“I have reservations,” I said to the table of tuung. I did feel a bit odd, being the only human there, and I was definitely damp, since this room, like many in the complex at Poran, was equipped with a mister in the ceiling that sprayed at periodic intervals. Aside from me being human, I felt like there was a bit of undue deference to me. Amaryllis hadn’t personally written very much of the stories that the tuung had grown up on, but whoever had done the writing had done it with a skilled hand, in a way that made propaganda palatable to people who would learn, in the course of their studies, what propaganda was and how it was used. Amaryllis probably wouldn’t have used the term ‘propaganda’, but our group featured fairly heavily in it.
Aside from five of the first generation of tuung, who made up the core of the second generation working group, there was another, of the zeroth generation: Esuen, there by my special request. Her presence was a bit uncomfortable, but she had so far been silent.
“Go ahead,” said Liam. He was our chair. It was hard for me to remember that the tuung were young, because so many of them acted so old. They’d been raised in ideal conditions, and given an upbringing that most adults would have killed for, but they were still basically teenagers.
“The second generation is needed,” I said. “But the first generation, if you’ll forgive me, isn’t to the point of full maturity yet. The first generation is a work of social and cultural engineering the likes of which has only very rarely been seen on Aerb, and while I have full faith and confidence in all of you, what’s being proposed is basically using a prototype to build a second prototype before the first is even finished.”
“Argument from uncertainty and risk,” said Liam, with a nod, labeling it without condemnation or judgment. “Both have been addressed to my satisfaction. There will be inevitable drift, but there are correction mechanisms inherent to our culture. There are specific challenges that the second generation will face that the first generation did not, particularly, we will serve as our own teachers, the scale will be larger — it’s nothing that we’re not prepared for. These risks and costs need to be measured against the pressing need for more of us, and the significant benefits of being able to evaluate the performance of the first generation.”
“Alright,” I said. “But if this doesn’t work out, then we’d be adding to our problems, not taking away from them. It’s a huge investment on our part.”
“Do you believe that these are the end times?” asked Liam.
I stared at him for a moment. Despite my place of prominence in this neo-tuung culture (Miunun culture, I supposed), I was relatively uneducated on its tenets. I’d gotten the abridged version, rather than reading through any of the foundational texts, some of which had been written by Amaryllis, some of which had been written by members of the teaching staff and personally vetted by her. In terms of what they believed, there was a strong focus on selflessness and community, a duty to others, an adherence to the chain of command and the rule of law, honesty and the sublimation of desires, especially fear — she had pulled different parts from different cultures, some on Aerb, others on Earth.
This end times stuff though … it wasn’t unexpected, but I had never heard one of the tuung say it directly like that.
“Er,” I said. “I mean, yes, I think that the world is likely to, if not end, then be so radically altered that it’s barely recognizable, probably within the next few decades, if not the next few months. Or weeks.” Days, potentially, if we do something very right or very wrong.
“The world is ramping up,” said Liam. “We need to ramp up in response. A good portion of the second generation will be put toward this current crisis, but we’ll be needed in order to help resolve other crises that are sure to crop up before we reach the actual end. A large portion of why we want to push here, now, is because it will surely be a necessary step later. The resources needed for the second generation are in place — and we’re going to need them, most likely sooner than later.”
“Okay,” I said, letting out a sigh. There was a certain intensity to the tuung that reminded me of Amaryllis, and I had no idea how she had trained that into them. “I relent, and consider my objections to have been answered.”
“They won’t be tuung,” said a voice from across the table. Heads swiveled to Esuen, who had finally chosen her moment to speak. It was hard not to see her as an old woman, but no, she was still young, just not young in comparison with these people who were technically her children. “All culture, all language, has been stripped from them.”
“The culture is stable,” said Liam. “We’re not going to change it. We understand your concerns and your desires, but —”
“But you’ll do nothing,” said Esuen. “Who will die to bring the second generation to life?”
“Any of us would volunteer our life,” said Liam. “It will be a question of which of the volunteers can be most easily spared, and which is most biologically suited.”
It was a grim reality of the tuung that a male had to die in order to further the next generation, and something that I hadn’t really thought that much about. It was, in a sense, suicide. But if that was what was necessary to continue their species, then I wasn’t going to argue with it, and it had long been my opinion that suicide was your right as an individual. It did sit a bit uncomfortable though.
Esuen said no more, and seemed defeated and withdrawn, as she had for most of the time I’d known her.
“Juniper!” came a yell from across the broad rocks and sparse vegetation of Poran. I looked, and saw Valencia, who began running toward me with a smile.
“Valencia!” I called back as she met me with wide arms. I had known she was coming, but still found myself happy to see her. She wrapped her arms around me, and I hugged her back. It went on for just a bit too long, to the point where I was consciously aware of her pressing her body against my own, and then she pulled back. “You have muscles,” I said, looking at her. When we had rescued her, she had been thin and soft, and in the time since then, she had been working with Amaryllis on strength training, sparring, and overall physical fitness. It was still a little surprising to see clear signs of musculature where her bare arms showed.
“It’s been longer for me,” said Valencia. “Time chamber.” She was still smiling at me. I looked at her face, trying to judge how much time in the time chamber, but came to no firm conclusions.
“And … how are things?” I asked.
“Great!” she replied. “But I’ve missed you all a lot, and it feels good to be back, even if it’s only just for now. Amaryllis has scheduled me for two nights of partying before I go back, in between interviews. How’ve you been?”
“Good,” I said, by reflex. “Actually, kind of shit. I mentioned some of it in the letters, but I’m feeling like I would only be cut out to be the Chosen One in the long term if it were this rigid black and white world where it was always clear what was right and what was wrong.”
“Oh,” said Valencia. “You’d do horribly in that kind of world.”
“I would?” I asked.
“Yes,” she nodded. “You like greys. You seek them out. You like to look at simple things and point out how, actually, they’re complex, multi-faceted things in disguise. Do you not know that about yourself?”
“I guess,” I said, frowning at her. “I feel like you know me a lot better than I know you.”
“Well, the devil’s in the details,” Valencia smiled.
I gave her a glare. “Puns are the lowest form of comedy.”
Valencia laughed. “In that they're the bedrock upon which everything else should be built?”
“Have you gotten funnier?” I asked. “I remember you being quite dull.”
“Oh, well, teasing, now that’s far more elevated than puns,” Valencia replied. “And wait, aren’t you the guy who named her Seconmary?”
I grinned. “It really is good to have you back, even if it’s just for a bit.”
“You know that I would have completely solved the entire Anglecynn arc in about two hours, right?” asked Valencia.
“Yeah, I know,” I sighed.
“And then I would be the one married to Amaryllis,” she continued.
“Don’t you have some work to do?” I asked, teasing her a bit, but very much wanting to spend more time with her.
“Of course, and we’ll talk later,” she said. “I need Grak to fill me in on all the juicy details anyway.”
With that, she flitted off, and, I assumed, began eating through devils in order to peer deep into the minds of pretty much everyone around us. It was, according to at least a few moral systems, completely unethical, but I was skeptical that the second generation project would be a success without it. Beyond that, we would also need her to vet new interim leaders of the NLEZ, which had its own moral problems.
As much as I liked seeing her again, I felt a slight twist in my gut at the knowledge that Bethel was out there somewhere, by herself, with no adult supervision aside from maybe an Amaryllis. I didn’t have details on what was being done, and while I knew that they would tell me if I asked, I hadn’t asked. And if I was going to get Valencia back on the team permanently, it would mean dealing with the Bethel Question at some point, which would partially depend on how her socialization was going, and partly on how much we needed her abilities.
(I had never asked Tiff if it was something the girls did too, but in sixth grade, the boys at my school had really gotten into eating things for minor amounts of money. It was almost always something disgusting, sometimes mushed up cafeteria food, sometimes bugs or plants, and sometimes things that weren’t edible. The worst I ever ate was a napkin with some boogers on it, and before I did it, I sat there trying to psych myself up, not just in terms of getting ready to do it, but trying to visualize this disgusting thing, to make myself believe that it wouldn’t be so bad. And it was bad, naturally, and all the mental prepwork hadn’t done anything for me at all, and might have made it worse.)
I flew across the island to where Amaryllis and Raven were. They had a patio table they were sitting at, with papers spread out on it.
“Status?” asked Amaryllis.
“No new calls from the gold, the second generation is good to go with some logistical and cultural issues to figure out, I invited Esuen to the meeting apparently just to get her depressed about her children, whatever, it’s fine, where am I going?” I said all this at a rapid pace, because I didn’t want to get bogged down in any of it.
“Glassy Fields,” said Amaryllis. “It would have been better to do it with The Underline or The Egress, or with other people, but it’s a prime candidate for a high tier gold mage to smash straight through it all. The wards shouldn’t be able to withstand you, and you can see them, so you should be able to solo it. Beside that, it was one of the first quests that you accepted, and should be one that we knock out before making the suicidal attempt at sneaking past Fel Seed.”
“Alright,” I said, hovering slightly. “Now?”
“Wait,” said Raven. She looked over at Amaryllis. “There’s some discussion between us about narrative and meta-narrative. The crux of the issue is attempting to figure out what we can expect from sending you on tasks that should be simple and fast given your power level. The debacle at Speculation and Scrutiny is a strong argument in favor of you not making this attempt.”
Amaryllis shook her head. “There will be more funds there, more gold, some entads, and presumably something more, unless it’s really just a quest to obtain loot, which seems unlikely given prior evidence.”
“Amaryllis has a theory,” Raven began.
“No, it’s less likely to work if we tell him,” said Amaryllis.
“Do you really think that we’re not characters in this story?” asked Raven. “That everything we discuss is safely hidden off-screen?”
“Glassy Fields was one of the earliest quests,” said Amaryllis. “But it wasn’t one that we could have actually done early on. The nature of the exclusion zone is such that it became much more feasible to do as time passed, and at a certain point, became trivial. We could have done Glassy Fields just after Grak got his big virtue. We could also have hired The Underline or something like it, and dropped straight down to the castle with only relatively minor enemies to fight.”
Raven frowned at her. “Amaryllis thinks of this as a test.”
Amaryllis sat back in her chair and rolled her eyes. “Yes, a test that works less well if the protagonist knows about it, which means that it’s less valid now.”
“Sorry, what was this test supposed to be?” I asked. “What outcomes were you expecting, and how would you differentiate between them?”
“It’s a go/no-go test,” said Amaryllis. “If it goes off without a hitch, it’s a sign that the Dungeon Master agrees with the long-term plan of wrapping things up. If there are complications, but it ends relatively quickly, then that’s also probably a sign that we’re clear to move toward the end game. But if it spawns two more quests, and is clearly only the first step in a long chain, then we know that moving against Fel Seed is unlikely to produce the results we’re hoping for.”
“We still don’t understand the structure of quests,” said Raven, folding her arms. “It will be a data point, but that won’t mean anything, it will just shift the probabilities.”
I stopped hovering and grabbed a chair to sit at the table with them. “Can I lay some knowledge on the both of you?” I asked.
Amaryllis was watching me carefully. “Sure.”
“There comes a time, in almost any tabletop game, where the party will sit there spinning its wheels, trying to figure out what they should do, or what’s required of them, or whatever else. Sometimes they’ll metagame and try to figure out what the DM has prepared, and other times it will stay on the object level. As the DM, it just gets boring, and tiring, and you want them to get on with it. And as a DM … it depends on your particular style, but for me, it never actually mattered, because I was making most of it up as I went along.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” replied Amaryllis, frown still on her face. “We don’t know whether the Dungeon Master of Aerb is ready for this to end, or whether it’s the equivalent of the beginning of the night, when he’s fresh and full of ideas. There are many things that a brief quest to Glassy Fields tests for, but even if it’s just a data point, it’s one that we need.”
“Treat him like he’s just a dude,” I said.
“He’s an entity that has full control over the entirety of our existence,” said Amaryllis. She looked like she wanted to yell at me, but was politely and calmly refraining from doing so. We had these kinds of conversations when talking about the Bible, more than once, because I had a tendency to personify God, and Amaryllis had a tendency to deify him.
“Right,” I said. “But what I’m saying is … imagine that he’s me, and how I would behave.”
Amaryllis shook her head. “It would depend on how you were feeling that day, and what you had planned, and what you had been reading lately.”
I looked up at the sky for a moment and thought about that. “I guess.”
“Juniper, I’ve had long conversations with both you and Reimer about your particular style,” said Amaryllis. “It’s not something that I ever thought I would be an expert on, but here we are. How things go with Glassy Fields will help to illuminate elements of the scenario we’re in. We just suffered major losses, does that mean that we’ll have a bounce back, a period of rest and respite, or is this the start of intensification? I would argue the latter, but that might be a good thing, if it gets us closer to a satisfying end to all this.”
“She hopes that it will be a blowout,” said Raven.
“Alright,” I said. “So do we agree that this is up to me, whether we want to risk an explosion of complexity and quests when all we want is loot and a confirmation that we can head into the endgame?”
“Yes,” nodded Raven.
“I suppose,” replied Amaryllis. “It’s a less effective test now that we’ve had this conversation.”
“Narrative depends on viewpoint,” said Raven, sounding exasperated. “Uther goes into this in Degenerate Cycles, which I know you’ve read.”
“It’s conceivable for someone to disagree with Uther, isn’t it?” asked Amaryllis. “And as Perisev said, Uther and Juniper are playing under different rules, different frameworks. I don’t think the distinction that she proposed, stories placed against stories about stories, is necessarily the one that makes the most sense, but it’s at least an explanation for what’s going on. Juniper’s preferred frame is that the difference is mostly a matter of DMing style, or attitude, and I don’t know that’s right either, but —”
“I’m going to take off,” I said. “It’s not that I don’t care about this, because I do, but if I were the Dungeon Master, I would want someone to take the initiative instead of talking in circles for another hour or two. Grak fixed Rilke’s Strap, so you can talk to me via the Fourfold Flask if you need to, unless I get killed, or have to run an errand for the gold, or whatever.”
“Are you okay?” asked Amaryllis.
“Yeah, fine,” I said. “Ready for some real downtime, but that’s going to be in short supply until I give up gold magic. Maybe once I do, we can find a time chamber and I can just … take a year or so to not have any obligations.”
“I’ve been in a time chamber with you, Juniper, you would want out before three weeks were over,” said Amaryllis, which she said with a smile, but still kind of stung, because she’d done who-knew-how-long so far without problems.
“Well, whatever,” I replied. “Don’t have too much fun without me.”
By far the best part of being a gold mage was being able to fly. I grabbed the map, put it into my bandolier, then lifted off into the sky, allowing the Isle of Poran to grow small beneath me. Once I was far enough up, I pushed hard, flinging myself through the clouds and hoping that I had enough drag that it would look like I punched a hole through them. That got me damp, but I dried off quickly once I was through the other side, using gold magic to push the water away, and I sailed on, faster than the speed of sound, toward Glassy Fields.
It felt good to be on my own. I was on a mission, but still, it was freeing, like I had permission to temporarily stop worrying about what was happening in the rest of the world. My mind tried to go to the millions of people in the NLEZ, but I directed it elsewhere, which wasn’t hard, given how vast and beautiful the land below me was. Aerb hadn’t gone through the same things Earth had gone through, and was far more wild and untamed. Industrialization had been quite different, and colonization had arguably not happened, or at least not to the extent that it did on Earth. If it weren’t for a half dozen different things, I might have called it a fantasy world in the derogatory sense, the kind of place that you would dream up as a coping mechanism for the real world.
Those half dozen different things though … they were pretty important deal-breakers. I could imagine an Aerb that didn’t have them, no consequences for the use of void, no risk of exclusion (and better balancing so that exclusion wouldn’t be necessary in the first place), cut a few of the exclusion zones that were actively creating misery, make a few updates to sapient rights, eliminate the hells so that soul power wasn’t a moral problem, things like that. It wouldn’t take much work, for a god.
I wasn’t going back to Earth, when it was all over.
Flying through the air, feeling my raw power push back against the turbulence, I couldn’t imagine sitting in high school listening to a teacher who didn’t want to be there give a lecture to students who also didn’t want to be there, about things that no one was very interested in. Maybe college would have been better, and maybe it wouldn’t have, but after that would come a career in some field or another, and I knew enough about the working world to know that most people didn’t like their jobs. From what I knew about myself, I didn’t think that I would be the exception, almost no matter what field I ended up going into. Even if the people of Earth got their collective shit together, I wouldn’t have put good money on being happy there.
On Aerb … even if I had to give up all my magical powers, and my knack for picking up new skills, and just be a regular guy going to a regular job — well, I was a multimillionaire, so I just wouldn’t have to, and my smoking hot wife who probably wasn’t just pretending to love me was effectively the leader of two, soon to be three nations — the deck was stacked in favor of Aerb, simply by my circumstances. But even if it hadn’t been, even if I were living as the average Aerbian, or some version of myself that had a parallel to what I would have been on Earth, I still thought that I would have liked Aerb more, just on its merits.
Aerb had big towers that no one had an explanation for. It had rivers that sometimes ran backwards, fish that exploded if the light of a full moon touched them, metals that turned soft like putty when you sang to them, billions of tiny little things to seek out and understand, to soak in and enjoy. Earth had that too, it did, but the scale on Aerb was so much different, so much larger.
No one was asking me to come back, or telling me that I should, but I had read enough stories about people transported to another world to know that it was common. I had always hated that aspect of the Narnia books when I was growing up, how the children always had to go from being kings and queens to weak, powerless children in the middle of the worst war in their world’s history. If I had to go back like that, to return to fifth period English class with only a slowly fading memory of what had happened … It was a haunting thought.
Luckily, there was a Zone of Adventure to distract me.
Glassy Fields was relatively benign, as exclusions went. Thousands had died when the exclusion happened, but no one lived within the zone, and it generated no unhappiness or depression. The exclusion zone just sat there, a place that was hostile to life, but which didn’t require or really even suggest that life should come in. It was, in some ways, a graveyard for glass magic, and unhappy in that respect, but it was old enough now that it was a tourist spot, a place with towers built around the edges to look in, and souvenirs that you could buy from shops that were just off the rail lines. Glassy Fields was an exclusion, but it was one whose tragedy was far in the past, and like the Boundless Pit, there was nowhere else you could see something like it.
When I was ten years old, a big ice storm had come through while we were visiting my uncle in Ohio. It had coated the trees, the cars, the power lines, and everything else in a thick shell, and probably my favorite memory of that year of my life was getting to go out and see all these things encased in ice. Sometimes I would break the ice off, other times just look at whatever was frozen inside. It was virtually certain that the glass magic exclusion zone had taken that memory as the germ of inspiration.
Spotting the zone was easy, because it had a very distinct difference from the meadows and forests around it. There was a bit of a glare from the sun, but only in a few places where the glass was curved just right to reflect sunlight up to me. As exclusion zones went, it was on the larger side, a hundred miles across, and shaped a bit like the side profile of a bell pepper, with a fat end and a narrow one.
Everything in the zone was coated in glass, and anything that sat on that glass for more than a few seconds would slowly have glass grow around it, until finally it was swallowed up. The glass wouldn’t grow to more than a foot of thickness, but once it did, it would start to harden, becoming more difficult to penetrate or shatter. It was, I thought, less pretty than the ice storm, so thick that the shape of what was underneath was mostly lost. The trees in particular looked a bit like mushrooms, with the way that the tops were made big and bulbous. In addition to the casings there were also spikes and edges, the former looking like stalagmites, the latter like snow drifts, but far more deadly, because whatever process was making those shapes, it left them incredibly sharp.
It wasn’t all glass. There was water, and there was life. Only a few varieties of plants could live in the zone, all of them with some kind of adaptation, lifting up little proto-roots just a bit faster than the glass could swallow them up, or floating on top of the water. It wasn’t all that much, but the sparse greenery made the place feel more pleasant, and I far preferred a living environment to one that was dead and entombed.
There was danger, naturally, as there was in most exclusion zones. The sharp edges were the most worrying, at least for people who weren’t me. It was entirely possible to walk through Glassy Fields without armor or magic, if you were careful enough, but a single wrong step might slice open your leg, and if you fell, you were likely to take more injuries. I had heard that there were rare edges that were themselves so hard and rigid that they could cut straight through steel with only the slightest pressure, but I wasn’t sure that I believed that, since the stories of exclusion zones were often overblown. Glassy Fields was benign, and quite pretty in its own way, but because of the tourism industry on its outskirts, there was a lot of incentive to hype it up.
I was immune to Glassy Fields. Both still magic or gold magic had the power to completely prevent sharp things from cutting me, and the fact that I could float over the glass made it so that I wasn’t even touching it.
“I am Superman,” I muttered to myself. “World of cardboard, and such.” The eerie beauty of the place was making me slightly nervous, and I had to consciously remind myself that with gold magic active, I was one of the strongest beings on the hex. Even without it, there was nothing to hurt me.
The vidrics were a small animal that had shards of glass instead of fur, with a fox-like shape and bounding movements, their reddish internal organs visible beneath the glass. They hadn’t originated in the exclusion zone, but once they’d been introduced (or possibly discovered it on their own), they had spread like wildfire. Their glass fur kept the glass from building up on them, and they had the magical ability to travel through reflections, which in this place meant that they could do as they pleased. One by itself was little enough trouble, but in packs, they could slice up a person in a hurry.
I saw them watching me as I floated through, and casually changed my armor over to its fire form, which was the most intimidating among them. The fox-like creatures gathered, dozens of heads sticking up over glass ridges, and I tried not to pay them any attention, because if one of them attacked me, I could obliterate it.
The castle wasn’t too hard to find, because like almost everything else in Glassy Fields, it had been well-preserved. It wasn’t anything too grand, just a summer palace of Uther’s that he’d rarely used, which had been turned into a full residence by one of his descendants before the exclusion had hit.
I went up to the front door and placed my hand on the barrier of glass there. I hesitated, then used the entirety of the force of my gold magic. The glass shattered apart, with pieces of shrapnel bouncing backward toward me, then off my skin. It was a loud bang, probably loud enough to deafen me if I didn’t have a wealth of defensive magic. Amaryllis had seemed to think that I would be able to bypass the wards through brute strength, but as it turned out, I didn’t even have to worry about that, because there didn’t seem to be any wards at all. It wasn’t clear whether they had failed over time, been crushed by the glass, or suffered some other fate. The door was locked, and I spent some time trying to open it gently before finally giving up and blasting through.
The interior of the castle had stale air, and I flushed it away, generating air currents by pushing the air with gold magic. I stepped inside and began looking around, the Crown of Eyes letting me know that there was no one looking at me, vibration letting me be assured of the deep stillness of this place, water magic showing no vague humanoid outlines.
A part of me wondered whether this place had always been meant as a test. It was possible the first moment the quest had appeared had been set up not for then, but for this kind of quest, whose context was communion with the Dungeon Master. There was something nauseating about the circles you could end up going in, if you really wanted to, and I wondered whether religious people ever felt this way, like the Christian God was just constantly testing them, putting out signs that might not be signs, maneuvering the world in ineffable ways. If I broke down the doors and found nothing but the loot we expected to find, would that be because that was what had been set up here, written down in some yellow legal pad long ago as a payoff to a risk I could take, if I wanted to? Or would it be a message, a sign, permission to go after Fel Seed?
I tried not to think about it, because that way lay, if not madness, then at least a seven hour conversation with Amaryllis. I wondered whether I brought that out in her, because I knew that in committee meetings, she tended to be straightforward and efficiency-oriented.
I was on a time limit. The castle had been battened up tight enough that the glass hadn’t forced its way in, and the protective shell had secured it, but cracking open the door had let the glass start to flow in, and given time, it would encase everything on the inside as well. For many, many reasons, there was no hope of ever turning this all into a base, but it still gave me the feeling of cracking open and desecrating a tomb, even though I was pretty sure that no one had actually died here (they’d died getting out of the zone as the glass spread, not within the castle itself).
We didn’t have a layout of the castle, but we did have something of a manifest, which had been written down by one of Amaryllis’ ancestors, then transferred into books, and finally passed down to her. I didn’t know whether it would all be together, or how large of a space I was looking for, but I was hoping that I would know it when I saw it. It would have been good to have Grak along, to check magic for me, but he would have had to ride in Sable, and as much as I liked Grak, I felt guilty about using his abilities, especially when he was busy trying to work on important necromancy-related problems. Unless there was something wholly unexpected, he could have soloed this whole quest by himself, with mobile wards to annihilate glass and the ability to pass through wards even Uther himself had set up. Instead, I would rely on my ability to pulse magical sight, trying not to do it too often for fear of building up a penalty that I would have to wait on.
As castles went, this one wasn’t all that big, and my quick search for magic items only lasted about ten minutes, most of which was spent ducking my head into various rooms. The room that I was looking for was on the third floor, close to what appeared to be the staff quarters. There were, contrary to the item manifest, four silvered surfboards set into special racks instead of just one. That wasn’t a huge surprise, given that when I’d made the item back on Earth, it had been in a set, given to the party at far too low of a level. The utility of them was questionable for my case, but it allowed for fairly rapid flight, so long as they all stayed near each other.
Most of what was here had been taken, with obvious spots in this armory where they would have been kept. There was a small stand with poles that I would have guessed held rings or jewelry, all of which were missing. A magical armory like this wasn’t actually much use unless you had a whole host of magical items that you weren’t using, and the exclusion had been slow enough that most of the stuff had been taken by those who were fleeing the encroaching glass. My guess was that the surfboards hadn’t been taken because they were too unwieldy, though that raised the question of what might have happened to whoever could make them fly. My best shot-in-the-dark guess was that their owner had been one of the early victims.
I gathered the surfboards up, then set them down, my eyes drawn to what looked like a wardrobe. I had always loved wardrobes, partly because I had seen so few of them, partly because my young mind had fixated on them as a gateway to somewhere fantastical. I listened to it for a moment, just double-checking, and wishing again that I had Grak with me for backup. Failing that, I at least wanted my soul sight. A pulse of vibration magic showed nothing magical. I touched the knob with far more caution than it warranted, then opened the wardrobe door.
There was nothing inside.
I stared at the empty wardrobe for a bit, wondering if that was a sign. I would have expected outfits, or something else that would befit a magical armory like this, but instead it was just vacant, whatever it had held taken away. I stared at it for a moment, and decided not to accept that the only thing the wardrobe was there for was holding clothes, a job that it wasn’t actually doing at the moment.
I’d had plans, maybe stupid plans borne of paranoia, but plans nonetheless, for how I was going to uncover the secret of the wardrobe. Instead, the very first thing I tried, pulling the wardrobe from the wall, revealed a secret passage to a second room. The room was small, I could see that right away, but there was something in the center of it, a matte black outfit of some kind that was unaccountably floating in the air. It was tattered and torn in places, and my mind immediately went to entadic designs and the ways that they sometimes faked signs of use.
I pulsed warder’s sight and saw the ward right away, but wasn’t knowledgeable enough to know what it signified. A quick test with my pinky let me know that it wasn’t of the annihilation variety, and a single, golden punch was enough to overload whatever capacity the warder had given the barrier.
The black outfit wasn’t an entad, it was a uniform, one that consisted of a shirt and jacket, with inserts at the elbows for padding. The vest was thick and heavy, armored, and it had pouches at the bottom of it, which had all been opened. I wasn’t really paying attention to that. My eyes had landed on the two patches on the shoulder.
One of the patches had a cob of corn, and on either side, what I assumed was a team or division name, “Corn Squabble”.
The other patch was the flag of the United States of America.
“What the fuck,” I said softly. I reached out and touched it. It felt entirely real.