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“In the short term, our goal is Kuum Doona,” said Amaryllis, once she’d finished reading the letter. We’d sat down in the dining car, so we’d have a place to talk without the interruptions of moving between cars. No one was in there with us, which meant we could speak in confidence. “In the long term, our goal is gaining power, with the basic principle being that gaining power is the prerequisite for everything else that we might ever want to accomplish. Unfortunately, we don’t have a quest to extract this handmaid from her society.”

“Shouldn’t matter,” I said. “Or at least, according to the Dungeon Master it shouldn’t. I don’t know whether we’re off-script, or whether the script is being hidden from us, but we should be rewarded for doing things, no matter what those things are, so long as we’re doing them for good reason. Encouraged not to stay still, but not penalized for it, outside of the incentives we have with regard to the locus. And in that context … someone being held against their will and trapped by a society they were raised by but no longer agree with seems like something we should do, especially if the risks to us are fairly minimal.”

“I wish we had a way of tracking experience points,” said Amaryllis with a frown. “It would help inform what we did.”

“That’s backwards,” I said. “Or, backwards from what I tended to do as DM. Experience points are to reward you for doing the things that you set out to accomplish, they’re not really meant to give you the incentive to go out and fight things.” I paused. “It’s somewhat a question of the philosophy of DMing.”

“So if we want you to get stronger …” Amaryllis frowned. “We just do whatever we want to? We ignore the game, the narrative, and the Dungeon Master?”

“Maybe,” I shrugged. “That seemed to be the message that he was delivering to me. Obviously there are pressures, like the locus, and I’m sure others, and there are carrots being dangled in front of us, but that’s not quite the same thing.”

“Then what happened with Arthur?” said Amaryllis. Her ice-blue eyes were watching me carefully, and she said his name with a certain amount of force and deliberation that I found unpleasant. She was trying to push one of my buttons.

“We need to know more about him,” I said. “I’m really hoping that Kuum Doona has some thread to pull on, a hidden journal would be fantastic, but I’m not confident in our ability to understand him based on the historical record, which you said yourself was complicated where he was concerned.”

“And you do want to help this handmaid?” asked Amaryllis.

“From what I know of the tuung, I can see why everyone hates them,” I said. “If this is a chance to create change in their society, I think that’s worth doing, especially if it helps us to get to and secure Kuum Doona at the same time, which it might.” Or maybe I’m thinking of her too much like a defector from North Korea, a refugee that I have to help because doing otherwise would be too callous. I pointed down at the letter, and the list of offers on it. “If she’s willing to give up secrets, then she’s probably willing to give up whatever information she has on the fortress.”

Amaryllis was watching me. “And do you find her attractive?”

“No,” I said. I hoped that her ability to read my face would show that I was telling the truth. “No, no I don’t.”

“You have aesthetic preferences and appetites that are literally woven into how the world was built and how it operates,” said Amaryllis. “It’s a valid question.”

“I guess,” I said. “But the answer is no. The tuung are actively unattractive to my sensibilities. And they’re not one that I remember creating either, though they have features that I recognize, especially the mister tanks and the lopsided genders. Besides, you have to understand that my aesthetic preferences are sometimes in the direction of the grotesque or morbid -- not what I find more attractive, but what I find most whatever-adjective-you-choose. The pustule mages? They’re like something out of a nightmare, but not just a generic nightmare, specifically one of my nightmares.”

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “I keep having this feeling that once I know you better, the world is going to make a lot more sense.”

“You already know me,” I said. “I mean, we’ve been traveling together for a long time, relatively speaking. We’ve been through some shit, to put it lightly.”

“I know,” said Amaryllis. She shrugged. “It’s something I’m feeling, not thinking.”

“And what are your feelings on extracting this handmaid?” I asked.

“We’re not a state,” said Amaryllis. “We don’t have the authority of a government. Hells, we don’t actually have a place to stick her, aside from the safehouses, and those aren’t sufficiently secure for my liking.”

“Those are thoughts, not feelings,” I said.

Amaryllis sighed and tapped her thumbs on the table. She wasn’t really a person given to fidgeting, as a general rule. She looked tired though, and I was keenly aware of how late it was. “I feel like the books I’ve been pulling from the backpack are my purpose in life. If thirty years of technological advancement on Earth are equal to a hundred years of advancement here, whatever the root causes of that might be, then what we have are three centuries of progress, ready and waiting to be deployed. I’m ninety percent of the way to having a working prototype of a television right now.”

“Really?” I asked. “In a train car? With a box of scraps?”

“Not scraps,” said Amaryllis. “The backpack can’t create electronics, but it can create some electronic components, and what I couldn’t get it to make, I got from the clonal kit in a bigger, bulkier size. But there are problems with different standards, especially because the units that are listed in the books are different from the ones that I’m used to. I’m probably going to have to settle on one or the other, but the clonal kit is finicky in what it decides to give, and sometimes two dips into it will pull out different Aerbian standards. The Empire of Common Cause was supposed to bring everything under a unified standard, but --” She waved a hand. “Enough about that. It’s my own problem, one that I’m hoping to work on during the years I’ll have in the time chamber.”

“Ah,” I said. “I guess I didn’t really think about that.” As soon as I did though, I could see how well the backpack combined with both her expertise and at least nine months with nothing to do but what could be done in a room that was cut off from the outside world. “You’re going to walk out with a baby druid and a plan to change the world?”

“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. She rubbed her face, and once again, I could see the tiredness written there. “It doesn’t seem like it meshes well with being your companion. If you’re going on one adventure after another, and I’m trying to run an electronics company or a research and development laboratory, where does that leave us?”

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s write out a response and get you to bed. You’ve been overworking yourself.”

“I was going to keep working on the television when I got back,” said Amaryllis. “It’s low-hanging fruit. And if it doesn’t work, then it will give me a better idea of what kind of forces I’m dealing with.”

“Case in point,” I sighed. “You know, if this proceeds like a normal pregnancy, you’re probably not going to be able to work yourself to the bone? Also, I should get you some prenatal gummies from the backpack.”

Amaryllis touched her stomach, which was covered in full plate. “I agree that at this point, a miscarriage would be tragic.”

“We should probably consult with the others anyway,” I replied. “If we have twelve hours from the end of the party, that means enough time for everyone to sleep and for us to have a short conference. I’m pretty sure that Grak and Val will both vote to help her though, given that her situation mirrors theirs to at least some extent.”

“Trapped in a society or culture or home that she doesn’t want to be in?” asked Amaryllis. “That could apply to any of us. It’s a common thread of backstory in our group. My notes on the narrative are in Fenn’s glove, but yes, we’re all people without a home.” She seemed mournful when she said it, though it was only in the tone of her voice, not the set of her face, which still seemed more tired than anything else. I was hoping that with Kuum Doona we would finally have something resembling a home, rather than a place we were temporarily crashing for the evening.

I felt the urge to say something about tabletop games, how it was almost a necessity for the character to have lost their home and be without messy connections, because otherwise it created too many questions, but maybe the difference between SOC 2 and SOC 3 was that I realized it was better to hold my tongue. She already had that background, I was pretty sure.

Fatigue hit me by the time we got back to her car, and when Fenn gave no signs of easily waking back up, Amaryllis and I came to an agreement that the four of us would share the beds together, Fenn and I in one, Amaryllis and Val in the other.


E,

I will help. Tomorrow night, I will come to your window and use an entad to extract you. All that will be required is that you open your window wide enough for a finger to slip partially through, and for you to touch that finger for roughly ten seconds. That will allow me to put you into a black, airless void. It is very important that you not attempt to leave the void, as this might result in your death. You will need to hold your breath; if it’s possible, you can open the window wide enough for me to slip you a breathing mask and a tank of air. I will remove you from the void once I am back away from your car and to safety. For this plan to work, I will need to know the position of the window I should meet you at, as well as a time to meet you, or some other signal of your choosing. If all goes well, no one will know that you are missing until the morning, and I can sequester you in my room until we arrive in Headwater the next day, then move you, unseen, to a secure location in the city.

You should know that I am not a representative of any government or organization. My companions and I possess a fair amount of power, but it is not power on the level of a nation. If your ultimate goal is the reform of tuung society, you will need more help than we can provide, but once we have freed you from the security detail, you will have the opportunity to pursue such ends on your own -- perhaps with our assistance.

There is information that you can provide us in return, but it is not a precondition of our assistance.

I hope for a response before nightfall, delivered to either of the previously established dead drop locations.

J

“Okay,” said Amaryllis, reading through the letter a third time. “I think this looks good.”

She seemed practically chipper, which made her the only one of us. It was early in the morning, just after daybreak, and we were packed into the cabin that nominally belonged to Fenn and I. Fenn was nursing a hangover and intermittently attempting to use blood magic to fix it, and Val looked like death. Amaryllis had collected Grak from his room, and he was uncharacteristically unkempt; he was always a little bit rough around the edges, but it was in something of a studied way that his current condition decidedly wasn’t. I wasn’t too bad off, aside from having been a little light on sleep, but I had never been a morning person.

“Are we sure it’s going to be Joon?” asked Fenn. She popped a glass of water from her glove and took a long drink, before returning it to the glove. “I could do it, if we’re waiting until this evening.”

“I could,” said Val, wincing slightly at the effort of speaking. “With a demon. Even drunk I could.”

“No, you couldn’t,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was gentle. “The glove requires the user to have investiture, by me, and we can’t invest you with items.”

“Oh,” said Val. She curled up in her seat and closed her eyes, then since that apparently wasn’t enough, covered them with her hand. “Let me know if I can help.”

“The bigger question is whether we should do this at all,” said Grak.

“No, the bigger question is who the dwarf you were with was,” said Fenn. “Got the name, didn’t get the full story.”

“It’s not your business,” said Grak, sniffing slightly.

“With respect, you shouldn’t have given your real name,” said Amaryllis.

“I didn’t know where the night was going to take us,” said Grak. “I had not known we would join the party.”

“Wait, did you arrive with him?” asked Fenn. “And leave with him?”

“It’s not our business if Grak doesn’t want to share,” I said. He gave me a nod. “Not that I would mind hearing, naturally, but I’d rather not press him on something personal, which I would hope we’d all understand.”

“I shared accommodations with him,” said Grak. “There are four beds in my room. His is the only other that is occupied. He was talkative. Friendly. I gave him my true name because I did not want to risk naming a clan he knew.” Except that you could have given the name of someone else in your clan. I waited for someone else to call him out on that, but no one did. “We went to the observation car together. One of the tuung gave us an invitation. I agreed because I was lonely. After the party we went back to our room together.”

The silence lingered as we waited for him to continue.

“So did you guys touch butts or what?” asked Fenn.

“Fenn,” I said.

Juniper ,” said Fenn, sticking out her tongue.

“Val,” said Val, briefly uncovering her eyes to look out. Fenn laughed, and Val smiled before covering back up.

“Grak,” Amaryllis began, but Fenn cut her off.

“Mary!” declared Fenn, hangover briefly forgotten as a giddy smile crossed her face.

“Okay, that’s enough of that,” I said.

“Aw,” said Fenn. “But we were having fun.”

“Is touching butts what dwarves do?” asked Val, eyes still covered.

“No,” said Amaryllis.

“We’ll tell you when you’re older,” said Fenn.

“I could eat a devil that would know,” said Val defensively.

“This is all really beside the point,” I said. “If Grak has made a platonic friend, great, good for him. If Grak has a krin, then great, good for him. If it’s just a krinrael, then that’s fine too, and we’ll support him in whatever it is he wants or doesn’t want without prying, because that should be the standard that we all adhere to, both because that’s what friends should do, and to preserve the group’s clearly tenuous grip on sanity.”

Loyalty Increased: Grak lvl 11!

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 19!

“We should deliver this letter to one of the dead drops,” said Amaryllis. “And then we should prepare for the extraction as best as we possibly can.”


And so approximately eighteen hours later, I found myself walking down the train, psyching myself up to briefly exit the train, crawl forward to the left middle window of the frontmost tuung car, extract the handmaid into Sable, and then get to safety before she ran out of air. If at all possible, I would slip her a breathing mask and a tank of air, but her response hadn’t held a reply to that particular line of inquiry, and we weren’t sure whether the windows would be the same as they were on our part of the train, nor whether she would be able to open it that wide without drawing attention to herself. It was a question mark in the plan, one that I really didn’t like, because without the tank, I’d have to get us to safety in the space of a minute, which seemed like a tall order considering that I was also trying to be stealthy.

The gangways -- the spaces between the cars -- were partially open, with chains on either side to make sure that no one would fall, and an additional covering that hinged between the cars to keep out rain.

I stopped in the middle of the gangway, four cars from the heavy engine, and looked out into the night. The train was passing through a part of the Lion’s Mane where there was a fair bit of water on either side of us, and to my left I could see ocean stretching out into the distance, lit by the multi-colored stars that I still wasn’t bored of looking at. A few small towns dotted the coast, visible by what lights they still had on, but it was to all appearances a calm and quiet night, which I decided to take as a good omen.

Not so calm and quiet for me, given that I’d be moving against eighty mile an hour winds. I took a deep breath, then began the climb.

The wind hit me as soon as I climbed up, and I briefly struggled until I could push up and onto the roof. Given that there were tuung guards on the gangway before the train car that had held the party, it was necessary for me to start back a bit and go over, but I wasn’t at all pleased at how long that made the trip.

I kept low to the roof of the train as I moved, hoping that any sounds I was making would be masked by the general whipping of wind and the rumbling of the train. Going across this way was dangerous, but I had come with as much preparation as eighteen hours and a whole heap of magic would allow me. I had a heavy magnet in each hand, powerful neodymium ones from Earth courtesy of the backpack, with handles and padding on them so that I could maintain a good grip and muffle the sound of them as I slid them forward. Ropey was wrapped around me, making two loops that came out from above my shoulders and helped to grip, and two ends that came out from around my waist. I had the Anyblade as a ring, though it was a bit of a last resort; the plan was that if I somehow got tossed back, I would be able to make it into a blade and slam it down into the train to catch myself, hopefully without dislocating my shoulders in the process. In addition to all that, I had my bandoliers on, strapped down tight, and my throwing dagger in a sheath on my belt, with a balaclava pulled down over my face, just in case.

The plan was to accomplish the extraction without so much as a single scratch on the train or a single witness as to what happened.

I was halfway across the backmost tuung car when I saw them behind me. Two tuung in their silver breastplate had climbed up and were crawling forward, their powerful legs and toes made for gripping slick rocks serving them well for moving under the force of the wind. I had tried my hardest to cross the gangway in complete silence, but I must have done a worse job than I thought, or they were more observant than I’d given them credit for, because now the two guards that I had been most worried about were making their way toward me, keeping low to the roof of the train car. One of them had his blade drawn, a silvered length of metal and a handle that was long enough it seemed like it almost qualified as a spear. Where the tip of it was held in front of him, the wind seemed to visibly part, and after he screamed something to the other guard, both their blades were out, allowing them to avoid the worst of the rushing air.

I wanted to explain that I wasn’t going for the princess, only the handmaid, that I didn’t want to kill them, that I was a good person with good intentions. The winds made any conversation impossible, and even if they hadn’t, I was almost certain that this wasn’t the sort of thing that I could talk my way out of. The guards weren’t wholly innocent, but they also weren’t in league with outright villains like the guards we’d encountered (and killed) in Trifles Tower.

I resolved to try to settle things non-violently if I possibly could, just as one of the tuung threw his sword at me. I took the hit to my leg and it drove straight to the bone of my thigh. In an instant it was gone, back in his hand. I burned a few fingerbones to bump END and seal the wound, but not before my pant leg was soaked through with blood. I cursed myself for not wearing armor, having thought that it would interfere too much with being stealthy and agile. When he threw the sword a second time, I released one of my grips, and turned to the side, letting it sail past me. They weren’t stopping to ask me questions -- which would have been impossible in the wind anyway -- they were just going to kill me and figure out who I was later, if they didn’t know who I was already.

The smaller tuung, the one that had pulled his sword out later, threw his own sword, and I twisted to the side again, this time burning SPD from the bones of my arm. My reactions were good enough, and the sword slow enough, that I was able to catch it in mid-air. I hadn’t been sure exactly what that would accomplish, but as it was revealed a moment later, the answer was nothing; the sword vanished from my hand, leaving behind moisture and mist that was driven away in an instant by the rushing wind, and reappeared in the tuung’s hand.

I started moving backward, closing the distance between us. I could heal back from whatever wounds they inflicted, and had enough blood to spare, but eventually I was going to run out of bones to burn for healing, and then I was going to be in trouble. I kept taking the wounds and healing them closed until I was twenty feet away from them. They stopped throwing their swords, perhaps because they misunderstood the nature of my healing, which wouldn’t have presented as bone magic to them, given the fact that I wasn’t holding onto any bones. My pants were in shreds, and the top of the train was slick with my blood, much of which had gotten onto the tuung. The train had already been treacherous before, but now that it was slippery with blood, it was downright deadly. The magnets were the only thing stopping me from slipping, and I could feel that they’d become looser than they were when I started out. If they started sliding, I was going to have to take emergency measures.

I used Ropey to attack, throwing him backward and letting him wrap himself around the wrist of the larger of the tuung. I yanked him off balance and felt the magnet slip beneath me as Newton’s third law bit me. I saw the rope twist unnaturally in the wind to avoid a slicing strike from the tuung, but that was a last gasp of futile action. The tuung had lost his footing in the blood, and whatever sticking ability his exposed toes gave him, it wasn’t enough; he fell, slid backward, and slipped over the side of the train car. I didn’t have a good enough angle to see him get dashed against the ground at eighty miles an hour, and any sound it would have made was swallowed by the winds.

(There was no message saying that he’d been defeated, which gave me hope that I had somehow avoided killing him.)

That left the smaller one, who was looking at me with wide eyes. He threw his sword, and I burned SPD again to catch it, then tossed it to the side and used my elbow to push the single magnet I still had a hold on up from the roof of the train. I slid in the wind and on the slickness of my own blood until I collided with him, then managed to slam the magnet back down and skid to a stop. I was grappling with him before he knew what was happening, and Ropey was helping, loops surrounding arms and those powerful, kicking legs. I fashioned the Anyblade into a collar around his throat, then forked the blade in three and pointed each of them at his face. He stopped struggling after that, and his sword, which he’d been trying to slice at me with while I attempted to pin him, disappeared back to wherever it had been pulled from.

“I don’t want to hurt you!” I screamed around where I thought his ear probably was. He made no response to that. I was holding him with one arm, the other desperately gripping my makeshift handhold, which slipped just a bit every time the train went over less than perfectly laid railing.

Had they raised the alarm? If they had, the mission was fucked, because the handmaid wouldn’t be there waiting for me, she’d be buried behind guards, who would pull her away from the window. But no one had popped their head up, and there were only two guards stationed on the gangway between cars, which gave me hope.

I released the tuung, trusting Ropey to hold him in place and the Anyblade wrapped around his throat and pointed at his face in triplicate to keep him from moving. With my free hand I pulled a flask from Sable, undid the top by holding it awkwardly and using my fingers, then downed the entire flask full of pure grain alcohol in one go, wincing as it burned its way down. Then I was back to touching the tuung, and through the magic of the Liar’s Cup tattoo, transferring the alcohol into him before it could affect me all that much.

When he passed out, the problem became more manageable. I let us slip and slide the rest of the way down the train car until we got to the gangway, then checked that it was clear below. The fact that it was empty meant that the extraction could still go ahead as planned. I lowered the tuung down, very carefully, and let his body hit the gangway. It was closed off enough that I wasn’t worried about him falling to his death, but he’d be a dead giveaway if someone came by. That was better than killing him though.


“Okay, while Arthur and Tiff are arguing from the bushes, I’m going to sneak off and kill the guards,” said Craig.

“You can’t do that,” said Tiff with a frown.

“Joon?” asked Craig.

“Tiff, you can’t dictate someone else’s actions,” I said. “By the way that Craig has been playing Miaun, it’s entirely in character, and even if it weren’t, I don’t like being character police.”

Tiff frowned at me. “Well okay, then I roll Perception."

“I’m the one that rolls Perception,” I said. I rolled the dice behind my DM screen, red for Arthur, green for Tiff, and blue for Maddie, in case she wanted to be a part of any of this. Low numbers for Tiff and Arthur, high for Maddie. “And Craig, you’re going to have roll Stealth. I’m assuming from the way you worded it that you did intend to be hidden from the party.”

“With all bonuses, 25,” said Craig after he’d rolled the dice. He was smiling, pleased by the result.

“Okay,” I said, turning to Maddie. “Raven, you’re the only one that sees your brother moving out of his position as he uses the available cover to close in on the guards while the other members of the party engage in a furtive whispered conversation. What do you do?”

Maddie smiled at me. She always liked getting the group’s attention, but never seemed to be willing to take it. I’d often wondered whether she’d be any different without her brother around, but she only showed up when Craig deigned to bring her. That was a question that I’d have to wait years to get the answer to. “Can I cast the ghost sound spell without drawing attention?”

“It’s got a verbal component,” I said. “DC 0 Listen check, plus 1 per 10 feet, and you’re 120 feet away, so DC 12 for them to hear.”

“She’s got Silent Spell,” said Craig.

“Maddie, those guards are people, with lives,” said Tiff.

“You were having an in-character conversation with Titon,” I said. “If it’s a silent spell, you’re not going to be able to hear it, which means that all you would be able to do is see it, and I’ll let you roll Perception against Maddie’s Stealth, but --”

“I’m making an out-of-character argument,” said Tiff. She brushed a strand of hair away from her face, then turned to Maddie. “The margrave’s guards don’t deserve to die, and we should especially not be the ones to kill them.”

“I’d be the one killing them,” said Craig. “She’d just be providing a distraction for me, right Madds?”

“Think of what Raven would do,” said Tiff.

“You know these aren’t actually people, right?” asked Craig.

“They are to Atticus,” said Tiff, folding her arms across her chest. Chronologically, this would have been way before we were dating, and before I’d really even developed feelings for her. I’d always liked her, and always been able to see what Arthur saw in her, but there was a time when she’d been nothing but an opposite-gendered friend.

“A better argument would be that these men signed up to be guards,” said Arthur. He caught a look from Tiff. “I’m not saying it’s a good argument, but they took a paycheck knowing that they would be defending the margrave with their lives.”

“That’s terrible,” said Tiff. “Those men probably have parents who care about them. They’re probably married with kids. And even if they were orphans with nothing and nobody, I wouldn’t want to kill them.”

“You’re not killing them, I’m killing them,” said Craig. “And Arthur’s right, they signed up for the margrave, they must have known he was a dick, reap what you sow.”

“To clarify, he wasn’t actually a dick, he just didn’t believe you about the horn,” I said. Craig rolled his eyes.

“I don’t think it’s your place to say whether he was a dick or not,” said Arthur. “It’s a question of interpretation, not fact.”

“I can’t say how I intended his character to come out?” I asked. “I’m just -- I don’t want to go down the wrong path here because I screwed up the character. He wasn’t supposed to be a dick, he just didn’t believe you, because you didn’t have any proof.” (That had been the whole point of an earlier plot thread that was now, apparently, dropped. The margrave saying he wouldn’t give up the horn without some proof was supposed to spur the party to find proof. This whole ‘steal the horn’ thing had been spun up from whole cloth, and I was happy that the party was getting in fights, because it meant I had time to prepare something new for them, putting down people and scenery just ahead of their questions.)

Arthur shrugged. “If you screwed up the character, we’ll just go with the screw up, it’s fine, that’s how improv works,” he said. He turned back to Craig. “Titon isn’t going to back you up if this goes badly.”

“Atticus isn’t either,” said Tiff. She seemed annoyed, but there wasn’t really anything I could do about that, other than delivering Craig a harsh comeuppance that I had already decided that the circumstances didn’t warrant.

“Okay,” I said. “Leaving all the OOC stuff aside,” stuff that should be interpretation of characters, not stated outright, if we’re being fair, “Maddie, you were about to cast a silent ghost sound, presumably to create a distraction.”

“Yes,” she said. “I do that.”

“Okay, where?” I asked. “What does it sound like?”

“Like,” she said, gesturing with her hands for a minute as she tried to think. “Like knocking? Like someone is knocking on the door from the other side.”

“Good,” I said. “Miaun, you see the guards turn away from you. Titon, Atticus, you hear the knock, but you don’t see Miaun anywhere around you.”

“I stay silent, watching, with a cold feeling in my gut about what’s about to happen,” said Arthur.

Tiff frowned, keeping her arms crossed.

“Atticus?” I asked. “Any reaction?”

“Assuming that I can connect the dots?” she asked. I nodded. “Then … Atticus stays quiet. If we have the time later, I’m going to track down the families of those men and anonymously give them some money, just to make myself feel less guilty.”

“So I’m finally good to attack?” asked Craig.

“Yeah,” I said. “How do you want to do it?”

“What level are they?” he asked.

I sighed. “You have no idea,” I said. “You know that they’re rank and file guards for the margrave, and he’s not likely to have posted his best men around this time of night. They’re a little more alert because of the knocking, but before that they didn’t seem exceptionally well-trained, and both their armor and weapons show wear, not the kind that comes from fighting on a regular basis, but more from being put on and taken off over and over again for years without seeing much action.”

“So, low level,” said Craig with a nod. I shrugged. “I throw a dagger at one, then the other, the ones I’ve got on my hips.” He rolled the dice without waiting for me to say anything. “19 and 23, hit and hit? They should both be sneak attacks.”

“You don’t need to roll damage,” I said. “They both fall, one with a dagger in his throat, the other with a dagger going through his eyes.”

“Fuck,” said Tiff, leaning back.

“Should have stopped me if you cared so much,” said Craig with a shrug.

“I would have, if I did,” said Arthur. “Sometimes a guard is just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I’m not so far along the law/chaos axis that I was willing to tank the mission. Don’t go murder-happy again though, not without talking about it first.”


I made my way back down the train again, this time unimpeded. It was easier going after I’d gotten my second magnet back. I stopped at each of the gangways, looking for guards, but whatever mess had happened up on top of the train cars, it didn’t seem like anyone was looking for me. That they had even bothered posting guards in the first gangway was paranoia; posting them at every gangway between cars that they controlled would have been the sort of paranoia that they couldn’t justify.

I was worried that the tuung I’d left behind was going to wake up and do something in a drunken stupor, either alert the others or kill himself, and I wasn’t sure which would be worse. I worried about the tuung that I had knocked off the train, and the missing message of defeat. I was hoping that he’d lived, but dreading the possibility that he had, somehow, managed to stay on the train.

(It would have been so easy to kill them, and maybe that was why I hadn’t. I could have thrust Sable behind me and let loose with all kinds of garbage that the winds would have taken and slammed into them. I could have used the throwing dagger and engaged in a battle of thrown weapons I was pretty sure I would win. There was a void rifle in the glove, along with other weapons, weapons that I could easily have aimed down the length of the train to outright kill both the guards. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t killed before, I’d even killed guards, but the circumstances seemed different here. Aumann’s guards had known what they were signing up for, they’d probably had options elsewhere in Barren Jewel, but the tuung guards were products of a society that had dictated this role for them, and I was almost certainly reading too far into things, but the smaller one seemed like he was some dumb, young kid that had been drafted into the Vietnam War.

Or maybe it was that killing Aumann’s guards had never sat quite right with me, and I was overcorrecting here. I’d been in therapy for long enough to know that I didn’t like it, but there was a part of me that was starting to think that maybe it would be good to have a neutral third party without an agenda that I could talk to, given how much mental shit had been piling up.)

I reached the frontmost tuung car without incident, streaks of blood now left behind me, my magnets stable against the steel roof of the train car. I slid forward and positioned myself above the window, then leaned down over the side. It was stomach-churningly precarious, with not just the wind going by, but the ground moving quickly below me. I reached down with Sable and pulled a mirror on a rod out, one of a number of things I’d prepared ahead of time, just in case, and lowered it so I could look into the dark car. I saw the handmaid standing there, and beside her, a tuung guard.

I swore beneath my breath, the sound eaten up by the wind as the curse left my lips.

I let Sable take the mirror from my hand, then brought out a void pistol and began lowering myself down, trusting in the sentient rope wrapped around me to keep me on top of the train. From the play of shadows I’d seen in the room, I was fairly sure that I wasn’t going to obscure anything in the guard’s line of sight, but I would want to be quick about it either way. As soon as I had eyes on the room, I reached down with the void pistol and pressed it against the glass.

Before I could take my shot, the handmaid saw me. Her eyes went wide and she rushed forward, grabbing the guard by his shoulder and spinning him around to face me. I stopped what I was doing and let the void pistol slip back into the glove as I watched them, ready to move at a moment’s notice. The guard didn’t seem that surprised to see me, and his sword didn’t appear in his hand.

The handmaid moved toward the window and opened it a crack. To my surprise, and considerable displeasure, the guard was the one who slipped his hand out. I couldn’t hear anything, and I doubted that they wanted to make any noise, but the handmaid gestured that I should take the guard. Well, fuck. I wasn’t really in a position to make a negotiation, or to tell her that this wasn’t what we’d agreed to. I produced a breathing tank with mask from Sable and when the handmaid opened the window further, passed it in, then a second one for the guard. They put them on with only a little difficulty, and once they had done a breathing check, I was on my way back down the train, with one more passenger than expected.

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Alexander Wales

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