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"With that last magic missile, the gnoll shaman collapses and stops moving," I narrated. "You've bested the Longtooth tribe."

"We didn't even take a scratch," Reimer complained. "Those silver surfboards are way overpowered."

"We can sell them at the next town if they offend your samurai's idea of honorable combat," Arthur joked. The only reason Reimer made a samurai was to minmax the shit out of their stupid quickdraw skill, and the only reason for his complaining was that the party had realized that they could stay on their flying surfboards and pick the missions that put them against groundbound foes without ranged attacks, making all that minmaxing useless. Well, the main reason for his complaining, at least. Reimer complained a lot.

"No, you can pry those surfboards out of my cold, dead hands. But what were you thinking, giving us flight at level three?"

I shrugged and shuffled my papers. In my defense, the Fantastic Four trailer had just come out and the Silver Surfer's cool CGI had been firing my imagination all week. "What are your next moves?"

"I'll circle around, double-tap the corpses, and get to looting," Craig said.

"Redmoon will circle the area on his board, sniffing the breeze. You said the trail for the stolen reagents ended here?" Tom said.

"That's right, give me a Perception check."

"Eighteen - no, twenty-seven!" Tom always said his roll before remembering to add the modifier, which always annoyed me but I wasn't petty enough to call him out on it.

"There's gotta be an ambush, there's an hour left to the session, that's not enough time to start up a new bounty," Reimer muttered.

"As you circle, tasting the scents on the air with your werewolf senses, you can track the crate of reagents to one of the tents that collapsed in the fighting," I said. "Then all of a sudden, a shadow passes over the camp, eclipsing the sun, and a piercing cry strikes fear into your hearts. Circling above you, and descending fast, is a chimera!"

"Called it," he said smugly. "And I've got a bonus on my will saves against whatever fear aura you've stapled onto that thing."

Fucking Reimer.




The whole way up, Vince had been content to count the floors under his breath, cracking up with laughter when he reached "Floor twenty!" with Aarde's Touch ablaze. I'd spent that time thinking that the mission had been too easy. Fenn's old Fireteam had been foreshadowed, and if I was running the game I wouldn't let the quirky miniboss squad I'd prepared go to waste.

I was level 4 but I'd held off on spending the 2 stat points I'd got with each level, because I didn't know what I might need. If I was trapped in a game, that was no guarantee that it was at all balanced or fair. If we were going to be walking into a tough fight, though, I didn't want to die with resources unspent, and that meant I had to decide which direction to take my build in.

First of all I needed to work out what kind of scale the stats were on. PHY 3 I could accept, I was scrawny compared to Vince's brawn, but KNO 2 was bullshit. I had drunk knowledge from Wikipedia like I was dying of thirst and I’d read a mountain of books. Likewise, I'd gone hunting with a rifle before, I knew how to use them properly, but the game layer had me start with both Rifles and Pistols at 0. The stats couldn't be a reflection of my present state, so instead they'd have to be enhancements to what was already there. If that was the case, I'd be better off building on my strengths.

There was also my role in the party to consider. Assuming I was sticking with Amaryllis and Fenn, who'd both been marked as companions, they were obvious contenders for face and DPS. I hadn't got any loyalty points with Vince, which raised questions I didn’t want to think about, but he was cheerfully filling the role of tank anyway. In the archetypal party we were missing a dedicated magic-user, and while Vince and I had both managed to learn blood magic in a fraction of the time Amaryllis thought should be necessary, I had been distinctly faster.

Closing my eyes I increased the MEN superstat, watching the changes cascade through the sheet as each of the three mental abilities it governed went up by 1 while my stat points dropped by 2. That seemed like a good deal, at least until I decided which of CUN, KNO, and WIS was best. Almost immediately, I realized I should've increased my mental stats earlier. According to the tooltips of my character sheet, Cunning was "Used to figure out puzzles, learn new things, or decide which wire to cut", and that could work like Intelligence in Fallout to increase the rate at which I earned experience and more orgasmic level-ups.

Not only that, but I'd maxed out some of my skills along the way, wasting any further practice I'd got in them. According to the skill-up messages, Rifles was limited by CUN, Blood Magic by WIS, and Deception by POI, so boosting MEN had uncapped two out of the three. Lastly, if there was one skill that outclassed the rest and was worth min-maxing, it would probably be a magic with a mental primary stats. Fighters were linear, wizards quadratic, after all.


Anyway, this was a longwinded way of explaining that I'd been on high alert for Fireteam Blackheart's arrival even during the fight with the umbral hound, which was why I'd immediately looked over at the Faltering Candelabra (clearly a reskinned version of the Hypnotic Pattern spell from D&D) and got hit with the Fascinated status condition like a chump. It was also why I had the WIS to partially resist the effect: Amaryllis sounded like she was half-asleep, but while my eyes were fixed on the unsteady glow I could still think clearly. I couldn't see Fenn or Vince, not with my gaze locked onto the spell, but neither of them had made a sound so I had to assume they'd been caught too.

Quills approached. It looked like the animalia were anthropomorphic animals like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or in his case an Adult Magic Bladebound Porcupine. His sword was out, and as soon as he was within reach of the remains of the umbral hound he chopped the component corpses to pieces in a few strokes of the blade, cutting through them without any visible resistance. He pulled Fenn's bow from her limp fingers and tossed it across the room with a sneer. Leonold the tattooed mage and Carter the meatshield were arguing as they walked over, while the bone mage, Tova, was bringing up the rear and keeping watch on the door to the lobby.

"I've only got two chokers," Leonold said.

"We only need the princess," Quills said. "I'll tie the other two up for the interrogation before we leave." One plus two equals three, I didn't need CUN 5 to figure that out. That meant they hadn't seen Vince in the other room yet, but I didn't know whether he was in any state to fight.

Leonold tossed a coil of rope to Quills, and I twitched my fingers in the moment he glanced away to catch it. The Animalia sheathed his sword and brought my arms together to begin wrapping the rope around my wrists. I had more freedom to move than he thought but that would be useless if he finished binding me, and I didn't like the sound of interrogation. I had to act now. I knew nothing about the bladebound beyond the name and what I'd seen him do in the past thirty seconds, but both implied that he was some kind of hyperspecialized minmaxed martial type, reliant on his weapon of choice. That in turn implied that he was reliant on having the hands free to wield it.

Timing my move to the hammering pulse in my ears, I snapped my wrists out of his grip and burst the rope, then grabbed at his hands and pushed the heat of my blood into Aarde's touch until my teeth started to chatter. Even though my hands were ablaze, Quills showed no pain, but past his head I could see Carter's hands shaking and the barrel of his hand cannon wavering. I thought I glimpsed smoke rising out from his gauntlets, before Quills swung forward for a headbutt.

I thought he'd missed, he seemed to fall short of my face, but then he whipped his head back and I felt one of his quills pierce up underneath the skin of my forehead, scraping against the bone, then ripping a strip of flesh away. The pain didn't hit me until a moment later, but the shock of feeling my skin torn free like that made me flinch. With that opening Quills broke free of my grip and I stumbled back, still processing how I'd almost lost an eye.

Then his sword flashed out.

I retreated back out of his reach, keeping my eyes on him and my arms up like a boxer. My left hand felt numb, and I reached up with it to wipe away some of the blood that was already flowing down my forehead and into my eyes.

With that slight pressure, my arm fell off. It slapped against the floor like a dead fish and blood pumped out from where it had been severed just above the elbow at a sharp angle. I hadn't even felt the cut.

Quills was smiling now, his lip curled in cruel satisfaction.

New Affliction: Blood Loss! (END -1)

New Affliction: Missing Hand!

Achievement Unlocked: Skywalker

I staggered backwards, then the table next to me exploded into splinters as Carter fired again and I fell back on my ass to crawl out of his sight and Quills' reach. It was a good thing I'd burned him through the soul link, because that seemed to have messed up his aim: The bullet had punched through the thick wood and into the stone wall behind me, I wouldn’t survive a direct hit.

As I slumped down against an overturned table with my hand clenched around the stump of my other arm to stem the flow, a part of me worried about how those stat points I put into MEN worked. I didn't feel any more intelligent or knowledgeable, but nor did I think I would have reacted this calmly before. After that shot, a lot happened very quickly, and it took all my MEN to keep track of it.

Vince was free of the Candelabra, because he came charging out with a yell, too fast for any of the Fireteam to react in time. At the same time Amaryllis and Fenn had also been snapped out of it, and they scattered, Fenn diving after her bow while the princess took cover behind another toppled table and fired her void guns at the bladebound. Quills parried reflexively, which was bullshit, but a dime-sized hole appeared in the narrow blade from the void effect; he couldn't keep that up forever.

Meanwhile, Vince had tackled Leonold the tattoo mage around the waist. He hefted him up and then threw him out of a window in a cacophony of breaking glass. There was a moment of stillness, Leonold's descending scream the only sound while I fumbled with my belt to try and tighten it as a tourniquet around my arm.

I peeked over my table to see that Quills was looking between Fenn and Amaryllis, ready to parry again, while Tova had moved closer to Carter who had his hand cannon trained on Vince and held in two hands to compensate for the burns I'd given him.

"Clearly you haven't heard of Prince's Invulnerability," Tova said. "Not surprising, it's fresh out of Steel and Sweat. It doesn't matter how big a fall Leo takes, he can activate that right before he lands and not take a scratch. You should give up now."

"It lasts six seconds, right?" I asked slowly. I knew it did, Fenn had already confirmed that.

"How did you know? Did you get put on the plane for espionage?" Tova asked.

"You can't have cleared out the courtyard of the undead, not if you were to catch up with us. Neither of your mages are fighters, without Fenn you were down your dedicated ranged combatant as well, and we'd have heard Carter's gun. You must have stuck close to your bladebound as he carved a path through for you," Amaryllis spoke up, putting the pieces together as she followed my lead of stalling for time.

"Shut up and come out with your hands up," Carter grunted, losing patience.

Then his head snapped to the side. One of the undead down in the courtyard must have landed a hit on Leonold after his spell ran out. He tried to take a shot but he was off-balance and it only blasted a chunk out of the walls. The hits kept coming, knocking him about through his soul link to Leonold and making it look like he was being beaten up by an invisible mob.

Affliction: Blood Loss lvl 2! (PHY -1, END -1)

The tourniquet wasn't working. I was bleeding a lot, and I didn't know how much END I could lose before falling unconscious or dying. Blood magic was the obvious solution to that. Aarde's touch wouldn't work to cauterize the wound, the spell description mentioned that the flame couldn't burn me, but I'd learned two types of blood magic effect in minutes and by some measures I was 150% faster at learning things than I had been at the base of Sorian's Castle. I could extrapolate.

Putting my concerns about mental augmentation aside, I closed my eyes and focused on my blood. My eyelids were tacky with the flow from the wound on my forehead, and it was that part of how blood behaved that I wanted to draw on: the latent platelets carried within it that would accumulate and clump together over a wound, sealing it closed so that no more blood would be lost and healing could begin. I thought back to watching my knuckles scab over in the Bumblefuck jail after I'd beaten up Victor Clark.

The fight was ongoing, and there was nothing I could do to contribute. With Carter getting beaten to death secondhand, Quills was the most dangerous threat left. Fenn and Amaryllis had retreated to opposite ends of the rooms to take shots at him, even Vince was throwing furniture at the animalia to keep him too busy chopping through tables to advance on anyone, but only the void weapons were doing any damage to his sword and he was deliberately parrying with just the tip to keep his weapon functional for as long as possible.

Being bladebound provided some degree of anime bullshit, but how much? As I watched, Quills was able to move his sword instantly into position to deflect another arrow from Fenn, sending it glancing off alarmingly close to Amaryllis' position. He was also ducking behind pieces of lab equipment to break the archer's vision of him. Why would he do that if he could block her arrows? Maybe there was a cost associated with those almost precognitive parries, fatigue or ki or something, or he could only block one thing at a time. Amaryllis and Fenn were already syncing up their shots, but that meant alternating with the cycling void guns to keep up with the arrows.

"Amaryllis, try to shoot two places at the same time!" I said.

She nodded, retreating back from Quills as the temporary lull in fire gave him an opening to advance on Fenn. Vince tossed a big glass piece of lab equipment, not at him but at the floor in front of him, and the sudden broken glass in his path gave the humanoid porcupine pause for a moment.

Inge Carter defeated!

That moment was long enough for the void rifle to cycle since its last shot. Amaryllis aimed both her guns, the thwips sounding in unison, and Quills instantly had his sword in place to block them but it couldn't be in two places at once. One hole appeared at the tip of the blade, but another cut out a circle from just above the base.

Leonold Pavran defeated!

Fenn shot another arrow, and Quills whipped the sword around to block it, but the sword was weakened enough that the blade finally broke, falling onto the stone floor with a clang. Her next arrow took him in the chest, and she hit him with a third to be sure.

Brownsnout Quills-in-hand Defeated!

"No!"

On the other side of the room, Tova got up from where she'd been crouched by Carter's body and ran for the floor's landing.

"Vince!" Amaryllis commanded.

"On it!" He bounded over the scattered lab benches of the room, vaulting over them with the distinctive bursts of speed from blood magic. In seconds he had the bone mage pinned on the floor.

"Joon, status?" The princess asked.

I risked a glance down at my arm. My belt was soaked in blood, but the bleeding had stopped and the wound was covered over with a huge scab. I hadn't paid attention to the blood magic skill-up messages during the fight.

"I've stopped the bleeding, but I'm light-headed and shaky," I reported.

A part of me hoped that the princess, the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen, would show some sign of being impressed by that. Instead she nodded like it was expected of me.

"Vince, bind and gag the bone mage. I’ll locate the teleportation key. Fenn, thoughts?"

"I think you've got no idea what a relief it is to be out from under the thumb of those assholes," she said. "We'll need funds wherever we're going, right? I'll grab some valuables we can hawk."


Amaryllis returned from the office where the uniformed undead had been a few minutes later, holding a small golden disk with a green glowing center that I assumed was the teleportation key. She sat down next to me and examined the stump of my arm, lifting it gently to look at the single huge scab covering the wound.

"You independently invented the Sanguine Seal fast enough to stop yourself passing out from blood loss," she whispered. In my light-headed state, hearing the note of wonder in her voice felt like it was almost worth getting my arm chopped off for.

It was alarming how close I'd come to death. If Quills had been less sadistic, he could have sliced me in half just as easily. Then I'd have died and gone to the hells, because this world was fucking grimdark, unless someone bottled my soul to use it as a battery instead so that I would vanish forever, which was also fucking grimdark.

"The Fireteam," I said weakly. "Can we bottle their souls?"

Amaryllis leaned back from her examination and brushed back a strand of hair behind her ear, a gesture that some stupid part of me thought was for my benefit. She nodded and passed me the bottle with the coiled spike, the dejang, her brief incidental touch just as electric as the last time.

"If you feel strong enough, you should do it. It's a skill that would be expected of a native to Aerb, at least as theoretical knowledge." She passed me the void pistol as well. "Don't forget to destroy the hearts before they rise."

I slowly got to my feet, my vision blacking out for a moment from the change in blood pressure, then got to work. The most beautiful girl in the world had given me a job to do.


I had removed Quills and Carters' souls, little indistinguishable motes of white light that drifted around inside the glass bottle, and Amaryllis and I were figuring out how to undo Carter's breastplate to shoot his heart when Vince returned. He had Tova slung over his shoulder, and the bone mage was hogtied with Leonold's rope criss-crossing over her tight-fitting red robes. I raised an eyebrow at that, or rather I tried to and then cringed from the blinding pain because I'd forgotten for a moment that my forehead had been torn to shreds.

"Legacy of a misspent youth," he said, managing to interpret my reaction. "That or an incomplete skewer," he said with a wink to the princess. I felt a wave of unjustified jealousy rise up like my nausea from the pain of my forehead, and did my best to ignore it. Amaryllis ignored him too, giving up on getting the breastplate off and pulling one of Carter’s limp arms up to shoot at his heart through the armpit. Thwip.

“What are we doing with her?” I asked. I hadn’t missed the implication in Quills’ voice when he talked about interrogation, and being complicit to torture myself was not a line I wanted to cross.

“Could you teach us bone magic, so we can fix Joon?” Vince asked. Thwip.

“You want to hold me captive for years?” Tova said, trying to twist her head round to see her captor’s expression. “I can heal him myself!” Thwip.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Vince,” Amaryllis said, getting up and wiping off the barrel of the void pistol carefully. “The Healer’s Vow would only obligate her to teach you on request if you were a direct relative.”

Right, Amaryllis wanted to keep our fast learning a secret.

“Our party could use a healer,” he said. I caught him checking out her figure, the form-fitting robes showing off her curves, and the tattoo at the back of her neck.

“She's affiliated with a faction in Anglecynn that wants me dead. Bottling her instead of leaving her for the undead is the merciful option here,” the princess said.

“Remind me how that vow goes?” I asked.

“You can stabilize Joon while I recite it,” Amaryllis said. She took Tova’s bound hands, put a bone from her bandolier into one and brought them to my stump.

“Hold on,” I said, going over to where the rest of my arm had fallen and bringing it over. It was bizarre to hold the severed limb, still warm and heavier than I’d expected it to be. “Can you reattach it?”

“That’s beyond my skill,” Tova said. I felt a hope I didn’t know I’d been nursing die.

"Quote: I swear by Invreizen, Aarde, Skaduwee, Karakter, and Truuk, with the five gods as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Vow: To hold him who taught me this art equally dear to me as my parents, to be a partner in life with him, and to fulfill his needs when required; to look upon his offspring as equals to my own siblings, and to teach them this art, if they shall wish to learn it…”

The vow was long-winded, almost identical to the Hypocratic Oath, and before long I tuned out and simply listened to the rise and fall of Amaryllis’ voice as I watched Tova work. The bone, the thigh of some kind of animal going by the thickness, was glowing faintly, and a thin smoke was spreading off of it. There was a painful prickling in my arm, like pins and needles, but I didn’t know how much of that was due to her healing. Fenn wandered over partway through, a bulging sack slung over her shoulder.

“...Whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether in connection with my professional practice or not, which ought not to be spoken of outside, I will keep secret, as considering all such things to be private.

“So long as I maintain this Vow faithfully and without corruption, may it be granted to me to partake of life fully and the practice of my art, gaining the respect of all men for all time. However, should I transgress this Oath and violate it, may the opposite be my fate. Unquote.”

“You’ve taken the oath yourself?” Tova asked, surprised.

“I’ve memorized the text of the major vows. I don’t understand why other people haven’t,” she said.

“Tova treated me so she’ll have to keep my secrets, right?” I asked, making an unbalanced one-armed shrug. “I can see why that would be useful on a fireteam,” assuming my guess that fireteams are the local equivalent of black ops is correct.

“If you take me with you when you leave, I’ll go to ground and not act against you,” the bound woman offered. “Your secrets will be safe with me.”

“No, they’re not, because she can break the vow whenever she reaches safety and take it up again afterwards. She’ll regain the magical protections within a decade.”

“I’m no oathbreaker!” Tova said, offense winning out against desperation.

“People only take the vows because they want the benefits and think they can keep them, that's why herbalists who expect to prescribe contraception don't take it,” Amaryllis explained to us, a note of passion rising in her voice. “It's a bad vow, the prohibition on lethal doses has stifled the acceptance of euthanasia and caused more people go to the hells as a result. That alone outweighs any benefits from giving people an instinctual aversion to harming avowed healers.”

"It feels like you're stalling because you can't actually kill her," Fenn teased. She moved to kick the bound woman, then hesitated.

“Fenn, do you think keeping Tova alive is worth the risk to us?” I asked. It felt wrong not to, especially after she’d healed me, and they’d worked together for a time.

“Well, she’s always been a total bitch to me,” she said. “Healer’s vow doesn’t mean you have to be a nice person.”

There was a pause, as though Fenn was going to follow it up with a “But”. When that didn’t come, Tova thrashed in her bonds, swearing at her.

Amaryllis turned, put a hand on Tova’s head, and shot her in the eye with the void pistol. The dead woman twitched and spasmed in her bindings before going still.

"Joon, dejang?"

I passed her the soul spike, and she calmly added the bone mage’s soul to the bottle with the rest of Fireteam Blackheart. I felt sick to my stomach at the cold-blooded killing. I hoped that most of that feeling was due to me being a decent person rather than any magical compulsion.

Frowning, Fenn took her long knife and slid it between the corpse’s ribs to stop it rising, then pulled it out and cleaned it.

“Any last business?” Amaryllis asked.

Silence all around.

She took out the teleportation key and held it up. The disk started spinning, the green glowing center pulsed brighter in a flash that filled my field of vision, and we were off.

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