. The copse of trees we were in wasn’t thick enough or wide enough to give us full cover from the fields around it, and I kept looking out there, straining to see whether I could hear the helicopters or not. The winds weren’t helping with that, and I hoped that they weren’t going to be strong enough to force the pilots down before they got within range (and on the other hand, I was really, really hoping that, because then maybe we wouldn’t have to fight).

I looked up the tall tree that Fenn had climbed and couldn’t see her at all. Her bow had seven artillery shots left in it, per her accounting, and given what a well-made arrow could do to plate, I was hoping that a helicopter would fare equally poorly if faced with an entire volley. All you would need was one in the rotors to bring a helicopter down. Just as I started to hear the thumping of multiple helicopters coming our way, I heard the twang of Fenn’s bow. I couldn’t see her, or the arrows, but I could imagine some poor pilot suddenly faced with a cloud of arrows that seemed to have come from nowhere.

I saw Fenn tumble from the tree, touching branches briefly to control her fall, and saw the tree-top explode in a ball of orange flame a few seconds after that.

“Think I got one!” she shouted with a breathless smile as she landed in a roll. “They’re not fucking around.”

Two flashes of bright white light came from between the trees, followed shortly after by overlapping waves of rolling thunder.

“That’s two more down,” said Solace, raising her staff from the ground and looking slightly dazed.

“Show-off,” muttered Fenn, but I knew her well enough to see the nervous energy coursing through her and the tenseness of how she moved. “Joon, follow me to the front?” She took off through the woods, moving swiftly, until we got to the line of trees that Grak had marked for us, which were the anchors for the wards he’d put up and a helpful guide for what was and wasn’t safe.

We peered out through the few trees between us and the fields to the east, waiting and listening. The helicopters would be flying low, if they hadn’t turned tail and run. Soon they were in sight, three helicopters, two black (one trailing black smoke), and a third that had an impractically ornate design to it, apparent even from a distance. At a guess, it was designed by someone in a forge-frenzy, and that meant that the helicopter possessed some unknown and presumably dangerous magic.

Fenn stepped out from the protection of the wards for long enough to fire two arrows, both of them artillery shots that blossomed into thousands of arrows. I could see now that the helicopters were of simple design; I wasn’t sure why I was expecting Apaches, given Aerb’s demonstrated level of technology. They weren’t laden with weapons, nor heavily armored as I had thought they would be. They were moving in a dangerously close formation, the kind of thing you would never do on Earth, not just because of the technical skill it would take, but because you’d risk getting blown out of the sky by a single SAM.

The reason for that close formation was made apparent when the arrows got near them; thousands of arrows turned into sparks as they got within range of the baroque helicopter in front, so many at once that it was an almost blinding display. The shield, or whatever it was, was shaped like a sphere, centered around the lead helicopter, which raced through the cloud of sparks without seeming to mind. Someone leaned from the side of the helicopter, out the open door, and Fenn stepped back into the safety of the wards just in time for a fireball to splash against them, detonating a tree in front of us. The pieces of flaming wood hit the wards and all that crossed over to us was a warm breeze.

One of the two black helicopters, the one that wasn’t having mechanical trouble, turned to the side and began to land. Fenn began stepping forward to fire another artillery shot off at it, but stepped back almost at once, just in time for another fireball to blast its way directly against the ward in front of us, again sending up a wave of heat but sparing us from the shrapnel, which was reduced to a low enough velocity that it was merely annoying.

“Shit,” said Fenn. She raised her hand as I saw movement within the belly of the helicopter, and with her other hand she pulled me down behind a thick metal wall that appeared from her glove. “You know,” she said, as a sound of thunkthunkthunkthunk started up from the helicopter, “Here I was, thinking that maybe we’d be able to make this a half day.” She was giving me a manic smile. “Mounted automatic void rifle, probably,” she said with a nod in the direction of fire. “I’ve got a few of these walls, not sure if we should retreat or not, but staying here is probably not --”

There was a loud crunching sound, which cut off the seemingly endless series of thunks. Fenn paused and poked her head up over the metal wall, then grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up too. The helicopter was protruding from the ground at an awkward angle, with pieces of metal twisted around and shattered glass littering the area around it. There was a considerable amount of blood.

“Okay,” said Fenn. “I will give that druid credit where credit is due.” She pulled out her bow and fired an arrow toward where the other two helicopters were landing, two hundred feet away, but the arrow was just a test shot, and it exploded into sparks as it hit the invisible globe.

“If they have another gun like that, we’re fucked,” I said. “Walls only hold until they flank us. If they can move or split that point defense --”

“Retreat,” called Fenn, either because her sense of luck was telling her to, or because she’d reached the same natural conclusion I was a second away from.

We raced back through the trees, back to the tall rocks that the others were near, which provided useful cover from void weapons. Effective range on a void weapon was five hundred feet, if you wanted to actually do any damage with them, and I had to hope that meant we would be able to out-maneuver them somehow.

“Status?” asked Amaryllis. She had put on her helmet and was looking suitably frightening.

“Solace got another helicopter,” I said. I looked at the crantek woman, who was leaning against her staff. “They have fully automatic void weapons, and some kind of shield that vaporizes arrows. I don’t think we can win.”

Amaryllis flickered her sword on and off, then reached behind her back and unslung her void rifle, which she handed to me. I shrank down the Anyblade to its bladed-ring form and took it.

“We killed three-fifths of their forces,” she said.

“Solace did,” I replied. My eyes went to the trees, which Grak and Fenn were both watching carefully, then to Solace herself. “Do you have more of those in you?”

“Not like that,” she said with a shake of her head. (Because she didn’t believe she did, because of the structuring risk, or because of inherent limitations to the art?) “The trees will help us.”

“They’re past the outer perimeter,” said Grak, hefting his axe.

“The five of us cannot kill fifteen well-trained men,” I said to Amaryllis. And that was probably true even if there weren’t any mages among them, which there almost certainly were. I was feeling a shudder of terror down my spine when I thought about how fucked we were likely to be if we were against fifteen people of the caliber of Aumann’s crew.

“Twelve now,” said Solace, as I heard a scream in the distance.

“They’re circling in squads,” said Grak. “It would be a good time for the fallback ambush.”

Amaryllis watched me for a second and nodded. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was the only one that seemed to think that our advantages weren’t enough, so we all circled up and touched Fenn as she held the teleportation key out. A flip of a card from the deck later, showing the joker, and we were off and away.


We didn’t go far, only two hundred yards, which put us in the woods close to where the helicopters had landed. The great thing about the teleportation key was that it didn’t just allow for us to travel the world in an instant, it also allowed silent, near-instant movement around a battlefield, especially because we’d done the smart thing and made a circuit around the place before the enemy had shown up. The major downside was, obviously, the two hour time limit, which meant that we had now committed ourselves to actually fighting this battle.

The helicopter pilots were still waiting in their respective helicopters, each one angled such that the mounted guns faced the copse of trees. If Solace’s count was right, there were only twelve men in total, minus the ones she had killed just before we left. If we could stay at a distance and have her pick them off one-by-one -- but I could see that wasn’t going to be possible, because she was barely able to stay standing by leaning her weight on her staff, which meant that we were four people against ten, at best. And if I were Larkspur, I would have put all of my best men into the magical helicopter with me, protected there, which meant that we were likely to be facing down the best of the best.

And just as I was contemplating the unpleasant version of reality in which Larkspur didn’t even show up and this was all just the slaughter of his men, rather than him coming himself, we spotted him. He was with the horned woman and a grotesque man covered in visible boils. Larkspur wasn’t in his usual get-up; instead, he was wearing a completely different armor, a simple breastplate and greaves that left his arms exposed. They probably had some powerful magic to compensate for that. His cloak was still there though, and he had two swords, one at either hip, in addition to his familiar mirror shield. I looked at them through the spyglass that Fenn had produced from her glove, then handed it over to Amaryllis.

“Pustule mage,” she said at a whisper. “I think I might know him.” She swept the spyglass over. “The good news is that the rest are probably Golden Cete, part of the Color Riot, trained soldiers at a high rank. I don’t think he has a revision mage with him, he would have used it by now.”

I was nervous, sweating in my armor even though I hadn’t really exerted myself. It wasn’t the thought of killing anyone, it was the idea that there were too many people for any of this to be properly predicted. The zombies had been scary, but at least a little unreal to me, shambling creatures that wouldn’t have been entirely out of place in a movie. Individual fights weren’t as much of a problem for me either, because I’d been in a fair number of fights back in Kansas and at least understood the reality of taking a beating. Here, we were waiting on the edge, up against twice our number of people who had either experience or training in this sort of thing, and they wanted to murder us. My instincts were screaming at me to run, and I wasn’t entirely sure that those instincts were actually wrong.

“I need a test shot against the helicopter,” said Fenn, keeping her voice low. “I need to see whether or not the shield is around it, or Larkspur.”

“That will alert them,” I said.

“I can put up a ward against sound,” said Grak. “I’ve recovered enough for that, I think.”

“Fine,” I said. “Don’t actually hit the helicopter, just get the arrow close enough that we can see, and on the opposite side from them.”

“They’re not looking,” said Amaryllis, who was watching through the spyglass again.

It was a few moments later that Fenn loosed her arrow, the sound of the bow undetectable and the arrow completely silent in flight. It came within a foot of the ornately decorated helicopter, but there was no effect of sparks, and it simply continued on until it buried itself in the shrubbery. No one seemed to notice it.

“Well, crap,” said Fenn.

“Void rifle will still get him,” said Amaryllis. “If we can get close enough.”

“We’re locked into killing all of them now,” I said. “We can’t teleport out.”

“We can hide inside the bottle and fly out,” she replied. She frowned when she glanced at Solace and saw the state she was in.

“Probably,” said Solace, answering the unspoken question. “The locus is less powerful than it once was. I may have overdone it.”

“Look, if we’re going to do it, we need to split Larkspur off from the others,” I said. “The pustule mage is the one shooting fireballs, right?”

“They’re not going to split,” said Grak. “They have no reason to.”

I rubbed my face. “And he’s limited by the growths he’s put on himself, like a flesh version of a flower mage?”

“We can’t run him dry, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said Fenn. “Not if he was prepared, which I guess he might not be, given the short notice.”

“Then what are our options, at this point?” I asked. “Get close enough to shoot the pustule mage in the head, enter into melee combat with Larkspur, and then hope that the other men in the woods don’t just come out and shoot us?”

“I can kill them,” said Solace. “Or at least stop them. It’ll be easier up close, if that’s what we’re doing.”

“I’ll circle around,” said Fenn. “Snipe them from the other side. Better to do it now, as they’re moving through the woods and mindful of wards.” She looked at me with a faint smile. “I’m a better shot than I was a month ago, believe it or not.”

Amaryllis had said she could feel the power that came with Twinned Soul. I had wondered about that, and what it might mean for Fenn, but apparently she had noticed the effects too. My own personal build was a generalist one, with the exception of social skills, but if Fenn had stats, and those stats were arranged to give her a comparative advantage in archery, then -- well, I had already run the numbers before, she could be up in the 50s for that one skill, and even if she didn’t have stats in the way that I did, it might not be unreasonable to expect that she would be capable of some impressive feats.

This was the first thing that had given me any confidence.

“Okay,” I said. “Then it'll be myself, Amaryllis, and Grak to deal with Larkspur and his friends, with Solace and Fenn to deal with everyone else?” I asked. “Amaryllis, you’re certain that they’re all Golden Cete, there won’t be any surprises?”

“They sometimes have blade-bound in their ranks,” she replied. “We’ve seen how Fenn deals with them.”

“I’ll kill the pilots on the way over,” said Fenn. “Spyglass.” When Amaryllis handed over the spyglass, Fenn raised it to her eye and looked at the woods. “Larkspur is moving in, we’re going to need to go now, while they’re still trying to figure out what happened.”

She tossed the spyglass to Amaryllis and began trekking off into the woods; Solace, with little fanfare, became a small blue-feathered bird that flitted through the air and landed on her shoulder.

“We wait until Fenn kills the pilots,” said Amaryllis. “Then we make our move and hope that they don’t regroup.”

“Return my body to Darili Irid if I die,” said Grak.

“You know I would,” I replied. “And if you fall, we’ll pay your penance.”

Loyalty Increased: Grak lvl 4!

Amaryllis gave me a look that said, ‘You can’t seriously be saying that we would pay 20 million obols to some random dwarven clan if he died, but you really looked serious when you said that’, or maybe I was just reading a lot into her incredulity. But I wasn’t spewing bullshit, I actually meant it. Maybe we wouldn’t go right away, and we wouldn’t bankrupt ourselves to do it, maybe I would pay for it all out of my own pocket once I was filthy rich, but part of being a friend to someone was being willing to carry their burdens. Grak and I weren’t exactly friends, not yet, but that was how you made friends, in my opinion; you committed to the friendship.

We were five hundred feet from the trees, two football fields distance, hidden in the trees and bushes. I watched with bated breath as Fenn moved across the open space to the helicopters, placing herself such that the helicopters themselves hid her from view. She sprinted, utterly silent under the sound of the wind but incredibly visible and exposed if anyone saw her. When she reached the first helicopter I held my breath, waiting to hear a scream of pain that would alert everyone, or the sound of an actual fight, but Fenn was inside for only a moment, then back out again.

“Got him,” said Amaryllis, holding her spyglass to her eye. “She stopped to sabotage the void cannon,” she continued with a purse of her lips. “Not what we discussed.”

“I trust her,” I said.

“She’s a capable warrior,” replied Grak.

I felt mild surprise at hearing him praise her, but didn’t actually think that he was right, as such. I’d never considered her as that; maybe she was capable of killing people, maybe even good at it, but her flippancy undercut that so much that I didn’t peg her as a warrior. She had made a life for herself going into the Risen Lands and looting them, which meant probably a considerable amount of time murdering zombies, but I had to wonder at how much experience with things like this she actually had. (And I was aware that ‘things like this’ was a weasely way of getting around thinking the phrase ‘cold-blooded murder’ directly.)

“That’s the second one,” said Amaryllis, letting out a breath of her own as Fenn moved away from the decorated helicopter. Whatever magic the helicopter possessed, keeping the pilot alive didn’t seem to be part of it. “She just gave me a thumbs up,” said Amaryllis. She dropped the spyglass to the forest floor and drew her sword, letting out a slow breath. “We should move.”

We raced forward, with Amaryllis in the lead, staying low and trying our best to put as much as possible of the bulk of the helicopters between us and the trees, but we were off-center from them. I felt like a mouse running from a hawk, painfully exposed and with no better option but to sprint forward as quickly and silently as I could. I resisted the urge to pour on speed through blood magic, or to drain one of the bones in my bandolier, because at best I would be leaving Amaryllis and Grak behind. The human eye was attracted to movement, that had been a matter of survival for our way-back ancestors, and that fact kept running through my mind as we ran. Eventually we’d be close enough that a fireball wasn’t feasible for the pustule mage, or that I could simply raise the void rifle and take him out, but until that point we might actually be fucked if he popped one of those pustules in our direction, and why the fuck was I doing this. But I kept running, because I had set myself down this course, and pulling out wasn’t an option anymore.

We were within a hundred feet of them, still out in the open, when the pustule mage spotted me through the trees. He shouted a word of warning and squeezed at one of the yellow-white blobs on his chest, which shot out and away from him at the size of a fist, slower than an arrow but still fast enough that it would have been impossible to dodge, even if I had been more prepared for it.

The fireball struck me in my stomach, but I didn’t feel the impact of it, and the promised explosion never came. A glance down showed a bleached-white, fist-sized circle in the blue armor. I was stunned by that, and faltered for a moment, but raised the void rifle and took a shot at him with my heart hammering but my hands steady. He collapsed like his strings had been cut, the hole impossible to see given the grotesque colors across his skin, but there was no message of defeat. I ducked back behind a tree and poked my head to see what was happening.

The pustule mage’s stomach was swelling, and his arms and legs were shriveling, like his body was a sleeping bag and the real person inside it was trying to gather himself in the center of it. It wasn’t too long after he’d been shot that he burst out through the pocked and diseased stomach skin, a full man reborn from himself, coated in blood and pus. I took another shot at him, but this one was less successful, and I was on the run as he grabbed at his flesh and sent another fireball my way.

The blast knocked me to the ground, which I turned into a roll, shaking my head as I kept moving, trying to ignore the ringing in my ears and the sudden ache in my chest. I was pretty sure that I was bleeding in a few places, even though my armor must have absorbed much of the shrapnel. I kept on running as soon as I found my footing, trying to chart a semi-circle around the pustule mage but constrained by the heavy undergrowth among the trees.

I heard the sound of another fireball above the shouts from around the woods, but this time felt nothing but a warm burst of air from it. I felt a jolt of adrenaline-fueled excitement at that, because I’d made it inside the inner perimeter Grak had set up, and so long as I stayed on the other side of it from the mage, I’d be fine.

I concretely felt the effects of LUK for the first time, as a path of concrete action opened up in front of me, a step to the side that felt so alien I almost stopped myself. A spinning staff scythed through the trees, slowed by the wards but not stopped entirely, and it would have hit me if I hadn’t moved in anticipation of it. The staff threatened to drop to the ground from a lack of momentum, but instead shot backward, weaving its way through the falling trees and leaving a glowing path through the air. The fallen trees revealed the horned woman, breathing heavily and spinning her staff up again. I raised my void rifle and took a shot at her, but there was no reaction of pain or debilitation from her. I moved back behind more trees, keeping my eyes out for the pustule mage and Larkspur, as well as watching my back for the men from the Golden Cete. I was too far forward now, and I knew it, but I needed the protection of the wards.

I saw a flash of metal that must have been Amaryllis, who was much further back than I was, and another step through the trees revealed the pustule mage, who was going hand-to-hand with Grak, or rather, hand-to-axe. Each chop of Grak’s axe sliced through the discolored boils that dotted the pustule mage’s skin, letting loose bursts of wild magic, and the magic of the axe was causing him to grow hair at an alarming rate. The pustule mage was clearly losing that fight. When he lunged backward and reached for a large wart, I took a shot at him, getting a message about a critical hit and seeing him pitch backward into the dirt. This time, Grak was on him in an instant, slamming his axe down repeatedly, engaging in butchery without a word.

Achmed Lawrence defeated!

(And still no level up, a part of my mind screamed.)

I tracked back, trying desperately to find the horned woman, or to spot Larkspur, getting ready to dodge another glowing, spinning staff if I could catch so much of a glimpse of it, or if my LUK gave me the barest hint of what to do. I finally spotted Amaryllis and Larkspur together, out in the field, as she rolled backward away from his strike. He had his shield out and was advancing on her, and she, fully armored but looking frightfully small, was backing away from him.

I raised my rifle again and was about to take a shot when the glowing staff came spinning into view, moving as a vertical disc this time. There was no luck to let me anticipate it, and the only thing that saved my life was a combination of my reaction time and the fact that the throw hadn’t been dead-on. For a moment I saw the glowing disc pass in front of me as it went by, and I thought that I had successfully dodged it before I felt the lightness of the void rifle in my right hand and a searing pain in my left wrist. When I looked down, I saw my hand laying on the ground, and I reached for a bone to heal me before realizing that all I had was a wrist there, an eerily painless glowing wound where my arm simply ended. I threw the void rifle, which had been sliced through, to the ground and touched a unicorn bone just as muted pain began to reach me, and pulled on END as hard as I possibly could, then moved on to the next bone before the feeling of health and wellness could even begin to fade. My hands -- hand -- was shaking as I tried to keep on the move, and when my stump was no longer painful I extended the Anyblade from its ring shape.

That was about when I started getting messages about the Golden Cete being defeated, first three at once, then one after another in quick succession, with no names given to them, only roles. That part of the battle, at least, seemed to be going well.

I ran through the woods, in the direction that the glowing staff had come from, sword held in hand, trying not to think about the fact that I had a stump instead of a left hand. Surely all I needed was one more kill, and then the pleasure would course through my body, and I would be whole again, refreshed, no longer weakened by the fact that I was having trouble forcing food down, no longer with a twinge of weakness from the blood I’d lost when my arm was nearly amputated.

The horned woman was still spinning her staff up when I got to her, and I reached with my left hand to tap a bone for SPD, before once against realizing that I had no hand there. I used blood magic instead, burning six drops with every step to race through the underbrush and hurdle the fallen trees. I saw her eyes grow wide as I approached, but she didn’t stop increasing the speed her staff was spinning at, or maybe couldn’t stop when she was so far along. When I brought my sword down, she used the staff to knock it aside, seeming to lose no momentum in the process, and on my second thrust she did the same, swinging the spinning staff from side to side.

I stepped back and let Ropey fall from where he was wrapped around my forearm, then came back at her again. She was either very good at parrying swords with a staff, or whatever ludicrous magic the staff possessed was doing the work for her, but every time I tried to strike at her, even with blood magic behind the swing, she knocked my sword aside. She was glistening with sweat, and every parry slowed her down, which meant that our battle was either going to come down to attrition or a teammate --

She struck out toward me, slamming me in the chest at the cost of all the momentum she’d built up with the staff. I felt a hard crack of my brittle ribs as they were caved in, and she easily danced away from my feeble effort to slice through her. She was turning to run almost from the moment she hit me, and she got ten feet before the rope around her foot went taut, which brought her to the ground with a satisfying whump. When she brought out a dagger from within her clothes, I hurled the Anyblade at her and then crumpled up in pain.

Skill increased: Thrown Weapons lvl 18!

Critical hit!

Superbia Laquis defeated!

I swore as the fourth message I was hoping for failed to appear. That other kill had been mostly Grak’s, but this one was mine, all mine. I swore again and used both fairies and bones to heal myself, which took time I wasn’t sure I had to spare. Then I retrieved my Anyblade from her chest, grimacing when she reached for me with a feeble hand. The game’s definition of ‘defeated’ wasn’t the same as ‘dead’, and while she was choking on her own blood, I could tell that she wasn’t beyond saving, not for someone with my resources. I raised my sword and hesitated a moment, first trying to figure out if what I was doing was a mercy, and next trying to figure out where the best place to land the killing blow was. I ended up driving my sword down through her eye. She jerked slightly and then went still.

New Virtue: Mercy! (CHA +1)

With that done, I started running toward where I’d seen Amaryllis and Larkspur fighting. I got there in short order, using blood magic to hurry my steps, and gave a hoarse shout when I saw that Grak was lying nearby them, bleeding. I ran forward, panting slightly, trying to get in a position where we could flank him. He turned slightly toward me, taking his attention off of Amaryllis for just a moment, and in that moment I saw her lunge forward.

Her blade appeared within his skull, piercing through the bottom of his jaw and up into his cheekbone. He lurched backward, holding his shield up as a defense against her, bleeding from his mouth and saying something unintelligible but probably profane. I gave Grak enough of a glance to make sure that he was still breathing, then stepped forward to join Amaryllis, who was gasping for breath beneath her helmet.

I was a worse swordsman than Larkspur even before I had lost a hand, but with the two of us he was trying to play defense against two opponents, and his armor was no longer full plate, which meant that a slash against his arm would wound him. That was what I went for first, swinging in from the side, and he predictably brought his sword up to parry me. That gave Amaryllis an opening, and she moved forward enough to start flickering her sword on and off again. Larkspur screamed, spewing blood from his previous wounds, as her sword briefly appeared through his hand.

He kept trying to back away from us, but he must have known that it was over, because he started trying to talk. His tongue must have been cut when the sword appeared in his mouth though, because all that came out were unintelligible sounds and blood.

We made short work of him. It wasn’t pretty. He couldn’t handle both of us at the same time, and he was gripping his sword with a bleeding hand. I had reach on him with the Anyblade, and Amaryllis could simply attack when he tried to parry me. When he raised his portal-shield to block her, she went low and put a hole in his thigh, which left him staggering and stumbling, trying more frantically to speak with us.

I swung hard at his neck when Amaryllis darted to the side, and cut halfway through before being stopped by his windpipe. He fell to the ground, jerking around as his body worked hard on voiding itself of blood.

Larkspur Prentiss defeated!

Quest Complete: Slice His Stupid Head Off - Close enough.

Level up!

The golden power ripped through me, starting at my toes and working its way up, and I sunk myself into the pleasure of it, trying to draw out my perception of that glorious moment until I was so overwhelmed by ecstasy that I couldn’t think well enough to do anything at all.

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Alexander Wales

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