There wasn’t a lot of good information on who the most powerful gold mage of all time had been, but there was a decent chance that I was in the top one percent of all time. Gold mages were hampered by their quest for gold, and unstable by design, which meant that there were hard limits on how much wealth they could accumulate before they burnt out. It was entirely possible that I had rocketed up to the top of the pile for gold mages, all at once.
It wasn’t like the power that came from having tons of skills in their hundreds. No, this was raw, unbridled power, untamed except by my single point in the skill. I flew up, and probably would have killed myself if not for the fact that I had so much other magic at my disposal. I continued straight into the sky for a full second, and found myself far above the clouds. I could see the curve of Aerb, caused by some arcane effect that in a videogame I would assume had something to do with render distances, but here I probably thought was in order to mimic Earth. Light curved, making it look like I was shooting up from a sphere.
Skill increased: Gold Magic lvl 2!
I needed to skill up as fast as I could, and spent ten minutes in the air putting the new power through its paces. I flew up and down, getting a bit dizzy before I realized that I needed to consciously allow the fluid in my ears to slosh around, and then spent a few minutes testing that, trying to get my brain to agree with my senses about what was happening with my body. It was difficult work, but the levels in Gold Magic went up fast. The skill dealt with several aspects of the magic, all the various problems that weren’t quite covered by a general do-what-I-mean that seemed to come with it. I pulled steel ball bearings (these were an eternally handy tool that no self-respecting adventurer should be without) from my spare bandolier and tried firing them off using the tactile telekinesis.
Gold magic generally Just Worked, but there were certain required secondary powers that it simply didn’t have. I could easily break the sound barrier, but I didn’t have the incredibly fast reflexes and time perception that I would need in order to avoid slamming straight into the side of a mountain, or otherwise causing some major catastrophe. Gold magic would protect me from myself a bit, but not so much that I couldn’t accidentally kill myself if I was doing something dumb, or pushing it to its limits.
Gold magic passed tenth level with no virtue, and I was on the fence about whether or not that was a good thing. Most level 10 virtues were weak, parlor tricks more than superpowers, but I wasn’t sure that I would be able to get to level 20 before Perisev arrived. I wanted to know what direction the virtues would go in, whether they would be about the gold, the entity, or the tactile telekinesis.
(I was focused on leveling through gold magic and honing as much natural skill as I could with gold magic, but a small thread of my mind couldn’t help but think about all the ways that gold magic was stupid, at least from a worldbuilding perspective. It was something that I had talked about with Amaryllis a few times, with her eventually coming around to my point of view, or at least indulging me when I wanted to rant.
There were a lot of components that went into any good magic system, but gold magic had an inherent disharmony between the method of acquisition and the actual power granted. Having to stock up a big pile of gold that you couldn’t share with anyone and were bound to protect was a perfectly fine method of gaining power, but the power itself could have been anything, and it being tactile telekinesis was stupid and random, disconnected from whatever the magic was attempting to do or show with its acquisition method (‘capitalism bad’, probably, or ‘greed bad’). At least if it had been longer range telekinesis, you might have been able to make an ‘invisible hand of the market’ pun.
I had made some real stinkers like that in my time though, where two different pieces of a magic system or other worldbuilding element were just stapled to each other. Maybe it was just Aerb echoing the kind of failure that I sometimes came up with, or the laziness I sometimes approached worldbuilding with. It was hard to say.)
Skill increased: Gold Magic lvl 13!
Perisev was going to show up soon, I could practically feel it, though we had twenty minutes or so, maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less.
Take the gold and relocate it to somewhere only you can obtain it.
“And where would that be?” I asked, not really expecting an answer.
Celestar, it replied. Use the glove.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked. “How am I supposed to do that and be back in time to kill the dragon?”
You have time if you go quickly.
It was a worrying level of specificity. It was also known that the call of the gold could and did lie about consequences.
I looked up at the sky. Celestar was overhead. I was fairly sure that the call of the gold wouldn’t ask me to do something that was impossible, not right off the bat, just hard or costly. This … I would need air, which we’d had a solution to since back in Caer Laga, and I would be able to survive the vacuum of space through the use of gold magic to keep my insides inside, and the lack of heat … it was nothing that I couldn’t prepare myself for, but I would have liked more than mere minutes of notice.
I landed next to our small group, touching down softly.
“Training and testing going well?” asked Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow. They’d been watching me, but hadn’t asked me to come down: vibration magic let me keep an ear on them.
“I need to move the gold,” I said. The pallet was still there, with the remaining gold bars loaded onto it.
“Where?” asked Amaryllis, tensing up slightly. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, which was part of the reason the pallet had been loaded.
“Celestar,” I replied.
“We might have to bail,” Amaryllis replied after a brief pause. “It’s too total of a loss and too far to go. Beyond which, there are threats up there.”
“Yes,” I replied. “I think I can make it back in time. Two hundred forty thousand miles, that’s a lot, but once I’m out of the atmosphere I should be able to pour on the acceleration. I’m already breaking the sound barrier when moving through air, this would remove friction from the equation.”
“Twenty minutes,” said Grak. “That’s twelve thousand miles a minute. Double unless you teleport back.”
“We can’t endure even a single minute of a dragon attack,” said Amaryllis. “It could destroy the locus outright. It could burn and destroy every building on Poran in that time.”
“Those are the stakes,” I replied. “Are you advising against it?”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “Hurry.” She reached down and touched the pallet with Sable, then ten seconds later, once it had vanished, handed it to me.
I didn’t waste time on saying goodbye, and instead lifted off toward the moon, slipping on Sable and the breathing gear as I tore through the atmosphere. I was up out of breathable air almost as soon as I’d left, and pushed on forward, making sure that the gold magic was keeping everything in place, the tactile telekinesis extending to and suffusing my gear. When I was clear of the last dregs of air, everything became clear and bright, with nothing to obscure my view. I could barely feel the vacuum when it came, and only through the vague sense that I was using a fraction of my force to fight against it.
Achievement Unlocked: The Final Frontier
Space warped around me. Aerb was flat and infinitely tesselating, with the sky having the same appearance no matter where you were, barring some variations on what they called the projection layer. To make that even the least bit coherent, Aerb needed to be folded up, and the light coming from the sun, moon, and stars needed to be essentially straight with respect to the surface of the plane. It was a four-dimensional mess, and I just trusted in the image of the moon ahead of me, trying to ignore the way things were curving away from (or toward) me, all that upper dimensional stuff not entirely important. So long as I was looking at the moon, light was following a path from it to me, and though it might not be where it appeared to be, I had no better way to navigate, no way to untangle how the light was being fucked with.
The multicolored stars were moving around me. They weren’t actually stars, not like we had back on Earth, they were giant, hollow, glowing shells, and close enough that there was some parallax. They were all out past Celestar, but still near enough, and with enough variation in distance, that constellations were warping. I was stunned by it. I hadn’t expected traveling through space to actually feel like traveling through space.
And dead ahead was Celestar.
“The moon sucks,” I said, staring up at it. Tiff was curled in next to me. It was a cold night for stargazing, but we had heavy sweaters on, and it hadn’t gotten chilly enough for us to retreat inside. I liked the chill in the air even in normal circumstances, but it was all the better with her warmth beside me.
“Yeah?” asked Tiff. “What do you have against the moon?”
“Fiction is better than reality,” I replied.
“Have you ever read Baudrillard?” asked Tiff.
“Probably not,” I said. “Give me a hint?”
“Uh … he’s the guy who came up with hyperreality?” she asked, more than said.
“Oh,” I replied. “Then no, doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Nevermind,” said Tiff. “Not important. Please, tell me why the moon sucks.”
“Okay,” I said. “First, the good points about the moon. It’s really, really big, it orbits so that we get nearly perfect eclipses, and it produces some great tides. All those are good worldbuilding features.”
“Plus it protects us from asteroids,” said Tiff.
“Well, sure,” I replied. “But from a worldbuilding perspective … protecting the whole world from an outside threat as part of a thankless job? That’s great if it’s a person doing it, not so much if it’s an inanimate lump of rock, even less so if practically no one knows about it.”
“It’s pretty though,” said Tiff.
“It is,” I said, staring up at the moon. It was a waxing gibbous, which was the kind of information that I had foolishly filled my head with. “But … it’s a plain white sphere. There’s no life up there, no civilization, nothing organic, just pock marks from other rocks smashing into it, a waterless sea … don’t you ever think about how much more exciting the moon could be? If you read early science fiction, you can see all these thoughts and possibilities about what might be up there.”
“Do you love me?” asked Tiff.
I looked over at her. “Yes,” I replied.
“I love you too,” she said, giving me a little smile. We were at that point in our relationship where we were saying it kind of a lot. “Does your mind ever get overrun by all the ways that I could be better?”
“No,” I said. I tried to think about that. “You’re perfect.” (And I really did mean it.)
“Oh shut up,” she said, smiling slightly. “No one is perfect. But to think about all the ways that things could be better, more interesting, more compelling … it’s fine to have dumb opinions about the moon and how boring it is, but you can’t let that outlook leak out into your real life.”
“I do love you,” I said.
“I’m not talking about us,” she said. “You’re obviously blind to my faults at the moment, but — you know that map and territory thing that Arthur talks about?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“Okay, well Baudrillard’s idea was that in the modern world, we have this super detailed map, so detailed that we live inside it, and the real world is crumbling away from a lack of use,” said Tiff. “Well, the representation of the real world, anyway.”
“And this guy is a French philosopher?” I asked, staring at the moon.
“Sociologist, I think,” said Tiff. She curled in toward me. “Just something to think about. The moon as it exists in fiction, or in representation, or media, is not actually the moon. We have this hyperreal version of the moon, in our heads, and it’s alienated from that moon, and just … I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t talk about how life isn’t what it could or should be. I don’t know. I’m sleepy, I’m rambling.”
We were silent after that, and she fell asleep next to me, her breath hanging in the air and her nose red from the cold. I was left staring at the moon, and thinking what I would put up there instead.
Aerb only had one moon, but it was a huge, ripe, beautiful thing. It didn’t have much in the way of color, but against the backdrop of the multi-colored skies, that might have been a bit much. It was laced through with geometric lines, criss-crossing and curling, ordered in a way that was both obvious and unobvious, clearly the product of design but without the intent quite clear. There was green, in places, trees and fields, and blue in other places, rivers and lakes, but for the most part it was off-white, a very pale milky color, with a point of pink, where something terrible had happened.
The elves had a focus on perfection, not just as a persistent cultural trait, but as an immutable core of their species. They needed things to be just so, conforming to the ideal of its type, placed within the proper hierarchies. From a certain viewpoint, the elven experience was one of grinding down the world around them into a tolerable form, so that errant, unruly things would not trouble them anymore. Almost all differences between elves came down to variation on what perfection fundamentally meant: one of the great problems of the elves was that their ‘perfect’ was not immutable, as much as they might wish it so, and as much as they might believe it to be static.
It was hard to learn much from the partite elves of the fifth wave of migration, those who had left Celestar immediately before the cataclysm. It wasn’t that they weren’t willing to talk, the problem was that hardly anyone knew what, exactly, had happened. The leading theory had to do with a school of philosophical thought that had enjoyed some popularity at the time. In essence, the philosophers had posited that there was a great upward bend to elven history, that perfection was, by steps, increasing with every passing century, if imperfectly, and that this rise in perfection was happening faster and faster. The past was less perfect, and thus deserving of scorn, but the future was where true perfection lay, apotheosis for the elves, and for Celestar. As philosophers were wont to do, they turned these philosophical musings into plans for concrete action: it was the duty of every elf to hasten the apotheosis of perfection along.
And that was more or less what was known. Telescopes showed no signs of life on Celestar, no evidence that there was anyone still living there, and strangely, no growth of the plants or trees, no change to the sculpted environments of the elves, no decay or erosion. Very few people or organizations had the resources necessary to get to space, and expeditions to Celestar were rare, especially after a number of high-profile missions there were inexplicably lost. Who or what was causing those (presumed) deaths was unknown. It was, all in all, a spooky place to be.
Start decelerating, said the call of the gold, speaking into my mind.
I stared at Celestar ahead of me. It was larger in my field of view than it had been, certainly, but not so much larger that I thought I needed to worry. I had enough rudimentary physics knowledge to know that going from A to B in space meant spending half the trip accelerating and the other half slowing down, but I didn’t have a good gauge for where the halfway point was, nor how fast I was actually going. I started slowing down a bit, watching Celestar and trying to do the math, which was difficult, given that I didn’t have access to the numbers that I needed. Sadly, the Range Finder virtue, that lowly level 10 bonus from Thrown Weapons, had been lost to feed soul magic. It might actually have been helpful.
You’re going to crash into Celestar, said the call of the gold.
I put my full force of my gold magic into going away from Celestar, but I was still traveling toward it, my accumulated velocity not quite being canceled out. I added in still magic, and I was fairly sure that helped enormously, but it wasn’t going to be enough. I was going to slam straight into Celestar, and I had no idea whether I had the power necessary to keep myself from dying on impact. Without any appreciable friction, I must have gotten up to some insane speeds.
At the last moment, I changed tactics, angling myself to the side, trying to dodge the moon instead of slowing down enough not to hit it. That effort might have borne more fruit if it had been done earlier, but instead of missing Celestar, I just barely clipped it.
It all happened very fast. The amount of counterforce that I could apply was enormous, so once I’d made impact, I came to a sudden stop almost immediately, and I was checking myself over for injury even as pieces of wood and rock were still falling down around me. I’d grazed the side of the planet for a length of about a mile before I’d slowed down enough to get under control, but between gold magic and still magic, I hadn’t taken any injury. I wasn’t even bleeding.
I had fucked up a fair stretch of Celestar on my landing, and rose up to look around me, both to check the damage I’d done, and to find a place I’d be able to hide the gold.
Celestar had been perfectly manicured, back when it had been widely inhabited. The exact history of Celestar was unclear, and was thought to stretch back far before the creation (or instantiation) of Aerb itself. Elves hadn’t turned every inch of Celestar over to productive use, but they had ensured that everything followed the aesthetic of perfection, and set everything up so that it could last for lifetimes, never needing maintenance or upkeep. There was a derisive term used in worldbuilding circles, ‘Ragnarok Proofing’ that referred to imaginary civilizations that made things to last long after the civilization itself was gone, usually for no clear reason. It was mostly as a method of creating zones of adventure for players. In the case of the elves, ensuring that their structures and gardens could withstand an apocalypse was a part of their warped mindset, above and beyond all the cultural considerations. The hundreds of years since Celestar’s calamity had left everything virtually unchanged: it looked shockingly liveable, aside from the damage I’d done on my arrival.
I spotted a large dome in the distance, and flew toward it. I needed a place to hide the gold that would be quick, easy, secure, and something that I could find again in short order. Celestar was huge, bigger than the Earth’s moon, and there were relatively few landmarks, aside from the major lines that commerce had traveled along. In theory, the call of the gold would be able to tell me where my gold was, but part of the reason that I was being asked to do this was so that I’d have a way, way harder time getting this gold back if I ever broke the compact. The least I could do was to acquire a few landmarks in case I needed to return without the help of gold.
I flew down into the dome, which had a crack in the ceiling, not one from wear, erosion, or anything else, but instead from a rock that I must have kicked up on my arrival, since the break was clearly new. From there, I flew, hovering into what must have been an office, its books still intact on the shelves, chair halfway out from behind it. Everything was pristine, like I had just come into the office of someone who had stepped out for coffee and would be back in a few minutes.
I popped out the pallet of gold onto the floor of the office, then paused for a moment to look at it, waiting for further instruction from the call of the gold. The gold wasn’t hidden, this was just security through obscurity and the immense difficulty in actually getting to Celestar. If I’d had time … it wasn’t worth thinking about, this was all in service of keeping the power.
“Good to go?” I asked, hoping that there was no further obligation.
Yes, replied the call.
I pulled out the teleportation key, pinpointed Poran, and tried to use it, but to no avail: we’d known that it didn’t work across planes, but hadn’t had any evidence one way or another whether it would work out in space or on Celestar. I didn’t take the time to swear.
As fast as I could, I flew out from the building, back out through the hole in the roof, and zipped straight through the atmosphere of Celestar, trailing a sonic boom in my wake that died off after I was through the air.
From space, Aerb was a ball of muted colors, and I flew toward it as fast as I could, trying to be mindful of acceleration this time. In theory, I could speed directly toward it, wait until I was halfway there, then start putting force in the opposite direction, but that would be inefficient, since still magic meant I could slow down faster than I could speed up. I also had no idea where on Aerb I would end up: the ‘ball’ was really the boundary layer where space got fucky, and in theory, a photon hitting that boundary could end up anywhere on the hex (if Aerb even had photons). A star was the same distance from any point on Aerb itself.
Space warped around me as I crashed through the layer, and when the land below me was decidedly not the Isle of Poran or the sea that surrounded it, I tried using the teleportation key again, focusing in on the point where my segmented worldline had a large cluster.
After a brief moment of dulled pain, I looked around to find myself at the site where Bethel had previously sat, which was now just an empty stretch of land. No one was around, but there was smoke on the horizon. I rose into the air to look at it, and was just in time to see the great black dragon come screaming in for another pass.
I flew at her, watching her mouth closely, because everything I had against dragonfire was by way of mitigation, rather than being able to fully protect against it. With the level of gold magic I had available, it was possible that I could fling it away from me as soon as it made contact, but I wasn’t going to risk testing that.
I was faster than her, in the sense that I could move quicker, but she was faster than I was, in the sense that she had the reflexes necessary to actually use her speed. She saw me coming, the blur of a person probably difficult to notice, and raised her claws against me, but I had enough speed that I was able to slip between them and slam straight into her. I’d been leading with my sword, holding it so that it would have the full weight of my body behind it and strike true, not that the actual weight of my body was very meaningful in all this. I’d been aiming at her head, but struck her in the chest instead, my sword piercing her with enormous resistance.
I pulled back almost at once, flying backward at top speed, and outraced the dragonfire that she breathed at me, even as I was trying to use the sword’s magic to multiply the wound. She was jet black and hard to see, her blood no doubt the same color as her scales. I was waiting for her to counter-attack as I flew away, but instead she went the opposite direction, past the domain of the locus, and I was obliged to follow after.
“Tommul is dead then,” she said. The words were a shock: we were far apart from each other, though growing closer, and both of us were breaking the sound barrier in the course of the chase. It wasn’t vibration magic, but dragons were never very big on entads, in part because the resizing capabilities that came with most entads didn’t tend to be so lenient as to cover someone the size of a house.
I slowed to match her speed instead of going into ruthless pursuit. We’d left the Isle of Poran behind, the two of us so fast that there was no way a fight would stay confined there, which was probably for the best.
“It took me less time to figure out how to kill a dragon than I thought,” I replied. That was too snarky by half, but it felt good to say. Killing Tommul … it hadn’t been in the heat of the moment. I had already won when I blinded him, and again when I cut off his wings and he’d slammed into the ground. I had killed him because I didn’t want a third act of that particular drama. There was something gratifying in killing him, like there was in killing a wounded deer that I’d been tracking through the hills, bringing the inevitable to finally pass.
“A shame,” Perisev replied. “I had hoped that there were rules and caveats to your power. Can you truly not be stopped?”
“I don’t need to be,” I replied. “You’re the dumb asshole who thinks leaving Blue alive for a month is a bigger disaster than killing him and letting the chips fall where they may.”
I was still holding back on speed, following her but not closing the distance. The truth was, I wanted to talk, to explain that I wasn’t some horrible monster. Sometimes you had to work with despicable people, surely she would understand that.
“What the fuck did you want from me?” I asked, after she kept going with no response. “What answer should I have given to your quest, or to Blue, that wouldn’t have seen you breathing dragonfire on us?”
I wasn’t really expecting an answer from her. My best guess was that this conversation and this chase were both in service of stalling, or maybe trying to get me to some secondary location where a trap had been set. Maybe she was charging an entad. Continuing on with this, rather than rushing her down and stabbing her to death, was probably just me giving in to my desire for closure, for some reason that I was doing all this. Perisev was an asshole who had gone back on her word and tried to kill me, but if my life as a protagonist was going to be me righting wrongs like that … there had to be a better way.
“Until a few months ago, Uther was the only example of his kind,” said Perisev. “There were many things to say about him, but it couldn’t be known what was inherent to the phenomenon, and what might be malleable. If Uther had gone there, he would have found a way to solve the problem clearly and cleanly, even if it left blood on his hands.”
“You don’t know the first fucking thing about me or Uther,” I replied. I could feel the anger rising. Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle was a difficult situation for me, and for our party, and it wasn’t my fault that I hadn’t been allowed a situation where there was a clear and decisive victory within reach. “Uther was given stories by the world. The only reason anyone could say he didn’t have it easy is because it went on for so long. You trying to kill me because there’s no way to cut a problem down to the quick? That’s asinine.” I could feel my anger rising, though I had no real stomach for this fight. My mind kept going to those millions of people living under Blue’s rule, most of them not even knowing that there was a world above. Killing Tommul had been a moment of victory, but one whose satisfaction hadn’t lasted.
“Truce?” asked Perisev. Without waiting for a response, she landed on the ground, going from above the speed of sound to a dead stop in a meadow, taking no longer than it would take a car going highway speed to brake. I dropped down, hesitant, to stand beside her, far enough that I wouldn’t be at the mercy of her claws, and hopefully far enough that her dragonfire could be dodged.
“I’m tired of these fucking tests,” I said. “You’ve been putting on pressure and trying to suss out my capabilities. You’ve been trying to figure out the rules by being an adversary. Pretty fucking dumb, in my opinion. I’ve got millions of people that I’m somehow responsible for back in Necrolaborem, and handing them off to the Empire, which hasn’t done a damned thing about that place for its entire sorry existence — killing is easy, but the rest of this stupid shitty world is not.”
Perisev was watching me. “I have never met someone so calm in facing down a dragon,” she replied.
“I’m angry,” I said. “I’m angry because there are millions of people being held hostage by Elisha Blue, and there’s nothing that I can do that will turn back that damage or make it okay. I’m angry because there are trillions of people in the hells, and no way to obtain justice. You? You’re barely even worth talking about. I’ll kill you like I killed Tommul, and at least I’ll know that I’ve done one thing today that the world is better for.”
“Yet if I bow my head, as Blue has done, will you let me live?” asked Perisev, cocking her head to the side.
“No,” I replied. “You gave me two months, then tried to roast me after one. I’d be a fool to entertain the idea of letting you live. I wish there were a way to bind you, to make sure that your commitment to peace was solid instead of threadbare, but there’s not. Besides, there’s a good chance you killed one of my friends.” I didn’t actually believe that would have happened, but killing people off-screen wasn’t beyond what the Dungeon Master would do. It was entirely possible that Amaryllis, Grak, and Raven were all dead. Possible, but I wasn’t going to make assumptions.
“And yet you speak with me,” said Perisev.
“I don’t want to kill you,” I said. “It’s a necessity, a burden. I need to get back to Necrolaborem and do what needs to be done there, whatever that might end up being.” I was sure that they had a whole culture there, one that would need to be dealt with. Removing the oppressor was only a first step, and the damage that had been done to those people was incalculable and irreversible.
“Our history is a history of stories,” said Perisev, either launching into a new argument or stalling for time. “Stories are the universal constant of both mortal and immortal species, of every thinking creature. Uther was, in his way, the ur-protagonist, an inflection point around which thousands of plot threads bent.”
“And?” I asked.
“Stories are universal,” replied Perisev, looking me over. “But their forms, their structures, their tropes, are not. Uther was the protagonist of many stories, but they were all stories of a certain type, peaks and valleys, building tension and climax, inciting incidents and calls to action. The world was warped around him, even if it was never obvious that this was so. He was, in some sense, the culmination of the stories of the Anglish, and the bringer of a new generation of stories, and the creator and completer of stories himself. At the time, I thought that this was the trajectory of history, that there was something in Aerb that turned toward stories, and had been accelerating us toward something or someone like Uther.”
“And then he left,” I said. “And the story magic, or whatever it was, dried up.”
“There was a last gasp of it, but yes,” replied Perisev, with warm air washing over me from her nostrils as she sighed. “For nearly five hundred years, there was no grand narrative arc. We were unstoried. Those of us who studied these things, we had questions about the nature of Uther, and what had happened, whether all his power explained his centrality to the stories he wove in the real, or whether the stories begat the power. We could not know how they mingled, and whether they ever would again. The time of the Second Empire was a frightening one, because it was almost deliberately outside the bounds of narrative, with no strong, singular leader, only people of importance working together in mutual agreement, an ideology that revealed its weaknesses, blind spots, and flaws. When it ended, it was anti-climax.”
“And then there was me,” I said. “And I don’t conform to the Utherian ideal.”
“You conform to the new ideals of the time,” replied Perisev. “Rootless, wandering, obsessed with the structure of things, wanting to bring context, to argue until you’re blue in the face. You are, as is this time, beyond the level of story. Do you think it goes unnoticed how you produce stories from nothing?”
“How so?” I asked, resisting the urge to cross my arms, because my sword was still in my hand, and I needed to be ready for an attack.
“The interviews in the papers, the articles put out by newspapers that you now own, the testimony put forward by yourself and Amaryllis in the Lost King’s Court, even the myths that you’ve spun for the tuung, who were raised on stories that transcended reality.” She huffed once, showing a bit of fang. “It is the style of the time. You are the nexus of it. Unlike Uther, your stories will never exist just on the object level, they will twist and contort themselves through subversions, retellings, and recontextualization into something different, a story about stories.”
“That’s Amaryllis,” I said. “I have fuck all to do with it.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Perisev replied. “You are a product of the spirit of the times, or the spirit of the times was created to serve you, but the world in this third modern age is a blending of cultures, an understanding that there is no one true culture, that stories are just stories, unfounded and ungrounded, written by men who have not lived their lives, but rather, have steeped themselves in the reality of those stories.”
“I’m not even from Aerb,” I said. “I’m from Earth. I’ve read about three fiction books since I got here, and haven’t had much time for literary criticism. None of what you’re saying means a goddamned thing to me.”
“It should,” Perisev replied. “You should understand your circumstance in this world, your position, your path. Surely you’ve thought on the pattern of narratives. Surely your wife, if not you yourself, has made an attempt to put everything into the cycles of narrative that Uther described five hundred years ago. And surely she has seen that you do not fit the pattern.”
I tightened my grip on my sword. “There’s no way that I can keep you alive. Even if there was, I wouldn’t. You don’t have half the understanding of narrative that we do, and if you did, then it would still have been a bloody fucking stupid idea to try to kill me.”
“Then if peace is impossible, better we finish this quickly,” she replied.
I was expecting the attack, and moved away from her claws when they came, then hurled back toward her with my sword in front of me, making myself into a spear with the sword as its tip. She had almost certainly expected the counter attack though, and sprayed dragonfire at me as I approached, which I zoomed out of the way of, going up and over her with fire hot on my heels, the maneuvers causing me to momentarily lose all sense of where the ground actually was.
I popped a unicorn bone from Sable and began burning it, worried that I was one wrong move from getting a roasting that I wouldn’t be able to come back from. Instead of having to loop, though, I slipped down when the fire stopped and delivered a solid strike, piercing through her scales by dint of my speed before shooting back away from her as quickly as I could, not wanting to risk being so close that she could get me with her claws.
I used the sword to multiply her wounds again, pushing at it until it stuck, watching her to see if I was appreciably weakening her. She was bleeding, but it was like poking a human with a long needle: in order to do any real damage, I’d either have to be very precise with my pokes, or make a whole lot of them.
I decided for the latter, mostly because she was so damned fast. With the multiplication of wounds through reflection, a death of a thousand cuts would only take one hundred twenty-five cuts, which was a little bit more manageable.
By the fourth run I took at her, I was starting to feel it. The overwhelming power of gold magic was doing almost all of the heavy lifting, and still magic helped to stop me, but none of it was completely effortless, particularly not the moment when I struck her. It was a workout, if nothing else.
She tried to roast me, but I was simply too fast, and by the time the dragonfire moved through the air, I was already somewhere else. In some ways, I was like a very annoying fly, buzzing around and occasionally coming in for a slight nip that did almost nothing. She changed her tactics, turning marginally so that my sword was more likely to deflect off to the side rather than pierce through her scales, and trying to get an angle on me so that she would be able to meet me with claws or fire.
When I backed up for another run at her, she took off into the sky, and I shot off after her.
She was faster in the air, but the biggest advantage as she flew along was that it limited my angles of attack. In the atmosphere, a good fraction of my power was being used to simply push the air out of the way, which limited my ability to cut in toward her at a fast enough speed that I could pierce through her scales. The best option was to try to get ahead of her and then rapidly switch directions, but she was too smart and too aware for that, and the first time I tried it, she changed where she was going, which didn’t net me much.
I was on a timer, though not one as concrete as when my skills had been ticking down. No, instead I was worried both about the next call of the gold, and beyond that, my body’s ability to keep going. I wasn’t using all that much in the way of physical effort, but it was still unsustainable, especially because I wasn’t fully trained up in how to handle movement that came from gold magic. The turbulence through the air was also taking quite a bit of my power, since I was many things, but aerodynamic was not one of them.
I was watching her as we did our dance through the air, trying to figure out the landscape of this battle. Surely if I just stabbed her enough times, she would lose blood and begin to falter. Yet as I looked her over, I could see that I was doing less damage than I would have expected. If I had been stabbed by a hummingbird a dozen times, I would have healed up. Why should I assume that she would have no way of doing the same? Healing would almost certainly be magical in nature, but dragons were magically resistant — it was possible though.
If she did have healing of some kind, then I was left with the prospect of either causing enough blood loss that she could be taken out, or doing so much damage to her that the magical healing got overloaded.
There was still no clue as to where she was leading me, and a vague worry that I wasn’t doing enough to stop her from getting to wherever she was going. Realistically, I didn’t have much of a way to stop her, because my pokes with the sword imparted very little in the way of momentum, and I couldn’t exactly get her to change course.
I decided to change tactics. I had Sable, which in turn held literally thousands of objects in it, maybe as high as millions, given that there’d been several periods where we were just stuffing things into it like crazy. Naturally, most of those things were completely useless, but there was one in particular that I was hoping would serve me: void bombs.
With a moment’s hesitation, I pulled one out, ripped off the covering that was attached to the adhesive, which set the timer, then flew in close, stopping only for long enough that I could slap it right onto Perisev. It was a big bomb, roughly the size of a grapefruit, and I was nervous about whether or not it would just get ripped off by the air flow, but it held against the odds. As I flew away, I was fairly sure she realized something was wrong, and she shifted to look down at it just in time for it to blow up in her face.
The void happened when I was well outside the blast range, but I swooped closer to her as soon as the bomb had gone off. The one I’d used had been an iteration of Amaryllis’ void arrow design, with two explosions: the first scattered void crystals, hopefully getting them more than a foot away from each other, while the second ‘explosion’ was a detonation of a void crystal itself, which it was hoped would chain to the others. It was a major violation of international law, and not all that smart with the warnings about the Void Beast, but it was certainly effective.
Perisev howled and stopped almost at once, and I could see the wound I had given her, a black chunk of flesh missing from her, its extent surprisingly large. I pushed on the reflection blade in an effort to widen it and multiply the impact as best I could, and she plummeted to the ground, with me close behind her.
With the two of us having lost our speed, I was again at an advantage, capable of leveraging my acceleration for a strike against her. I readied another void cluster bomb, the second of the two we had prepared, but I wasn’t confident that it would do what I wanted, given that critical injuries to her vital organs were more important than stripping away the upper layers of her skin and muscle. In fact, I was surprised that the void bomb had done as much damage as it did: I had thought that it would slow her down, not knock her out of the air.
But as I got closer to Perisev, I saw her eye on me as she dropped, and realized that she was, in fact, more clever than I had given her credit for. With the element of surprise, she was able to touch her claws against me, and while I had enough power to prevent the claws from shredding me, that wasn’t what she was going for: she grabbed me.
I pushed against her with gold magic, but that did very little for me, because her grip was so tight. My arms were pinned to the sides, and I tried to apply the force of the gold magic so that I would slip right out, but she was squeezing me too hard, though not quite able to physically crush me, not with the combined force of gold magic and still magic.
She brought her head down to douse me in dragonfire, and I did something that was either clever or reckless or both: I went into Sable.
I was in there only for a moment, a second, maybe less, and then I pushed back out again, flying away in a random direction as soon as I was in the real world. I had worried that Sable would be ripped or otherwise burnt, but I spotted it floating in the air as I twirled away, and went for it at full speed. It was a risk, given that it took me so close to Perisev, but she was having a moment of confusion at my sudden disappearance and reappearance, and I was able to grab it as it fell down.
The void bomb was still in hand, but not yet cooking. I flew in close, trying to get to her, but she’d really been playing her injury up, and while she’d lost some mobility, she was still well-capable of fighting me off, though my speed advantage had only grown with her loss of mobility.
I hesitated for a moment, hung in the air far enough away that I only had to worry about her fiery breath. There was a chance that the one-hundred-twenty-five cuts plan was the way to go, at least with her so injured. Every moment that passed allowed for her to try another desperate trick, or worse, for her to call for help, or for help to arrive. I might be able to kill Perisev, but if a second dragon showed up, the best I’d be able to hope for was a stalemate.
I decided on a course of action and began a run-up to Perisev, building speed through the air. Just before I reached her, I blasted her with a bolt of lightning, courtesy of Ring of the Dragon’s Mouth. I had never been immediately next to a clap of thunder, and underestimated how loud it would be by quite a bit, maintaining my ability to hear only because of my defenses. Perisev wasn’t greatly injured, only momentarily fazed, but it gave me the opening I needed to race in without having to worry about being snatched again.
I planted the bomb on her and took off again, as fast as gold magic would carry me, looking back only once I was well clear.
Her body had blocked much less of the blast this time, and the void effect had stripped scales and flesh from her wings. She began to fall again, and this time, I didn’t think she was faking it. I was cautious as I went after her though, keeping my distance, waiting for a gout of flame to sear the air in front of me.
She had just enough control not to crater into the ground, but unless it was a ruse, it seemed unlikely that she would by flying anytime soon. She knocked aside trees with her landing, and lay there for a moment, body heaving and leaking blood.
“I yield,” she said, twisting her head to look at me up in the sky with some effort.
“Do you understand why I let Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle live?” I asked, amplifying my voice with vibration magic. “It was to help people. That’s all I wanted to do. If I need to work with abhorrent people to do it, I will. If I need to do evil in pursuit of good, I will.”
“I yield,” she repeated, then coughed up a glob of black blood.
I wished that I had another void bomb, but I didn’t, so I popped out my sword instead. It was a brutal, ugly way to kill a dragon, but it was what I had available to me. I flew straight at her with my full speed, breaking the sound barrier just to slam my sword as far as it would go into her skull. I was mildly surprised that I could even penetrate the bone. It wasn’t enough to kill her though, so I flew back up, reflecting the wound as I went, then came back down for another strike.
She tried to fight back, but she was weakened and bleeding out. Her claws were too slow to catch me, the gouts of flame from her mouth too easy to dodge, and after five minutes or so of repeated strikes, she stopped moving altogether.
I waited, watching her to see if she would move, or if this was another ruse. After enough time had passed though, I got my notification.
Perisev, the Wretched, defeated!
I felt nothing from it, just some residual healing as my body got back into tip-top shape. My attention was on Perisev, watching the blood continue to slowly spill out of her.
The body will be worth a fortune.
“Shut up,” I told the call of the gold. “But yes, fine. I need to go back to Poran, then we can return and claim it. Tommul’s body too. Carve them apart, take some for us, sell other parts, hope that the Draconic Confederacy sees losing half a percent of their members in a single day as a threat and a warning …”
I sighed, then went over to Perisev’s head, pulled a runed spike from Sable, and extracted her soul, a bloody affair that took so long that I was worried I had missed the window of opportunity. Once it was out, I slid it into a bottle, and stared at it for a moment. It wasn’t any different from any other soul, not special for having come from a dragon.
I lifted off into the air and tried to get my bearings. I was in an unknown land, with no familiar landmarks, and only a vague sense of direction, but Sable contained a large number of maps, and I was able to start flying on a more or less correct line back to Poran.
I felt empty. Perisev’s purity test wasn’t fair, and I knew that it wasn’t, but I still wished that I had passed it. Working with Blue-in-the-Bottle was gross, even if it was the sensible thing to do.
There was an undercurrent of anxiety running through my thoughts. Some of it was the call of the gold, that might ask me for something new at any moment, and which we had enough invested in that it would be painful to resist. A large chunk was Necrolaborem, and the enormous problems there that had no easy solutions. I was responsible there, and it was a responsibility that I couldn’t abdicate, not when I was so well-positioned to respond.
But the third part was more immediate than either of those: it was the smoke on the horizon, coming up from the Isle of Poran. That was how I had left it, and whatever had happened there was so far in the past that I had no chance of affecting the outcome. I’d told myself a lie, that everyone was fine, that there had been no off-screen deaths, but that was only enough to get me through the fight with Perisev. I knew my existence on Aerb well enough to know that sometimes people died, even if it didn’t make a lick of dramatic sense.
I landed next to the tree house, which had been spared dragonfire, and my eyes moved quickly between the people I saw, knocking names off my list. Grak was there, Raven too, a few of Amaryllis — and no Solace, though the locus had been visible from the sky, toward the edge of the domain.
“Is Solace okay?” I asked.
“No,” said Amaryllis. “She was badly burned protecting the locus. She’ll live, though.”
I let out a breath. “Good,” I said. “The locus?”
“Weakened,” said Grak.
I nodded. “Perisev is dead and the gold is on the moon. I leveled up.” The tension was releasing, a single source of anxiety having been removed, lightening the load. “We need to get back to Necrolaborem then.”
“We took some hits here,” said Amaryllis. “We’re healed back up, but most of that was due to Solace.”
“Okay,” I said, shifting slightly. “Look, there’s going to come a point very soon when I need to get off the wild ride of being a gold mage, so time is vital.”
Amaryllis stared at me, then nodded. “You’re right. There are things that need to get done.”
“It’s also possible that we pissed off a whole bunch of dragons,” I said. “That’s two in one day, and while I don’t think they’d want to commit their lives to killing me — I talked with Perisev, and I guess to her, it was about stories, or morality, or some stupid shit like that, and — we need to deal with the Necrolaborem stuff, preferably soon, but this is just fair warning that we might be kicking off the Dragon Wars arc.”
“We’ll be ready,” said Amaryllis with a nod.
“No, we won’t,” replied Raven. “We burned through two powerful strategies today. What do we have as a third?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing yet, anyway. If I absolutely had to kill a third dragon, and I couldn’t do it before I have to ditch gold magic, then I would go to Blood God Doris and enlist her help somehow. We also have an unused rune magic exploit, we could leverage the Couch Potato … there are a few paths, but yes, none of them are particularly short paths.”
Get to work on carving up the bodies, said the call of the gold.
“How, exactly, does one cut up a dragon?” I asked. “Can we put someone on that?” I tapped my head. “I’m at risk of losing my gold mage license.”
“I have contacts that can help,” Raven supplied. “There might be some legal difficulties, depending on where both of the corpses landed.”
It was only after she finished speaking that I realized I’d last left her next to Tommul. She had made her own way back, as I thought she would, and quite a bit faster than I’d expected.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Fine,” she replied, though she really didn’t convey that with her tone.
“I never meant —” I began.
If you wait too long, others will claim the corpses.
“The gold calls,” I said with a grimace. “It’s a fortune we would be leaving on the table. We’re also going to want to find and control their hoards, if that can be done. Do we have any kind of right to them? Or can we press a claim?”
“We can on Perisev, not on Tommul,” said Amaryllis. “It’s a jurisdictional issue. Let us handle it, we’ve been preparing for a dragon death in abstract terms since the train ride to Headwater.” And by ‘we’, she meant her, now multiplied.
You still need to be a part of it. Amaryllis must be kept accountable.
“I still need to oversee and be in the loop,” I said. “Sorry, that’s by orders of the licensing board.”
Amaryllis nodded once.
“And we need to return to the NLEZ,” I said, feeling an internal twist of anxiety as I said it. “Sooner than later.” I felt like making a joke, or saying something to relieve the tension I was feeling, but there was nothing that wouldn’t just make me feel worse. “I frankly feel like I need a week in a time chamber to try to untangle everything, and another week to decompress.”
“Gold magic won’t allow it,” said Amaryllis.
“Fuuuuuuuuck,” I said. “Fine, let’s just get all this shit over with.”
There was an awkwardness in the group, one that I could keenly feel. Maybe it was the disconnect between me and them, the fact that I had soloed both the dragons without much in the way of help, or the battle they’d clearly been engaged in while I was elsewhere. I couldn’t bring myself to care that much about Solace, not when they’d told me she was going to pull through. It was a soft punch, compared to what I had been expecting, not inconsequential, but … close, compared to thinking about the death of a team member. And it felt like I’d been given permission to not care, to offload the social and emotional labor for another time. But the more I thought about it, the more I could see that things weren’t sitting right, not with me, not with the group.
“Sorry,” I said, unprompted. “I’m feeling off. Perisev — we talked. She had a point. Not a great one, not one that I could do a single thing about, I don’t think, but — I think she felt like the story of my time here wasn’t a proper story, or didn’t follow the same story rules, or was a reflection of,” I shrugged. Maybe she was insane, or viewing things through a different lens, but it felt like maybe she had a grain of truth. How things had gone with Blue-in-the-Bottle thus far were a sign that she was right, because it wasn’t how it would have been for Uther. “She surrendered, and I killed her anyway. Same with Tommul. I could have let him live. Neither felt, or feels now, like vanquishing an enemy, they felt like shitty things that had to be done, even though I didn’t want to do them.” Tommul, maybe, when I’d killed him, had given me a rush, but it had faded, leaving behind more complicated feelings. I paused, waiting for words of encouragement or absolution from the group, but they didn’t come. I was sure that Amaryllis, at least, would have said them, if she’d thought that was what was best, or what was needed, but she was silent, just watching me and waiting.
“Elisha Blue is a problem,” I said. “A real, honest, problem, one that can’t simply be punched to death. He’s got to be our focus. I don’t think that he’s honestly going to let us fully defang him and eliminate any reason to keep him alive, but we can’t just kill him, because without him, there are huge problems in just keeping all those people alive, nevermind all the potential people ending up in the hells by way of his necromancy. He thinks that’s not leverage over us, and he’s partially right, because the moment he starts issuing threats I’m just going to fucking end him —”
“Is this about how you’re feeling?” asked Grak.
“Sure,” I replied. “Lost, hopeless, afraid, with this weight of responsibility that can’t be shucked off onto someone else, and no real concrete plan as to what I can do — but it’s also about what’s going on at the object level, and —”
You need to act now on the corpses.
“And this dumb fucking gold monster telling me what to do is not helping things,” I finished. “So let’s get started shoveling this shit mountain, one scoop at a time.”