The Egress was incredibly fast, and landed in the park five minutes later, going well in excess of a thousand miles an hour in order to do so. It was a better ship than the Underline in pretty much every way but its controls, which were nothing more than a map you could use to select your destination. In a lot of ways, it stripped to the bone the entire notion of using a ship to go from one place to another, taking out all of the interesting things about sailing or shipping, like feeling the movement of your travel, or caring about weather, or steering. If it weren’t for the fact that it was moving through the air in big arcs, it might as well have just teleported people from one place to another.
We got aboard, and I resisted giving a wave to the locals, who were mostly still hiding, either from us, or from the dragon that had briefly landed in their town. I went to one wall of the ship, where the silver skin showed a crude map, and selected our landing site in Poran. It would be good to reunite with the party: I was still keyed up, and didn’t like the idea of giving our enemies two fronts to attack us on, as much sense as it had made at the time.
If you were in the Egress when it was flying, you had no sense of acceleration or movement. It was, for the most part, just waiting in a room for a pretty boring few minutes as it did its thing independent of controls. That was one of the reasons that it was pretty simple to send without passengers: no one needed to touch anything.
We were in the air for about thirty seconds when the attack came. Fifteen foot long claws ripped through the skin of the ship like it was made of aluminum foil, and just after that, as the outer layer was peeled back, the magic of the entad failed, the inertial dampers no longer in play, and all that hidden speed coming to the forefront in the space of a single moment, leaving me flying through the air as the ship disintegrated around us, the last shreds of its magic applied unevenly.
If I hadn’t maxed out Still Magic and Heavy Armor, there was a good chance that I would have died, but I was no mere mortal, at least for the moment. I stopped myself with the wrong orientation, my feet pointed toward the sky and my head away from the bulk of the wreckage, but spun myself just in time to see the follow-up attack coming. My brain was having trouble keeping up with what was happening, and I only registered the claws being gold, not black, seconds after it had actually happened.
Tommul let loose with dragonfire, and I parried it, cleaving the flame with my sword, splitting it perfectly in half, with my body perfectly positioned between the two halves of flame. Maybe having learned from last time though, he wasn’t content to just breathe fire and then watch me roast, he rushed in with claws out and teeth ready to bite. The size difference between us was enormous: he could have eaten a whole mouthful of Junipers. His ruined eye was still ruined, scarred over.
I threw my sword at him and started to drop, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to go faster than him with gravity alone. I didn’t hear the sword hit him, but it would have been pretty damned hard for it to miss, given that he was bigger than the broad side of a barn, and as soon as the sword returned to my hand, I activated its ability, mirroring his wounds — all his wounds.
He swiped at me and missed, because he could no longer see, and I kept falling, trying to get the hell out of his way. I was looking around for Raven, trying to make sure that she had survived, but the pieces of the Egress were still falling, and it was hard to tell what anything had once been. Raven could survive a fall from any height, I was pretty sure. I vaguely recalled her having done that when she’d gotten blown off of Mome Rath, though I hadn’t been there for it. It was mostly a question of whether she’d been able to survive that initial deceleration.
Tommul was flapping his wings and moving around erratically, which made sense, because all of his marvelous draconic sight didn’t amount to shit when he had a second gouged out eye to join his first. He let out a jet of dragonfire, spinning his head slightly to cover the area around him, but I wasn’t anywhere nearby.
I stopped myself in midair.
“Hey!” I shouted to him, amplifying my voice.
He flapped more, but he had zeroed in on my voice, and after only a moment’s hesitation, he dived toward me, spewing out fire, which I easily parried. When he was close enough, claws forward, I dropped down, trying to angle myself so that we would just barely pass by each other. With my infinitely sharp sword extended, I was able to cut him, making a yards-long gash that was at least a foot deep, and another cut through part of his hind leg that I’d gotten lucky enough to swipe at.
I mirrored his wounds again, and was gratified to see gold blood trailing behind him as he followed through on the dive. He slowed and stopped, much lower than he was before, and I dropped down after him, trying my best to land on him. All I had for propulsion was throwing myself, which was simultaneously more effective than should have been physically possible, but less effective than I had been hoping it would be.
I got to him as he was still flapping in place and landed on his back, spamming the sword’s ability to open up eight more wounds, then I lurched to the side to cut at the joint where his wing was attached to his body. He turned back toward me, and blasted me with the full force of his dragonfire, and half my mind was focused on stopping it while the other half was focused on making my cuts. The flames actually touched me this time, not quite stopped by the Still Magic. My armor was inviolable, but I was not, and while the elemental armor was in fire mode, it still didn’t protect me completely. I could feel the dragonfire burning me, and it was horribly painful even with the sensation dampened, but I did my best not to let that detract from separating his wing from his body.
I didn’t get all the way through, but at a certain point, the bone and ligament suffered catastrophic failure, and Tommul began to fall. I stilled myself and spammed the sword’s ability again, feeling only slightly gratified when I saw a wing rip clean off, with the second following close behind it. I turned my attention to the dragonfire, trying to stop it from burning me where I was unprotected, bringing to bear the full weight of every magic I had, air magic to force it to burn without oxygen, still magic to freeze it in place, vibration magic to cool it down, until eventually it went out, with no more than a horrifying burn on my face to show for it. It was a fifth degree burn, down into the muscle of my face, and I wished that I had kept pain off completely instead of turning it back up for diagnostics. I poured on the healing, which offered only partial relief: sudden and intense trauma had a tendency to drive straight down into the soul.
He had burned my entad bandolier, and the Crown of Eyes, and I hoped that I’d gotten them put out fast enough that they would recover. I was thankful that I hadn’t taken more of my gear with me: the pistol and shotgun that were a normal part of my kit had been left behind.
When Tommul hit the ground, he kicked up dust and dirt, making a loud thumping sound that could probably have been heard from miles away. I watched for a moment, seeing if he would move, then grabbed the collar of my armor and threw myself to him, assisted by gravity for the long drop down.
I wasn’t clear on whether he was dead or just unconscious, but I moved in at speed anyway, and started hacking away at his neck, which let out gallons of shiny golden blood once I was far enough in. He heaved once, and I darted back, but it was just his last breath, not a gout of flame.
Tommul, the Wise and Mighty, defeated!
“Good riddance,” I tried to say, but my face still hurt, and the muscles hadn’t healed in quite right. I was going to have to fix that, and soon, but Amaryllis had the backup copy of my body data stored on a natal soul. I didn’t know how I was going to get back to her.
Tommul had landed in a forest, shattering trees when he came down, and there were small bits and pieces of the Egress still raining down. I was watching for her though, and I finally saw Raven, her cloak billowing out behind her, helping her to descend like it was a parachute. Her body was limp beneath it. I started running through the trees, trying to track her descent. I finally caught up to her a hundred yards from where I’d started, and made a leap up into the air in order to catch her, stilling us both to give us a softer landing. She wasn’t moving or opening her eyes, which was a bad sign, especially since she wasn’t able to sleep.
“Fuck,” I muttered, trying to ignore the pain in my mouth as I spoke. I reached forward to open her eyes, but my fingers were stopped by the invisible barrier that protected her head. She was breathing though, and her heart was still beating away in her chest. I reached down to take her hand, and pumped healing magic into her, hoping that it would help. Her eyes fluttered open after just a moment, and she stared up at me.
“Wha’ happened?” she asked.
“Dragon attack,” I said. “You okay?”
“Prolly just brain damage,” she replied, slowly sitting up. “Your face.”
“Yeah,” I said. Whatever damage the Crown of Eyes had taken, it was still functional, and I could see scars, mostly on the right side of my face, where I’d been hit with a full blast that all the magic I had access to couldn’t quite save me from. It was reddened but otherwise normal, the healing magic having taken me through the early stages of the burn and out the other side. I was no expert in burns, but it seemed to me that it would probably be back to normal in a few days, maybe with a different skin color there.
“You got her?” asked Raven.
“Him,” I said. “It was Tommul. I cut off his wings and then slit his throat.”
Raven sat up. “The compass,” she said, looking around and patting her pockets, before finally stopping and looking at me. “Poran.”
“Probably,” I said. “Are you ready to go?”
“I,” she said, then stopped, looking around the meadow. “The Egress, was it —”
“Unrecoverable,” I said.
“Then how’re we getting there?” she asked, getting into a sitting position. Her speech was slightly slurred, which wasn’t a good sign.
“I just need to believe,” I said. I stood and held my hand out to the side, willing the locus to appear. I was in its domain, and in theory, it knew what was happening with me, but I had virtually no sense of what it would actually take in order to get a message. The locus had come to join me on the airship, and then left to return to Poran. All that had been done with Solace along, which seemed like proof that — no, that was the wrong way to think about it.
I was standing in the domain of the locus. I was always standing in the domain of the locus. That domain wasn’t really a concrete thing, even though I could see its fuzzy boundaries. Instead, it was conceptual, artistic, a nebulous thing that I was a part of. The domain was a context, and I existed inside of it. It was like all my best ideas before I started nailing them down and making sacrifices in the name of consistency or realism, when they were still that elemental spark of promise. I was a part of the idea of the domain, sewn into that spark of promise at the base level.
Reimer, the alternate one who lived on Aerb, had told me that all my worlds ended up shitty because all I did was focus on the shitty stuff. I didn’t really think that was true. My worlds ended up shitty because I had a depressive disposition, and because my hot take on the real world was that it, too, was shit. People had trouble working together. There were leechers and mooches, petty authoritarians in every school, office, and shop in the world, fundamental biological truths that we were fundamentally biologically incapable of tackling, systems that got so big and so fucked that no one could ever unfuck them or replace them. Worldbuilding was, at least a bit, my retreat from the real world, but I kept bringing the real world into it.
In trying to commune with the locus, I was pushing back against that, tapping into the raw, elemental well of ideaspace, trying to find some spark that I could hold onto without letting it get attached to that poison of reality. I was capable of it, I knew that about myself now, though I wasn’t sure that I had before. It was the easiest path to thinking like a druid that I knew of, the best way I had of calling the locus to me.
It came as an image, that of a small girl in a blue dress, down on one knee, drawing in power from the fields of wheat around her before launching herself into the sky with a wide smile, and I held it there rather than developing it, trying my best not to contain the idea, or contaminate it. It was my instinct to attach rules, to think of explanations, to work out systems and the logical consequences of the rules I’d thought up, to attach costs, or metrics. I kept all that away from the germ of an idea, resisting the temptation.
I closed my eyes, then took off the Crown of Eyes, and held out a hand. When I felt fur, a wave of relief washed over me. That was only the first step though, the second —
I was on Poran. I opened my eyes and looked around. The change might have been subtle, but I had too much in the way of extrasensory effects, and water magic alone would have let me know that I was in a wildly different location, the rivers and creeks that threaded through the woods we’d been in replaced by the sea around us.
“Thanks,” I said as I put the half-melted crown back on, which let me see things from the point of view of the locus: there was a looming storm on the horizon that wasn’t there in real life. No one else was in the area, which I had to wonder about, given that the domain was where we planned to make our last stand. It was big enough that there were areas that weren’t occupied, but I wondered whether I had been taken somewhere out of the way on purpose. Raven was nowhere to be seen, which was a problem, since now I had no way to get her, but I wasn’t going to blame the locus for that, given that its assistance was a long shot.
“Mind giving me a ride to the others?” I asked.
In response, she lowered her head, and I climbed onto her. I had never been a fan of riding horses, but riding the locus was a lot different, and I’d done it enough to feel at ease. From her perspective, looking through her eyes, I wasn’t riding her at all, we were two deer, doe and buck, bounding together through the woods in a playful way, hurrying under the darkening sky. It was hard to know what the locus knew, but I imagined that it could feel the tension in the air and the threat of imminent attack.
The others were near the tree, and stood as they saw me approach. It wasn’t just the rest of the party and the wannabe druids, but a contingent of tuung as well, two fireteams that I recognized as being elites among them.
“Status report,” said Amaryllis as soon as I climbed down.
“Tommul attacked the Egress while it was in flight,” I said. “He’s dead now. Raven had the compass, but she’s not in contact with us right now. Fourfold Flask was with me, but it was in Rilke’s Strap, and that’s not working right now.”
“Let me look at it,” said Grak, holding out his hand. I took it off and handed it to him.
“Your face is fucked up,” said Amaryllis. “It hurts?”
“A bit,” I said.
“Which means that it really hurts,” she replied. “You took a blast of dragonfire?”
“I mean, I did fight a dragon,” I replied.
“Star Body?” she asked.
I glanced at the wannabe druids, who were close enough to hear, and made sure that our conversation was muted to them. Amaryllis was the one applying vibration magic to do the muting, but it still made me nervous enough to check her work. “The alterations are intact, but that one didn’t help me. It was never a guarantee. Flame breath at incredibly close range is a worst case scenario for dodging.”
“And you’re okay?” asked Amaryllis. “How’d you come back?”
“The locus brought me,” I said. “Not Raven, unfortunately, though I’m not sure why. She’s not going to be critical to the coming fight with Perisev though. I’m worried about her, but she can’t be the priority.”
Amaryllis frowned slightly. “You’re sure that your power will hold?” she asked.
“Yes?” I asked. “I have Meta Stilling, that was in the note.”
“I just mean,” said Amaryllis, shifting slightly to adjust her armor. “You made a prayer to the Dungeon Master. You made a compact. From what you said, it was explicitly for the next fight. You’re talking about breaking that compact. It’s not something that should be lightly done.”
“Oh,” I said. I tapped my foot. “Look, the fight against Tommul — I blinded him from the outset and from there, it wasn’t all that difficult. I’m not saying that I couldn’t have done it without the power I currently have, and there’s a chance that I would have died in the initial attack, or the follow-ups, but most of the real work was done with the sword, which took him from one eye down to none. Cutting his wings off and slitting his throat … probably not possible without an infinitely sharp blade, but I don’t think that it should count as the battle I was talking about.”
“Are you willing to stake your life on that?” asked Amaryllis. “Try to see it from his perspective. You made a promise, and you’re trying to bend it, maybe even outright break it.”
“If the Dungeon Master has a problem with it, then I’m pretty confident that he wouldn’t strip me of my power while we’re right in the middle of things, he didn’t with Mome Rath,” I said. “Perisev will be here in a half hour, based on the last information we have, to take me down a peg now —”
Achievement Progress: Super Exclusive 2/40
“That motherfucker,” I said.
“Juniper,” said Amaryllis.
“Something was excluded,” I replied. “It was —” I stopped in my tracks. I felt slower, less sure of myself, my sword no longer a pure extension of my being. But it wasn’t just that, it was almost everything else. Magic had been stripped away from me, sensation had been stripped away, it was all still there, but muted. And soul sight, which I’d been leaning on, was gone.
“Juniper, talk,” said Amaryllis.
“I think it was Essentialism,” I said.
Amaryllis closed her eyes, and I was sure that she was focusing on her own soul. I did the same, but I could already feel that so much was missing that was the only explanation. Scaphism was gone, taking the buffs with it, as was Skilled Trade.
“Fuck,” I said. I couldn’t gain access to my own soul. Spirit was still there, thankfully, but that was a very thin silver lining. I could feel that all of my bonuses were gone. Wherever the exclusion zone was, if there was one, it wasn’t here.
“This is bad, Juniper,” said Amaryllis.
“Good, in some ways,” replied Grak. Amaryllis looked at him for a moment, then nodded.
“No more burning through my own bones,” I said, trying to think through the implications.
“No soul links,” said Grak.
“That’s long-term,” said Amaryllis. “We need to be thinking about Perisev, if she’s still going to be coming in hard. Half an hour, less now? That’s not a lot of time, and we don’t have a way of stopping her, let alone killing her. Did you try memetics?”
“No,” I replied. “They’re not anticipated to work, are they?”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “Just curious.”
“When I went at Perisev, she bounced away before I had a real chance,” I said. “With Tommul, I started off blinding him. There wasn’t much time for testing in either case. We should send someone for the body, by the way. Butchering a gold dragon will probably give good materials.”
“We don’t have a plan for the next half hour yet,” said Amaryllis. “Let’s wait on talking about the next day.”
“Speaking of gold,” I replied. “It’s probably time for me to become a gold mage.”
“Now?” asked Amaryllis, furrowing her brow. “It’s not something that can be undone.”
“Like you said, we don’t have a plan,” I replied. “It’ll let me fly, that’s something. Perisev is frighteningly fast, and she’s going to try to roast me alive, so … best defense I have against dragonfire, short of being next to Grak, is still magic, and that combos with gold magic in terms of keeping the fire from actually touching my skin.” Still magic by itself, even at a high level, was inadequate.
“Call of the gold,” said Amaryllis.
“I can handle it,” I said. “Do what the gold wants, then fight the dragon after. And given that fighting the dragon might be necessary to keep the stash of gold … it’s not going to be a long-term arrangement.”
“Many gold mages say that,” replied Grak.
“If you object for personal reasons, I won’t do it,” I said.
“That would be idiotic,” said Grak.
“Really, really idiotic,” nodded Amaryllis.
“I’m just offering,” I said. I was worried that the offer would seem like a bluff to him, or coercion, and wanted to make sure that he knew I was serious. “We can find some other —”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll get the ritual set up. The plan will be for you to engage aerially as soon as she’s within range, and hope that you can beat her one on one. We’ll deal with the soul magic exclusion after it’s all over.”
I looked at Grak and bit my lip. “Is there an argument for Grak riding me?” I asked.
Amaryllis and Grak stared at me.
“I would have a bubble ward against dragonfire,” I said.
“You’ll be accelerating too fast for me,” said Grak. “I do not believe there’s any way to create something like inertial dampers using a ward around myself. I could slow you down with velocity wards, but that would defeat the point.”
“Alright,” I said. “Then let’s get the ritual going.”
Aside from needing a fair bit of gold, the call of the gold was the big drawback to being a gold mage. It put a cap on how long of a career you could have, and forced anyone you worked with to accept a number of unpleasant concessions, as well as spurring on conflict. The possibility of being asked to do something that you simply refused to do, and losing all power because of it, was something that would immediately stop most people from ever wanting to become a gold mage.
Naturally, polities had tried their hand at harnessing the raw power of gold mages, and done their own work in attempting to subvert the call of the gold. For the most part, none of this had worked. The polities of the world had done the obvious thing and held a reserve of gold bars, hoping to feed the gold mages little by little until they had reached their limits, whereupon service as a gold mage would be summarily ended and a new gold mage would be inducted using the same gold. This was the kind of good plan that failed more often than you’d expect on Aerb, because it was base munchkinry, and the designer of the world hadn’t particularly been a fan of that kind of thing, which was probably a pretty hard principle for any scientist to figure out. In this case, allowing that munchkinry would essentially just mean that gold-rich nations could fund superpowered police and transform the actual gold and wealth-seeking elements of the magic system into nothing more than correlations between a nation’s material wealth and their ability to project force, which wasn’t terribly interesting, since that was already a thing in both the real world, and on Aerb. It was the kind of thing that would have immediately occurred to me as a designer of magic systems, and had predictably been cut off at the pass on Aerb.
The first thing that the call of the gold would request of you would be to secure your store of gold, keeping it safe and inaccessible, so that it would be truly yours, rather than sitting in a bank, or worse, under the control of a sovereign. Aumann, the gold mage that we’d killed back in Barren Jewel, hadn’t just made a vault with wards around it at the top of a tall tower because he was taking sensible precautions, he had done it because he’d been required to. The call of the gold knew things independent of the gold mages, information like where gold was stored and what kind of defenses a vault had, and it would know if you tried to cheat the system. Worse, it knew what you knew, which meant that it was even harder to circumvent its will.
Being a gold mage was like having a little devil on your shoulder, one that was enormously greedy, didn’t trust people, and couldn’t be reasoned with.
I was almost looking forward to it, just to see what it was like.
We performed the ritual with five pounds of gold, with a street value of about ten thousand obols. It was only a small fraction of what we had available, but part of the point was to test it and see what kinds of demands would be levied against me in the first few minutes. From what we’d read, and information provided to us by outside sources (the kingdom of Anglecynn and Uniquities being the two big ones), it was entirely possible to fail as a gold mage in the first several minutes of having become one, simply because the demands were too high for you. We were well-positioned on Poran though, fairly far from any major cities, and I was hopeful.
The ritual itself involved placing the gold into an inscribed circle and then completing a few marks at the margins, which could be done with nothing more than a ballpoint pen. We’d had this all ready to go for ages: Amaryllis had a piece of paper with the requisite marks on it inside Sable, meaning that we could get it going in an instant, cutting twenty minutes or so of time down to more like three, every step that could be done in advance having already been accomplished months ago.
Skill Unlocked: Gold Magic!
Achievement Unlocked: I love gooooooold!
The gold shimmered once, signifying that it was marked, and then went inert.
I lifted off the ground as a test. It was disappointing, more like slowly drifting up instead of actually flying, but it was still more than two hundred pounds of force, which was certainly something. Even at this relatively low level of gold, it would be like having a gun on me at all times, as well as the ability to stop a bullet dead in its tracks. That was a pretty great deal for only ten thousand obols.
Skill increased: Gold Magic lvl 1!
Take all the gold from the glove, came a voice in my head. It wasn’t my internal voice, but it was close, with a bit of gravelly depth to the sound. The call of the gold was different for everyone, and I hoped that I wouldn’t have to hear much more.
“Dump the rest of the gold, please,” I said.
“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “Anything else?”
“Nothing yet,” I replied. “I’ll let you know.”
Amaryllis didn’t waste any time. She didn’t push more gold bars from Sable, she pushed a whole pallet of them, all lined up and stacked, ready to go. I did a quick count and some sloppy guesswork in terms of multiplication, but it must have been more than a hundred million obols worth of gold. I had no idea we had so much.
“That’s a fucking huge amount of gold,” I said.
“Yes,” nodded Amaryllis.
Grak was staring at it. My best guess is that he was thinking about how much dwarvish labor had gone into mining all that gold.
Force her to give you the glove.
“Give me the glove,” I said, holding out my hand.
“Why?” asked Amaryllis, her eyes momentarily flickering to Sable, then back to me.
“I’m being asked to,” I said with a shrug. “The word ‘force’ was used, if you don’t hand it over, this whole thing is probably over right now.”
Amaryllis handed the glove over, looking slightly miffed.
Check it for gold.
I tried to pop more gold out, and nothing happened. I hadn’t expected her to hide an additional cache of gold inside the glove, but I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised. After waiting for more instructions, I cautiously handed the glove back to Amaryllis, who slipped it back on.
Mark the gold, said the voice in my head.
I didn’t need to ask what that meant, or how I would do it, because it was already a new bit of knowledge, one that had been put into my head. It was a simple sign, one that needed to be made while facing the gold and close enough to touch it. Maybe more importantly, it needed to be ‘mine’, in a way that was a bit nebulous.
As soon as that was done, I felt a rush of power.