The farmhouse had come with two cars, one that had been taken by Fallatehr’s people, the other of which we used to drive to Parsmont. Halfway there, while we were still in farmland, Fenn stopped the car to let Amaryllis and Grak out so that they could take a walk over to one of the lines of thick trees that served as a windbreak for the fields and teleport out without having to worry about anyone seeing them when they came back. Amaryllis took the leaf-cloak with her, and following some deliberation in the car, Ropey stayed with me, on the theory that Ropey technically belonged to Amaryllis, and she could compel him to lie. This wasn’t something that she had mentioned when I’d woken up in the morning, which made me slightly uneasy. I’d been thinking of him as mine, or if not mine, then fully independent. It wasn’t a logistical problem, because I could just look into her soul if I needed to, but it was still disconcerting.
I didn’t tell Amaryllis about Valencia, partly because I didn’t want to have to push Grak out of hearing range again, which itself was an information leak, and partly because I didn’t want to have to hear her get on my case about having pushed Valencia’s loyalty up so high.
“She’s probably going to tell you that it was dangerous and stupid,” said Fenn after I’d told her everything. “Which is a fair point, but I’m not sure I’d agree, since the game doesn’t seem like it actively wants you to fail, it just likes to torture you.”
“That doesn’t seem like it’s a good thing,” I replied.
“But that’s the basic thing between the DM and the players, I thought,” said Fenn, keeping her eyes on the road. This was my first time inside an Aerbian car, which seemed too narrow and had that weird bump on the hood that seemed like less of an obstruction from the inside. “You want the players to get roughed up, but then they come through all the pain, mutilation, and horror triumphant, having gotten the girl and slain a dragon.”
“Usually you don’t get the girl,” I replied. “Not in my campaigns, anyway, it always felt weird. And you weren’t actually feeling the pain of the characters, or anything like that, it was all make believe, not torture.”
“I think torture is a strong word for this scenario,” said Fenn with a frown. “I mean, you have me, right?”
“Fenn, light of my life, fire of my soul, you are the furthest thing from torture,” I replied. I reached over and laid a hand on her thigh. “I didn’t mean to say that you’re not lovely, because you know that I think you are, it’s just … I was dropped out of a plane into a land of the undead, so maybe my view of my role in Aerb is a bit warped.”
“Speaking of fire of your soul,” said Fenn. She snapped her fingers, and flame came out from the tips of them. “I got that business working while you were having your secret meeting with another woman. Out of the view of our dwarf friend.”
“I’m impressed,” I said with a nod.
“You’re not that impressed,” said Fenn, letting the fire go out, “You got it in two minutes of being told it was a thing.” Her eyes stayed on the road.
“No, I am impressed, it’s just … when I saw the description of Symbiosis I thought that it would be a little bit more spectacular than that,” I replied. “I thought you would go from zero to ten in a matter of seconds.”
“Well, whatever,” said Fenn. “I’ve got the blood thing working, the bone thing working, --”
“That too?” I asked, actually surprised this time.
“Yup,” said Fenn. “I pretended to be cleaning up some garbage, which probably would have been suspicious if Grak knew me better.”
“I thought he knew you pretty well,” I said.
“Well, it’s not like he would be able to make a guess just based on that,” said Fenn. “I’m still holding out hope that your little missy isn’t right about him.”
I squeezed her thigh once. “Do we need to talk about that?” I asked. “Are you … jealous?”
“Your darling Fenn?” asked Fenn, putting a hand to her chest to show just how shocked she was. She let it drop when I didn’t smile. “She’s Joonbait,” she said. “And it’s not like there wasn’t already competition. I’m already dealing with not being the prettiest maiden in all the land, I didn’t really want to be out-competed on two fronts.”
“Ah,” I said. Amaryllis. “You know that’s nothing that you have to worry about, right?”
“Yeah,” said Fenn. She reached down and laid her hand on top of my own. “I just, really, really like you. And it’s different for elves. They don’t have dating. The idea of an elf trying out a relationship to see whether or not it’s going to work is … well, there’s a reason that they don’t really like other species that much, and a lot of it has to do with the very specific elf way of doing things. You don’t practice swinging a sword until you become proficient, you do it right the first time, and you do it the same way, the perfect way, every time after that. Marriage, for an elf, is just slotting into someone’s life, perfectly and completely, without second guessing or shopping around like humans do.”
“And that’s why Fallatehr is an abomination of an elf,” I said with a nod. “He’s willing to fail, like a human would.”
“I don’t really want to talk about him right now,” said Fenn. She gripped the steering wheel hard until her knuckles turned white, and I stayed silent. “I used to think that a lot of the elves were faking it, you know?”
“I was kind of wondering that,” I said. “People say in public that they aren’t picking up the sword until they can make the perfect cut, but that’s not the whole picture, because a lot of them are training in private away from prying eyes, or fathers and helping sons, and it’s more about a culture of not appearing to need practice or training. But you’re saying it’s not that. They just … meditate on doing whatever it is they want to do, or something like that, and then do it.”
Fenn nodded. “I tried to fake it,” she said. “I got caught a few times, then stopped really trying, which naturally meant that everyone hated me for my imperfection, not that they wouldn’t have anyway, because I was visibly imperfect.” She bit her lip and leaned forward slightly to peer at another car as it passed us. “I feel like if you were an elf I would find myself just constantly explaining how humans do things. Seems like it must be annoying.”
“It lets me know more about you,” I said with a shrug. “I don’t tend to like the stuff I hear about elves, but I like hearing you talk about what it was like for you, growing up in your small slice of this plane.”
“Anyway, I was coming around to a point,” said Fenn, glancing over at me briefly.
“Were you?” I asked.
“My point was, I never really expected that I would ever have a relationship like married elves have with each other,” she said. She let that hang in the air for a bit, watching the other traffic. We were getting close to Parsmont proper now, the big hill of a city, which meant more attention on the road.
“You said that elf marriage wasn’t really about romance,” I replied.
“I didn’t mean that,” said Fenn. “I meant, more, it’s like these two elves just fit together suddenly, they snap into place and then can’t ever be taken apart, and it’s not about the romance thing because it just is.”
“That sounds really romantic,” I said.
“Does it?” asked Fenn, glancing over at me again. “I always thought of romance as the human stuff, the courting and the invitations, opening up to someone, having them judge you, judging them back, I don’t have a lot of experience with any of it, but … I always thought for humans it was trying to find someone whose good points overwhelm their bad points, or deluding yourself into thinking that’s the case, and that’s romance in a nutshell.”
“That … is not a good description of romance,” I said.
“Well, whatever,” replied Fenn. “Not really my point, my point was that I never felt like I would have someone that I fit with, someone who could be the tenon to my mortise, and I feel like I’ve found that in you, but I keep thinking of all the ways that I’m probably wrong.” I had no idea what a mortise and tenon were, but I’d gotten good at letting words specific to Aerb float by me.
“If there’s anything that I’ve done to make you think--” I began.
“No,” said Fenn, “No, it’s, I think I’m thinking about how useless I was in the prison, and then the upgrade I got last night that I don’t feel like I earned.”
“You feel inadequate?” I asked. “You, of all people? You’re literally the best team member I have.”
“That’s very sweet of you to say,” replied Fenn. “But most of that is because I’m the most loyal to you, and most of that is that you decided that you liked me enough for us to have a relationship, and it’s that I don’t really feel like I deserve. Even if it’s destined to end horribly. Maybe especially if it’s going to end horribly.” She peered over at one of the signs. “This is where we park.” She turned the wheel and took us down a street, slower now that we were within the city, and eventually turned into a large parking garage, where an attendant held up a hand, telling us to wait. “So our plans for this trip--”
“Are we going to just leave it at that?” I asked. “You don’t feel like you’re worth my time, and we’re just supposed to move on from that? That’s my girlfriend you’re talking about, I won’t let those harsh words go unchallenged.”
Fenn sighed, not seeming to take any joy or comfort from what I’d said. “I spent a decade looting one of the tamer exclusion zones,” she said. “I was a bit player. And now I’m, you know, sitting in a car with a guy who, an hour ago, accidentally turned off the world and then started it back up again.”
“Not quite how it happened,” I replied. “And it’s not like I was someone special before coming here. I was probably one of the least important people in Bumblefuck, Kansas, and my home town wasn’t in any way important to the state, which in turn was, you know -- they called them flyover states because for the most part, the only interaction you had with them was to look down during a plane trip and then maybe think ‘man that’s a flat and boring state’.”
Loyalty increased: Fenn lvl 21!
“Also, loyalty can go above 20,” I added.
“Thank you for making me feel better,” said Fenn. She gave me a warm smile. “We’re going to have to find some way to, ah, grind that loyalty up, if you know what I mean. And I do believe that we are owed our first actual date, which Parsmont can hopefully provide.”
“Okay, so your plan is to bus people in?” I asked Craig. “How do you plan on doing that?”
“We pay them a silver for their time, get big old wagons, and bring them in to vote for us,” said Craig. “We’re the equivalent of millionaires with fuck-you money, almost all of which is liquid.”
“No, it’s illiquid, tied up in weapons, armor, and other magical equipment,” replied Reimer. “If you’re playing right, you shouldn’t have more than a few percent of your money as gold.”
“Fine, fine,” said Craig. “We’re billionaires with millions in money that we’re not doing anything else with, because we don’t have mortgages or children or pay taxes.”
“Don’t give Joon ideas,” laughed Reimer.
“The minute someone assesses a tax on my looting is the minute I start a one-man civil war,” said Craig. “I will burn this fucking place to the ground.”
“Noted, in case I need you guys to start a civil war,” I replied. “You’d be non-state actors, making warfare a little hard, but … okay. With this bussing plan, has it occurred to you that other people might already have tried it?”
“NPCs aren’t that smart,” said Craig.
“It’s literally the first thing that anyone would try,” I replied.
“Not me,” said Tom. “Wait, I ask the fish guy about that, whether I can get paid a silver for my vote.”
“You shouldn’t be able to,” said Arthur. “Votes are transitory. I mean I guess if you can see the voting jewels, or vewels, if you will, in your head, then maybe people could confirm that vewels had been transferred over, before the people -- wait, do the jewels stay voted when the person who voted leaves the area?”
“They do,” I said. “Once transferred, the only thing that can remove them is the person who did the transfer taking them back with a thought.”
“Even death?” asked Tom.
“Please, please don’t get any ideas when I say yes, you keep them even if the person who gave them dies,” I replied.
“In an unrelated note, we should kill people after they vote for us,” said Reimer.
“How’s that going to work, if they can revoke the vote as the sword is coming toward their throat?” asked Arthur.
“Threaten their families, obviously,” said Reimer with a snort.
“What’s your alignment?” I asked with a frown. I knew damned well what his alignment was.
“I’m trying to think like a criminal would,” said Reimer, using his most pious voice. “Obviously those dastardly scum would try any dirty trick in the book, and part of my job is to anticipate and then stop them.”
“I don’t think the bussing thing is going to work,” said Arthur. “The transitory nature of the jewels makes it too unwieldy and kind of unworkable on the larger scale, because you’d need to verify every transaction personally, and then also have to have some way to not have people take their vote back if they’re ever in Parsmont again.”
“Also, it’s not what you’re doing here,” I replied. “You’re here to retrieve the MacGuffin.”
“Which we’re under no time pressure to do,” said Arthur.
“So Homeland --”
“Homeleron,” I interjected.
“So Homeleron,” said Tom. “Who are the top vote getters in Parsmont? Is it like a Mount Olympos type of deal, with a bunch of people everyone loves, or is it more like a, what do you call it,” he made a shape with his hands.
“Bell curve?” asked Arthur.
Tom snapped his fingers and pointed at Arthur. “Yes, exactly.”
“It wouldn’t be normal distribution,” said Arthur. “I mean, it could be, with the center being something like a hundred jewels or whatever we start with, but the lumps of distribution probably look different.” He turned to me. “Power law?”
“Homeleron doesn’t know what that is,” I replied. “But he will tell you that in Parsmont, there are those vested with the power of their peers, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, but almost all of the power is in the hands of only two, Abswifth and Bendon, not so much people as appointments that people ascend to, two powers that keep each other in check.”
“Cool,” said Reimer. “Let’s kill them.” He smiled at me. “Is what I would say if I were a villain.”
We left the car at the parking garage, which wasn’t actually a ramp at all, instead being a giant motorized contraption that put cars into specific slots by attendants who transferred over a small wooden chit. I didn’t really trust any of it, mostly because it looked like it had been built in the 1930s, but the car was a very recent purchase, and we didn’t have to be in the garage while it was moving things around, so I held my tongue.
“So what are the sights to see in Parsmont?” I asked as we strolled down the street.
“No clue,” replied Fenn. “All we really need is a book and an inconspicuous place to stay. I probably know less about this place than you do. You feel that thing in the back of your head?”
‘That thing’ was the two depressions I could feel in the back of my mind, one filled with jewels and the other empty. Most of the time I wasn’t aware of them; I could forget about them in the same way that I could forget about the fact that I was constantly seeing my nose in peripheral vision. I’d been able to feel it back at the farm, but less concretely than I could in the city. Parsmont as I’d constructed it had a hard border, but here it seemed to be more squishy. I couldn’t tell whether that was a fundamental design disagreement between myself and the Dungeon Master, or a result of the conversion of Parsmont into an Aerbian region.
We walked through the city streets, arm in arm. I had left my armor behind, on the theory that it would draw more attention to us than we really wanted, and Fenn was similarly unarmored. We needed to find something defensive for her to wear, but that was a gap in our armaments that we’d had since her last suit of armor had gotten sliced through. She wore a hat to hide her pointed ears, making her look human at first glance.
She talked happily as we went through the city, first complaining that black gloves didn’t really go with anything, and after that talking with me about the buildings and people we saw as we went. Parsmont had a much more homogenous style than Cranberry Bay, flat slopes on the roofs with a fair amount of plants sticking up from rooftop gardens, a clean style with little in the way of embellishments, and then riots of color where a full wall would be given over to a mural -- but the murals were all similar enough that I thought they were all part of the same project, or maybe done by a small collective. They used thick lines, bright colors, and an abstract style, mostly depicting natural things, drawn so large that they couldn’t be contained by the canvas of the walls.
The streets were narrow, and the few cars and trucks we saw squeak through the crowds were slim as well, none with two seats, most thin enough that I could have easily wrapped my hands around them. I could see why Fenn had put our car into the garage before we’d come in. There was something about the aesthetic of Parsmont that I really liked, maybe the way the hill shaped the city, maybe the general vibe, or maybe the way that the narrow streets and sparse motor traffic made everything feel more human. It had its political problems, given that it was at least somewhat like the Parsmont that I’d written up, but it wasn’t a bad place.
We found a large bookshop and perused their selection for a bit until we found a big book of detailed maps of Aerb, including a section on infernal topology. Aerb was massive, ten times larger than Earth, which meant that it was pretty rare to see a map with all forty-four continents on it. Instead, the map book was divided up with different areas in different sections. Before I bought the book, I looked for Parsmont, which was sat right in the middle of a huge area of mostly-flat farmland, an area that was equivalent in size to the entire Grain Belt of the United States. On the infernal topology map, Parsmont was marked with dark red stripes, which the key said meant that the hells were close, and tightly packed against each other. From what I knew of the hells, there was some kind of notional fourth-dimensional distance at play -- and in Parsmont, they were fairly close to us.
I checked out Anglecynn as well, and saw it mapped in grey, both the country proper and most of the surrounding continent, including the Zorish Isles. According to legend, when the Apocalypse Demon had reared his head, Uther had gone on a long quest to track down the warhammer Marcion, which everyone else had considered Apocryphal. He’d returned to Anglecynn at the final moment and hit the Apocalypse Demon so hard that it had crashed through every single layer of hell and bottomed out with such force that it permanently pushed every single hell away from Anglecynn, like a four-dimensional crater. After that, demons and devils weren’t really a problem that a well-armed militia couldn’t take care of, or at least that was how the story went.
When we paid for the book (along with a few others that piqued my interest) we left to go find a suitable place to stay, but when we were half a block from the bookstore, a man landed in front of us. He was wearing brightly shining, fully-embossed full-plate, with a sword that had to have been eight feet long, but my eyes were drawn to the grin on his face, his perfectly straight, pearly-white teeth, and the way his smile reached the corners of his eyes. He was one of the more handsome men I’d ever met in real life (or what amounted to real life these days).
“Sorry,” he said as I put away the Anyblade, which I’d instinctively drawn (thereby shooting the element of surprise in the foot), “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s fine,” I replied. “We’re not from around here. You must be the Abswifth?” He nodded, smile not leaving his face. “I wasn’t aware that you came to greet tourists that were passing through.” My heart had already started to hammer in my chest. He was too clean, probably brokenly powerful, and he definitely shouldn’t have been talking to us.
“I take a special interest, from time to time,” said the Abswifth. His smile didn’t falter. “Tell me, where do you come from?”
“We’re staying at a farm some ways away from the city,” said Fenn. “So are you like, police or something? I never really understood how that worked here. Are we supposed to tip you in mind jewels?”
The Abswifth laughed, loud and boisterous. A small crowd had begun to gather around us, which I didn’t like at all, not that I thought I could outrun this guy. My mind started racing as I tried to figure out why he was talking to us. Had he spotted us? Had we been reported by the people who owned the farm? Betrayed by Fallatehr somehow? His goons had gone into the city ahead of us, that was certainly a possibility.
“You have spunk,” he said, wagging a finger in Fenn’s direction. “I’d like the two of you to come with me, I assure you that this is all quite routine.”
Yeah, I didn’t buy that for a second. Parsmont was a large city, and there were too many people here for one of the two most powerful people to randomly take tourists in for screening interviews. ‘Quite routine’ wasn’t a phrase that inspired much confidence either; just because someone was following a plan didn’t mean that it wasn’t something serious.
“Do we have a choice in the matter?” I asked. I saw Fenn cast a glance in my direction, and felt her hand squeeze mine in a we’re-in-this-together kind of way.
The Abswifth’s smile faltered. “I would prefer not to compel you by my authority, but I believe the matter is important enough for me to lean on that power, should you force me to. I assure you that it will go better for you if you cooperate.”
I felt something at the back of my mind, and turned my attention there while keeping eye contact on the man with the ridiculous eight-foot sword. Jewels were coming in there in volume, which I hadn’t expected at all. I guessed that it shouldn’t surprise me though, given what Amaryllis had been able to tell us about this place, and what I remembered from my sessions. The Abswifth stood on one side of the fence, and the Bendon stood on the other, which meant that there were always going to be a great deal of people ready to stand in opposition to either of them, even if it was just by proxy. A hushed crowd had grown around us, and some of them apparently wanted to throw their weight behind me.
“I don’t want any trouble,” I said. “But if you’re going to ask for my time, I’m going to insist that you do so officially. Otherwise, we’ll be leaving.”
I saw a flicker of annoyance on the Abswifth’s face. He had been holding his sword with the flat of it against his shoulder, but brought it down, moving a massive amount of metal with frightening ease. “By the authority vested in me by the citizens of Parsmont, you are hereby ordered to follow upon penalty of death, for the good of this city.”
I couldn’t read the subtext, but the audience we’d gathered really must not have liked that. The jewels were piling up behind me, in opposition to this man exercising his authority. I was scared, certainly, but I also found that interesting; the Abswifth and Bendon that I had made were essentially criminals, save that they had the force of government behind them, and they didn’t really have to care about pleasing people, because all of the Abswifth’s supporters were essentially locked into supporting him by the reality of the system, and the same for the Bendon. I won’t claim that this was especially subtle on my part, but my defense is that I was fourteen and reading about things like Duverger’s Law and basic political theory.
“And you can’t tell me why?” I asked. “I’m being taken into your custody without any explanation?” This was, I will admit, poking the dragon a little bit, but it did serve a purpose besides just challenging him for no reason; I wanted to see what he would do with the challenge, or whether he would divulge something in order to keep the people happy.
“I can’t speak of it, for reasons of security,” said the Abswifth, frowning. “Do you disrespect Parsmont and its citizenry so much that you will force me to kill you here in these streets?”
“No,” I replied, holding my hands up. I saw his eyes go to my ring, the Anyblade, but he said nothing about it. “From what little I’ve managed to see of it, this is a lovely city, but this seems irregular to me.”
“Not so much these days,” called a voice from the crowd, which generated some murmurs. I watched the pile of jewels get a little bit smaller. My guess was that some of the people who had impulsively thrust their support behind me were pushing their ‘vote’ toward whoever had spoken.
The Abswifth winced at that, but said nothing in response, and once again gestured with his ridiculous sword for us to go in front of him. I stepped toward him, with Fenn close behind us, and watched as the crowd parted for us.
“Care to tell us where we’re going, if we’re to be walking with a knife pointed at our backs?” asked Fenn.
“My tower,” he replied. “Look up and to your right and you’ll see it, it’s the one in white.”
So I looked up the hill, and saw what he was talking about; it was a spire, more than a tower, a needle-thin thing that I had taken for being some bit of infrastructure before. The scale of it was hard to pin down, but given that it wasn’t an equivalent to a radio tower, it had to have been four or five hundred feet. And as we passed by a building that was partially blocking my view, I saw its companion, a tower of black.