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I strained against the collar that held my neck in place, trying to get a better look around. My hands and feet were both cuffed, with thick metal bars connecting the cuffs to each other, resulting in no give at all. I had a gag in my mouth as well, but that was a little bit looser.

Five seconds ago, I had been passing notes in fifth period English.

I could see other people bound just like I was in the dim red light that came from regularly spaced bulbs. We were in two lines that faced each other. There was a loud droning sound that I imagined would be hard to talk over, if I hadn't had the gag. That sound, along with the vibrations in my seat and the curved walls, told me that we were in a plane, though I had no idea where we were going, or where we were.

I didn't see anyone that I knew. I had been in English class, so given that I was abruptly transferred into bonds aboard some barebones airplane, it stood to reason that perhaps others from my class had been too. The other boys and girls were around my age, but they didn't look like they went to school in Bumblefuck, Kansas. Part of it was the hairstyles, which over-represented mohawks and bright colors. But more than that it was the hard looks on most of their faces, a defiance that I associated more with terrorists on television than high-schoolers.

The exception was the guy opposite me, who had a gleeful grin visible beneath his own gag as he shook his head from side to side. He made eye contact with me, winked, then my view of him was blocked by a man in army fatigues who walked down the middle aisle of the plane and stopped just in front of me.

The military man was cleanly shaved and grey at the temples, with a scar that ran from the bottom of his chin up to his nose. His eyes were filled with an intense, burning hatred as he looked at us, which was accentuated by the way he grit his teeth.

"Rebels. Traitors. Murderers. Dissidents. Thieves. You are the scum that has floated up to the surface. A less civilized society would have put you to the sword the moment you were caught. We believe in our ideals. Strength through adversity, righteousness through struggle. If you survive, you will be stronger for it. Make it to the outpost, and a place in the Host is waiting for you, your crimes forgiven."

With that he walked away, and I got the sense that my questions would have gone unanswered even if I could have raised my hand or spoken through the gag. I was already bewildered and his words left me scared and even more confused.

The boy across from me was shaking his head again and had built up some slack in his gag, which he hooked onto a piece of metal next to his collar to pull it down from his mouth. He wore a look of intense satisfaction.

“Where we dropping boys?” he shouted over the din of the plane. “Let’s team up, get out of –”

He was drowned out by the airplane opening up its belly. A mile below us were farmlands in the half-light of an overcast day. I struggled against my restraints and prayed that I would wake up, even though I knew in my heart that this wasn't a dream. My feet were dangling into the open sky now.

Some loud mechanism was making a clank. I still couldn't move my head much, but in my periphery I could see people dropping down into the sky below us. As the sequence got closer to me, I saw that none of them were wearing anything resembling a parachute. What the army guy had said was ringing in my ear: strength through adversity. That seemed like the kind of thing you might say right before you murder someone.

Then the mechanisms released me and I fell, free of restraints.

The wind rushed past me. My stomach lurched at the feeling of weightlessness. I spread myself out, almost instinctively, trying to brace myself against the wind. I had let out a scream when I'd first started falling, but stopped when the wind started trying to force its way up my open mouth. I was going to die, just like all the others, and there was nothing that I could do to stop it. From this height, even an impact against water was sure to be as hard as against concrete.

I looked to the others that were falling, hoping that one of them had a solution. The boy who had been opposite me was nearby, and he made eye contact again before tilting his head towards the ground and tucking his arms in to accelerate towards it. He seemed to know what he was doing so I followed his lead, though it took me a few seconds to stop myself from spinning and once I was moving faster it was a lot harder to track the dot he had shrunk to below me.

Tracking him distracted me from the sight of the ground rushing up towards me at an alarming rate, at least until the perception of speed was heightened as it got closer. When I looked back behind me, I could only see a few of the others in the air. Some of them were tumbling, and I hoped that just meant they were worse at skydiving than me.

The ground had gotten really close, close enough that I could start to make things out beyond just the irregular grid of farmland and a smattering of houses. To my left was a vast cloud so close to the ground that it must have been fog, but in the general area where my body was going to splatter was what looked like a gas station, and I could see the other guy aiming for the roof. Not wanting a preview of my imminent death, I closed my eyes as my heart hammered away in my chest. As deaths went, at least it would be fast.

I kept my eyes screwed shut, right up until the point where I realized the wind was dying down. When I looked around, I saw that death wasn't quite so imminent as I had thought; I was slowing down. There was a glowing rune on my right hand which I would have sworn wasn't there five seconds ago. By the time I finally got to grips with the fact that perhaps I hadn't been thrown out of the plane to my death, I was sliding down from the sky at a rather sedate pace. I was going to land maybe a hundred yards from the gas station in a big field.

There were no cars around, but there were people; they were looking up toward me with glowing red eyes. The boy on the roof of the gas station was jumping and waving at me, but my attention was caught by two of the red-eyed people moving toward a girl who had also touched down. I could see now that these people had pallid skin and torn clothes, which, along with their shuffling gait, screamed ‘zombies’ in ten foot high neon letters.

As soon as my feet touched the ground, I heard a pleasant chime and words popped up in front of me.

Achievement Unlocked: Down, But Not Out …

I blinked twice and the message vanished. I had no idea what the hell that was about, but I hoped that the gas station guy could answer some questions. I made my way over at a jog, trying to conserve my energy.

It had some of the hallmarks of Midwest gas stations, like the cheap cinder block construction and the unadorned metal doors. Where there should have been gas pumps, there were instead black shards of obsidian jutting up from the pavement. If they hadn’t been surrounded by cheap concrete curbs, or so evenly spread apart with metal trash bins between them, I might have thought that they had sprung up from the ground.

There were two zombies leaping at the sides of the building, and a third stumbled out of it to join them. The boy standing on the roof hefted a loose brick and threw it down at them, crushing one of their heads with a sickening crunch. I slowed my pace, shocked by the sudden violence and the dark red blood that splashed against the unpainted wall, and watched as he stomped the fingers of the next zombie to get a grip on the gutter.

“You gonna help or what?” he yelled at me, and I hesitated. I had only managed an orange belt in middle school karate, which is what they hand out to basically anyone who sticks with it a few weeks.

“Keep quiet and look for a weapon or something, I’ll keep these idiots busy.” He threw a bottle down, making noise and scattering glass where it struck zombie skull.

I nodded and crouched down, sneaking towards the gas station door. All of it was in a total state of disrepair; the grass I’d been moving through was two feet high, helping me approach without being spotted, but the building itself had two of the windows busted out, with shards of glass visible on the ground that I had to carefully step around.

Skill unlocked: Deception!

The chime that came with the message caused me to tense up for a moment as my heart hammered in my chest. I could hear the zombies on the other side of the wall, jumping and scrabbling, and the sounds of exertion from the guy on the roof. (I really needed a better epithet for him.) Nobody reacted to the sound, and it vanished after I blinked it away.

Inside, everything was long since rotted or looted, but I spotted a rusted machete in the middle of an uneven patch of dried blood that filled the aisle. I picked it up by the hilt, feeling the blood flake off against my palm, and tested the weight.

Skill unlocked: One-handed Weapons!

“Hurry it up in there,” I heard from above me, followed by another disgusting crunch and splatter. “I’m running out of bricks to drop.”

I grabbed a long screwdriver off a shelf but there was nothing else in the store that could serve as a weapon, not unless I resorted to using the empty greeting card rack as an improvised club. I crept outside again and circled around to the back of the building, machete in hand.

The zombies further away were shuffling closer, red pinpricks swaying above the long grass, giving me a second time limit to deal with. The three active ones were still trying to climb up, even though two of them now had crushed heads, blindly leaping at the loud footsteps of the guy on the roof.

“Finally! These things are persistent. You have any idea how to finish them off?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the trio. He stomped on the roof again, but the remaining one with a head still turned to face me and peeled off, staggering towards me with more speed than I’d expected.

I’d always been far at the ‘fight’ end of the ‘flight or fight’ spectrum. As he charged me I swung the machete two-handed, trying to take the head off, and the blade bit deep into its neck.

Skill increased: One-handed Weapons lvl 1!

The zombie kept coming, and only my grip on the machete embedded halfway into its neck kept him at bay. I could feel the rusty blade grating against its spine.

The crazy messages that kept popping up were like something out of a videogame, that much I had noticed. If I were playing a game, and literally crushing someone’s head with a brick didn’t kill him, what would I do? Well, that was a sign that the designer was trying to be a clever little shit by subverting the expectations of the player. Come to think of it, I had done that in a D&D session once, a first level dungeon crawl.

Halfway-Headless was still coming toward me and I was thinking about D&D for some stupid reason. What had I done, when I’d made the zombies’ heads irrelevant? I’d moved their weak point to their heart, that was it. And I’d given them glowing red eyes, just to have some descriptive flair.

Holy shit.

I pulled the screwdriver out of my pocket and rammed it into the zombie’s chest.

Skill unlocked: Improvised Weapons!

He kept coming, and I tried to keep him at bay with one hand on the machete while I stabbed at his chest again and again, mostly glancing off the ribs, until he got loose and the momentum of his charge drove my next thrust in up to the handle. The zombie stopped moving almost instantly and slumped to the floor with the screwdriver stuck inside him, and his red eyes finally faded to a milky white.

Critical hit!

Skill increased: Improvised Weapons lvl 1!

Zombie defeated!

Achievement Unlocked: Rambo

Level Up!

That last message came with a sensation that I can only describe as orgasmic. Golden light burst forward from me in a wave that kicked up wind and I briefly lifted up off my feet. It was like someone had jabbed a live wire directly into the pleasure center of my brain. It was over in less than a second and left me trembling afterward.

“What the fuck was that?” The guy on the roof said. “You figure out how to kill them yet?”

“Aim for the heart!” I told him breathlessly. At the sound of my voice, one of the crushed-head zombies shambled over towards me. I picked up the machete as he blindly advanced and stepped to the side, holding my breath as he walked on to where I had been standing.

Treading carefully to avoid making any more noise, I moved behind the zombie and swept his legs out to trip him. Before he could get up I put a foot on his back and jabbed down repeatedly with my machete, making wet cracks as the blade cut through the ribs of his back. The broad blade was meant for chopping through undergrowth, not stabbing at hearts, but with the fourth strike the limbs stilled.

Skill increased: One-handed Weapons lvl 2!

Zombie defeated!

When I turned around, the other guy was standing over the remaining zombie, a cinder block embedded in its chest, splattered with its blood. He looked about my age, blond and muscular like a Nazi recruitment poster, and gave me a breathless grin.

“I don’t want any trouble,” I said, trying to sound intimidating.

Skill unlocked: Intimidate!

Critical failure!

He laughed.

“Yeah, no shit, me neither. Want to team up?”

“Okay, but I have questions,” I said warily.

“You and me both, I get the feeling we’re not in Kansas any more. I’m Vince.”

“Joon. On the plane, did you know what was going to happen?”

“Kind of? Let’s keep quiet and keep moving, I made a lot of noise up there and the zombies are getting closer.”

He was right, I could see the red pinpricks in the fields coming towards us at a slow walking pace. There were about thirty of them, the closest was twenty feet away. The gas station was on a road, and in one direction I could make out distant buildings instead of endless plains. I pointed towards them, and he nodded.

Vince and I kept up a brisk walk down the road, fast enough to outpace the zombies without tiring me out. It apparently counted as athleticism, because I unlocked and increased Athletics along the way. Once we were a few hundred meters from the ones following us, we resumed our conversation in hushed voices.

“First thing I knew, I was on the plane, just like this videogame, Fortnite,” Vince said. “It’s a battle royale, all against all, so teaming up is a big advantage. I assumed this was something similar, some kind of hyper-real simulation.”

“Do you have any kind of game interface?” I asked. Does everyone get level-ups?

“I got this magic smartphone.” He pulled it out to show me. It looked more like an Android than an iPhone, unadorned and without any distinguishing features to mark it as special. “I’ve got points and a whole catalog of things to spend them on.”

“Have you tested it out?”

“I don’t know when I’ll get more points, so I’m saving it for emergencies. How about you? What was that glow earlier?”

“Uh,” I said slowly, not sure whether to share. If we were going to be a team we’d need to know what we could do, and he’d opened up first. “Yeah, I’ve got skills that level up with use. I got a level-up when I killed that zombie.”

“Sweet! Do you recognize the system? What kind of skills are available? Can you grind them while we’re on the move?”

“One-handed weapons, improvised weapons, intimidation, and athletics,” I said, trying to recall all the pop-ups I’d blinked away during the fight. And Deception.

Skill increased: Deception lvl 1!

I looked behind me but the zombies were still following us at their slow pace, and I hadn’t been making a particular effort to be stealthy. Did it cover deceit in conversation too?

“There’s also deception, which I think covers both sneaking and lying.”

“Well that’s broken,” Vince scoffed. “Try grinding it by lying to me, maybe you can become a ninja before we hit the town.”

“Um… my name’s Joon, I’m eighteen, I’ve got a car back home,” I lied, sticking to plausible ones and starting to come up with a fake persona, like when my players took an unaccountable interest in a random throwaway NPC. “I fixed it up myself, I’ve got an apprenticeship at the local garage and I’m training to be a mechanic. That was my first big project, it’s nice to just drive around under the stars because there’s not much else to do in Bumblefuck, Kansas.”

“Bullshit,” said Vince. “No way there’s a town called Bumblefuck.”

“What about that town called Boring, or Hell, Michigan? There’s a lot of stupid town names out there. The main lie was that I’m a mechanic, I should probably tell you now in case you expect me to fix up a vehicle later. I do know how to fly a helicopter, though.”

“Yeah, right.”

“That one’s true!” My dad had been a pilot in the Gulf War before moving to the private sector, and he’d taken me up a few times.

Chatting to Vince and throwing in random lies helped keep me from thinking too hard about the fact that I’d been dropped out of a plane into a zombie-infested wasteland. It was difficult to keep a straight face whenever Deception leveled up, and it was unclear whether there was any improvement in going from level 1 to 4 because he called bullshit on about half my lies the whole way through.

The settlement we approached looked like the kind of tiny town that you could find all over the Midwest in general and Kansas in specific, a place that existed mostly because there was a limit to how far farmers were willing to drive for groceries, gas, and a haircut. Three giant grain elevators dominated the town, but again there was a note of the exotic, because each had a large antenna rising up from its side, marked with floating, rotating sigils that were barely visible by the unearthly blue light they cast.

It was with a start that I saw people moving across the main road. They were running, a girl with a dark red braid in the lead and two guys with pink mohawks chasing after her. Or at least, that’s what I thought at first, until I saw the thing following them. It was a blackened creature of corpses, with eyes as large as headlights and a body so big it would had have a hard time hiding behind a gas station. It was moving far faster than the zombies had moved, slamming down its fists and dragging itself to make up for a back leg that was crooked and broken.

“Come on, let’s help them,” Vince said, starting to run after them.

I hesitated, gesturing at the composite zombie with my machete. “How?”

New Affliction: Cowardice!

I blinked away the message calling me a coward, but I could feel my cheeks flushing with anger. We had no way to take down the monster by ourselves, which by now had chased the trio into the nearest building. It looked like some kind of mechanics shop; there was a large folding door by the road which the corpse-creature was wedged halfway into, trying to squeeze in further to catch its prey.

“Okay, new plan, we circle around and rendezvous with the survivors when they run out the other side,” I proposed.

Vince nodded, and we got moving, following the street then ducking behind the rusted vehicles in the parking lot to stay out of sight of the zombies that made up the composite creature as we circled the building.

When we were halfway round, there was a sequence of subdued pops, almost like bubble-wrap but louder. Vince and I froze as we heard them, and they were immediately followed by a human scream from inside and the sound of creaking metal. I took a wary step back from the wall of the building, and watched as half the roof sagged under its own weight and collapsed inwards, drowning out the voice we’d heard. Did the monster take out a support pillar?

We waited for a moment more, but once the wreckage settled the only noise was an odd thwip sound that came at four-second intervals. Vince and I crept forwards, and I wondered if it was coming from some kind of machine that had been activated or broken by the damage. The dirt-clouded windows were too grimy to make out anything useful inside the shop section where the sounds had issued from, but further along I could see into the empty reception area that looked a lot like a Midwestern waiting area, full of uncomfortable chairs and with a tea kettle resting on a small pile of rocks instead of the usual coffee pot.

The room was empty, so we walked in over the front door that had been knocked off its hinges and moved deeper into the building. It had the usual garage stink of wheel skins and car guts, but as we got closer to the shop I could also make out the scent of blood in the air. I couldn’t hear my own footprints over the sound of Vince’s, and with a silent exchange of glances I took the lead to slowly open the next door a crack to look inside.

Standing by a workbench, among various car parts, tools, and cans of unidentified fluids, was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.

I don’t want to sound like a creep, so maybe I should stay as generic as possible and tell you about her dark red hair pulled back in a braid, the glacial blue of her eyes, how starkly alert she looked as she peered over the parts in front of her, or her grease-smeared clothes. She was injured, blood flowing down from a scrape by her temple and a deeper gouge out of her shoulder, but my mind was consumed by tracing her curves, the swell of her tits in her blood-stained t-shirt, the fullness of her lips and the delicate way she had them parted, at least until I noticed how fucked-up it was that she was having such a powerful effect on me, at which point different parts of my mind were given over to marveling at the sensation of being so attracted to a girl, and others were still focused on her.

She was in a shooter’s stance, holding a strange flat gun the shape of a deck of cards with a handle, and at four-second intervals was taking shots at the mass of zombies buried under the collapsed roof on the other side of the room. There was the same thwip sound I’d heard earlier, and a small dime-sized hole appeared in a zombie with each one. Next to that corpse-pile was a noticeably fresher body, one of the guys with the pink mohawks, and whatever had killed him had taken a huge uneven slice out of him along one side. His left arm was gone, along with maybe a third of his chest and head, and his left thigh was reduced to just a strip of meat on the inner edge. The missing body parts were nowhere to be seen, but there was a pool of blood from the wound beneath him. There was similar damage elsewhere as well, shining bare metal where the effect had eaten away at surface layers of rust.

There was a part of me that was afraid of how pretty the girl was, because I was back to watching her take her next shot even though I’d only just noticed the gory mess in the room. Another part was angry that someone could provoke such a reaction from me, and a small, mostly unexamined part was instantly distrustful of someone that could hijack my brain in the way she did.

Skill increased: Deception lvl 5!

The chime from the skill increase made me tense up again, but she was focused on killing the trapped zombies and still hadn’t noticed me. I turned back to Vince and raised a finger to my lips, gesturing for him to move out of sight, then pushed the door open fully with a creak.

“Who are you?” I asked her.

She turned smoothly and pointed the gun at me. I raised my hands, aware that I probably looked kind of threatening with the machete, then lowered it onto the floor instead.

“Don’t move,” she said. “Name.”

“Juniper Smith, but I usually go by Joon,” I said.

“Background?” she asked, staring at me with her teeth set. In my peripheral vision Vince was listening intently, ready to move, and I tried not to show any sign of it.

“Uh, student,” I offered, unsure what she wanted from me. For all I knew, everyone else in this world ran on D&D 5e rules and she would ask me my class next.

She looked me up and down. “Which athenaeum?”

“I’m not an athenaeum student,” I said. It wasn’t necessarily true when I said it because I had no idea what an athenaeum was in the moment, but right after a memory sparked and I recalled the term; it was a fancy term for a place of literacy and learning, taken from the name of the Greek god Athena. I’d used it in a D&D campaign before, when the party had been tracking a goblin ranger through the halls of the abandoned Athenaeum of Quills and Blood.

“Why did they put you on the plane?” she asked with a curl of her lips. Her gun was still pointed at me, which only slightly dampened my attraction.

“I have no idea, the first thing I saw of this world was the inside of the plane just before we dropped. I don’t know if I was magically transported here or what, but I’m from Bumblefuck, Kansas.”

Achievement Unlocked: Full Disclosure

“Which world are you from?” she asked.

“Earth? It orbits the sun and has a moon, we don’t have anything magic like zombies or whatever your pistol is,” I said, trying to think about what the most pertinent information would be as she frowned. It was a very pretty frown, and I immediately felt annoyed at the attraction. “We also don’t have game overlays there, not in real life, but I got one when I came here.”

She slowly lowered her pistol, blue eyes searching my face. “You’ve been dream-skewered. All thoughts and memories wiped away in an instant, replaced by the dream of Earth and a different life there. It’s a fate only slightly better than death.”

“Are there many of us? Does it happen a lot?” If it did, that would help explain why things like the garage were so similar.

“There have been perhaps a thousand of the dream-skewered, they are cared for and studied at the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny,” she said. “The Fuchsia Coterie came down with us. They have a mission in the Risen Lands, and part of that mission is putting down anyone who sees them. We’ll have to work together to make it out, and once we do I can get you the help you need there.”

Well, that was a pretty shockingly straightforward hook.

“I’m in,” I said. “What needs doing?”

Quest Accepted: Straddling Worlds!

“That is an XC-class soulcycle,” said the most beautiful girl in the world. The thing she was pointing at sat off to the side of the auto shop floor. It looked more or less like a motorcycle, but it had metal wheels instead of rubber and where a gas tank would normally go there was a thick glass barrel which stood completely empty. “Comfort has been picked clean and I think that’s our best chance of getting workable transportation. I can’t do it without you.”

“Okay, we might have a problem here,” I said. “Vince, time for introductions.”

Vince stepped out from where he had been hidden into the doorway behind me, hands raised and a sheepish grin on his face. “Hi, I’m Vince, I’m also dream-skewered, and I got a magic smartphone instead of a game interface.”

“You’re right, this is a problem,” she said, lips pressed into a thin line. “You can call me Cypress. I can fix the soulcycle and drive it, but it can hold two people at most, and that’s with one of us riding pillion.”

“Can’t we stick a sidecar on it?” Vince asked, looking around the shop.

“Not if we want to have any chance of outrunning the umbral undead.”

This felt unfair. Just when we found a third person, one of us was going to have to be left behind?

“You both claim to be dream-skewered,” said Cypress, in an even, steady tone. “On Aerb, there are nine thousand hells. The highest hell is slightly better than Comfort, in its current state. Our infernoscopes can penetrate only down to the five thousandth hell, but there only brief reprieves from torture and pain exist, and those reprieves are marked by fear and anguish. I have a dejang that can be used to extract souls to dissipate instead, saving you from that fate. If you want to avoid going to the hells, having your soul bottled now under controlled circumstances to dissipate is perhaps the safest way out available to you.”

Holy shit is this world grimdark.

“No, fuck this, nobody’s dying here, I’ve got a third option.” Vince said, firm but quiet. “I’m going to slowly take something out of my pocket to show you, so don’t shoot.”

He pulled out the smartphone from earlier, unlocking it and swiping through menus.

“Alright, check it out -” He pointed the screen towards me. It showed a picture of an off-white Volkswagen Beetle with red, white, and blue racing stripes and the number 53 painted on each side.

“It’s a car?” I said.

“It’s Herbie, the magic car! Have you not seen the films?”

I vaguely remembered coming across that franchise while browsing TVtropes.

“You can summon this vehicle with your device?” Cypress asked.

“I can buy it for five credits, I don’t know how delivery is handled. Yeah, I’m not seeing a better way out of this, let’s give this a shot.”

He pressed another button, and the interior of the shop was lit up by blue light coming through the grimy windows. I hurried over to one of them and rubbed away at it. Outside, a Beetle just like in the photo had driven out of a glowing blue disk in space. The portal shrank down as the car left it, disappearing to nothing, and then the car’s headlights turned on. Other than the sound of the vehicle, the whole process had been silent.

“Is this normal for the dream-skewered?” I asked.

Cypress shook her head, already gathering up items from the workbench. “No. No, it is not.”

Outside, the car’s horn beeped twice.

“Well, let’s not keep him waiting!” Vince said. “Remember, he might not be able to communicate easily but he has feelings, try not to hurt them.”

He headed back out to greet our new ride, and I went to help Cypress pack. She gave me a look of suspicion, then pointed to a canvas rucksack for me to start filling.

“Do you trust Vince?” she asked quietly.

I thought for a moment. “He hasn’t given me any reason to distrust him yet, as far as I can tell he’s been eager to cooperate from the start.”

“Careful with these,” she said, handing me a few small purple crystals in a soft leather bag, and I caught myself looking into her eyes instead of listening to her properly. “They’re void crystals, detonated with electricity, all I have left from the stash after I used the rest to take out my pursuers just now, and we’ll need them for weapons.”

“Got it,” I said, taking the pouch. Our fingers brushed for a moment, and I did my best to hide the thrill that went through me at the incidental contact. In about a minute the bag was loaded full of tools and machine parts, with nothing else meriting an explanation.

We left the building to find Vince in the driver’s seat of Herbie, hunched over because he was too tall to fit comfortably in the car and rooting through the glovebox. I took shotgun and Cypress climbed into the back.

“We need to get moving,” She said. “We’re not safe here and we need ample daylight left when we start looking for a place to spend the night. I’m not sure that it would be safe to drive at night anyway, since the roads in the Risen Lands haven’t been maintained.”

“Herbie has headlights if we need them,” Vince said, patting the dashboard affectionately. “What about the zombies and the people who came down with us?”

“Don’t use the z-word. The walking dead are less of a concern now we have an enclosed vehicle, but the Coterie are all the more reason for us to get moving before they can regroup and find weapons.”

Quest Accepted: Comfort Zone!

Chapter Text

Amaryllis sat in the back of the sentient entad vehicle that had been summoned by a meta-entad as it – he – drove down the main road out of Comfort. She tried to focus on assembling a void rifle from the parts she’d found in the mechanic’s shop and the void crystals that had been slipped to her during her imprisonment. Curiosity was a vice of hers and the dream-that-skewers had fascinated her. Now two of the dream-skewered were sat in front of her, talking about the same questions she had long pondered herself.

“Not a portal fantasy, more like transmigration since we’ve been shoved into existing bodies instead of being physically transported,” Vince said.

“My body’s unchanged, though. I checked my freckles.” A front window had been wound down to allow Juniper to lean out with the void pistol she’d assembled, keeping watch for the Coterie or any umbral undead, and he had to speak up to be audible.

“Really? I assumed you were like the default character creation option, I was never this ripped myself. But, like, you see my point about it being a purely mental transfer? Nobody noticed the point at which we transferred into the bodies in the plane.”

That was new, Amaryllis thought, as she slotted the pipe that would serve as the barrel into the rest of the rifle assembly. The recorded dream-skewered had all been human and never mentioned any differences between the bodies of their memories and the ones they inhabited, at least not to her knowledge. She had assumed that the dream-skewer started with the selected person and worked backwards to construct a plausible lifetime on Earth, but Vince’s claim implied a different process.

Part of her longed for access to the records at Speculation and Scrutiny, and with the ease of practice she redirected that sentiment into determination to survive the Risen Lands and reclaim her station. That meant finishing the rifle and managing her newfound companions, not indulging in debate that could wait for when they were more secure.

“Focus on driving and keeping watch,” she said, pitching her voice to command rather than chivy.

“Sure, I get it,” Vince said, falling silent as he carefully wove around the larger cracks in the road. For a few minutes there was only the sound of the vehicle, the wind, and Juniper’s movements as he scanned the area. They had elected to take the most direct road out of Comfort to avoid the Coterie and the higher density of walking dead, which meant moving deeper into the Risen Lands and taking a longer route to Silmar City, but Amaryllis expected they’d be able to locate shelter before nightfall thanks to the higher speed of the vehicle. It was perhaps three times faster than the soulcycle would have been, enough to make up for how the noise of the engine drew the attention of the undead.

A few minutes later, Juniper spoke up. “Are we good to talk now?” He was still looking between the buildings, now sparsely distributed as the town gave way to farmland, but his head was turning between them in a jerky manner that suggested he was forcing himself to do it and struggling to maintain awareness. Having him distracted by a conversation wouldn’t be a great loss at this point.

“We should be,” Amaryllis said. “The rifle is almost finished, I can take over from you when it’s done. I imagine you have questions.”

She double-checked the wiring in the rifle to satisfy herself that the assembly was safe before slotting an irregularly-shaped void crystal into the packed clay that would help secure and insulate it. Unwinding her own window with the unfamiliar mechanism in the door, Amaryllis aimed the rifle out and took aim at a large rusted thresher in the closest field. The void effect discharged with the usual thwip of air rushing to fill the vacuum it left, and a small cylindrical patch of shining metal appeared amidst the rust and paint. It was a few degrees off from where she had aimed, so she opened up the internals to adjust the crystal’s orientation and then took another shot with it recalibrated, this time at a water tower as they passed it. The result was satisfactory, and a second shot six seconds later confirmed the cycling time was as expected as well, so she leaned out the open window to take over keeping watch. Her braid of red hair flapped in the air but stayed secure.

“Does it work?” Juniper asked, his attention fully on her. She gave him a flat look. If it didn’t work, she wouldn’t be holding it as a prop.

He had the grace to look chastened. “Sorry, not doubting you, I meant that I was impressed. Back on Earth it would be a really tall order to make a gun from parts in the back of a moving car.”

Amaryllis kept watch properly as she replied. “Knowledge of how to construct void weapons is restricted, for good reason, but it’s secondary to the controls on void crystals themselves. With basic electronic components to hand, the tolerances are looser than for the ballistic firearms you may be thinking of.”

When Juniper was next in her field of vision, his brow was furrowed and his eyes unfocused as he pondered something only he could see.

“Did something happen with your game layer?” She asked, leveling her rifle at the next barn to come into view before switching positions as a junction approached.

“Yeah, a skill unlock. When I use a new skill it gets added to my list, and I can increase it through use to get better at it,” he said, then paused. “That was really perceptive of you, how did you notice?”

“You were distracted and seemed to be looking on something close to you,” Amaryllis explained. “Should I expect them to cause problems for you?”

“I’m getting used to them, and the messages are coming less frequently as my skills get unlocked and increased,” Juniper said. He tore his gaze away from her to start panning his void tunneler around again.

“Could you train some of them inside with Vince?”

“Good idea, my back is killing me for leaning out like this,” he said, taking the hint and ducking back inside.

Left alone, Amaryllis kept her guard up as the apparently-sentient car continued along the road to Silmar city, the sound of the boys muffled by the wind. Her attention wavered on occasion as the miles of countryside passed, but she had found that mathematics helped to occupy her thoughts while staying sharp.

The first question was the probability that two condemned criminals on her Trial by Adversity would both become dream-skewered. One was already implausible, with a mere thousand victims appearing over five hundred years with an average hexal population of ten billion over that time and a hundred people on the same plane to the Risen Lands as her. For there to be two independent dream-skewers was so improbable that either there was a correlation at play or one of them was an imposter. Of the pair, she had her doubts about Vince as thus far she only had Juniper’s word that he was another authentic sufferer of the same condition and he had offered no direct evidence to her.

However, it would take a conman with exceptional skill at cold reading to convince both a student of the dream-skewered and a genuine dream-skewered at the same time. In the Lost King’s Court, she had been raised amidst omnipresent deception, and although Vince was holding back details of his meta-entad, his motives seemed aligned with hers and his decision to expend a scarce resource for their sakes instead of allowing one of them to be killed or abandoned appeared sincere. Furthermore, the very first dream-skewered to appear had been a group of five, all presenting to the same asylum over a short period during Uther’s reign, which put much more weight on the correlation hypothesis.

The vehicle he had purchased was an enigma beyond its ambiguous entadic properties, for several reasons. The number 53 on its sides could be taken to imply a series of 100 produced in a single forge frenzy, which would be unlikely to evade notice. Similarly, it appeared with an unfamiliar style of glyph sequence to identify it, and ran on a loud mechanical process rather than soul power. These could all be explained by the car originating from Earth, but that raised its own issues as almost all dream-skewered, including the two sharing the car with her, insisted that Earth lacked any magic.

As the day turned to dusk and she started to look for places of shelter as well as possible threats, the next topic she considered was that meta-entad, which took the form of a palm-sized tablet with one glowing surface upon which words and images appeared to interact with. The car was worth five credits, and even a conservative estimate using the value of the vehicle alone meant that a single credit could provide perhaps ten thousand obols of equipment almost instantly. That would be a great boon for a fireteam, though hardly transformational. A better question was how many credits were left, and what kinds of entads could be purchased with them.

The next farm they came to offered a good respite from the walking dead. It was a ranch for sawbeaks, large flightless birds that were indiscriminate omnivores like pigs and grouped into flocks to scavenge from carcasses in the wild. Their field was ringed by tall fences, and as the degenerate necrotic field effect had occurred at around the time of year that the animals went to market there were only perhaps a dozen of the creatures inside the perimeter, hopping over with their eyes glowing. They bounced off the fence, doing almost nothing to it, and Vince stopped the car so the three of them could get out.

“You said your skills could increase?” Amaryllis asked, not really a question. “Consider this a training opportunity.”

She offered Juniper her void rifle, and he returned her pistol before starting to take shots at the undead birds through gaps in the fence. Watching him, the first few shots were poor but his aim improved quickly. Visible damage was appearing, the rifle erasing cylinders up to six inches deep where it landed between the bones, and he was soon pacing back and forth to get a good angle past the thick sternum. His progress was good, but not enough to convince Amaryllis he didn’t merely have residual skill with the rifle from his pre-skewer life.

A half-minute later, one of the birds unceremoniously collapsed to the ground as he managed to strike its heart. The boy exploded with a golden light that lifted him bodily off the ground for a moment and flattened the grass around him, depositing him with an expression of ecstasy on his face as the glow subsided. Amaryllis quietly revised her assessment of whether he was a typical dream-skewer.

The dramatic event was eye-catching, dangerously so. Without the regular shots knocking individual sawbeaks off-balance, the remaining ten birds had begun to synchronize their motions and group closer together, and then the sawbeaks on the ends were pulled up and inwards by the unseen force of the necrotic field. They were forming into a single umbral undead, two new points of red light appearing in the air above the flock.

“Back to the car!” She shouted.

The amalgamation seemed to be poured into the shape of a giant crab, allowing it to climb over the fence and crash down on the other side. The first legs to land audibly snapped under the weight of the umbral undead, but as the rest touched the ground it started to scurry forward with alarming speed.

The doors of the vehicle swung open as they ran back to it, diving inside, and Vince floored the accelerator to reverse them back away from the monster. A sound of complaint rose from the engine.

“Cyriak-ass motherfucker!” he swore, the umbral crab getting closer as the wheels struggled to find purchase on the grass of the ranch. It was looming larger and larger in the windscreen, the car’s headlights illuminating the sawbeaks that composed it. With the windows still wound down, Amaryllis wasted no time in leaning out of hers to check the route behind them.

“Almost at the road, turn on my mark,” she said, drawing the void tunneler to snap off a quick shot at one of the component sawbeaks. She failed to hit a heart and looked behind them again as she waited for it to cycle.

“Mark!” she called. Vince spun the wheel aggressively, the car spinning round as it hit the lip of the raised road edge and tilted up on two wheels. Only the strength of Amaryllis’ grip kept her from tumbling out onto the ground as she was suddenly angled towards it.

She drew on the rush of blood in her veins to pull herself back inside with a burst of force, timed to the next beat of her racing heart, and a moment later the car righted itself on the road with a jarring bump as the other two wheels made contact.

“What’s the plan?” Juniper asked from the other back seat, rifle in hand. He’d grabbed the knapsack to keep it from spilling everywhere.

Amaryllis tucked back a stray strand of hair that had come loose from her braid, then ignored an unhelpful pang of fear of falling to lean out again. They had the edge on the umbral undead now the wheels had proper traction, but these roads had been poorly maintained even before the exclusion and a bad pothole could cripple them.

“Time to see how much you’ve improved by,” she said, raising the void tunneler again. “Take out the sawbeaks like before, start from the center of mass of the umbral form.” Her shot struck true this time, erasing enough of her target’s heart that the bird lost animation and fell free from the mass, hitting the road and rolling out of sight behind their pursuer.

Juniper took aim from the other side of the car, raising the rifle and taking out another sawbeak himself. Six seconds later, he fired again and another one hit the road.

“It’s losing cohesion,” Amaryllis said. The three undead birds that had been killed were all from the center of the pile, and with the last one the umbral form could no longer sustain itself. The remaining bodies collapsed into two piles that tumbled along the road as they lost momentum.

“Did we get it?” he asked.

“Stay alert,” she said. A moment later, the bodies had formed into a pair of lupine umbral undead composed of three sawbeaks each that resumed the pursuit.

They took more shots at the new forms, but these umbral hounds had the agility to run serpentine, weaving unpredictably along the road. Even when the void effect connected, the new arrangement had the lead sawbeak positioned head-first towards them, denying them a clear shot at its heart or the other birds. Cracks and loose chunks of road were also slowing the car down, as Vince had to drive more carefully to avoid punctures. This wasn’t going to work.

“We need to turn around and go through them,” she said. “Vince, can you do that?”

“What do you think, Herbie?” he asked. The horn honked. “Yeah, we can do that.”

She moved back inside and motioned Juniper back in as well. “Take another shot as we go past, we’ll have a better angle on them.”

They hit another bump in the road, jolting them around, and then Vince threw them into a handbreak turn that flung her against Juniper. She grabbed one of the straps in the back, seatbelts that were only recently being introduced to passenger vehicles, and pulled herself back into position.

The car knocked both of the umbral hounds aside as it drove between them. Amaryllis took the shot on reflex out the window almost simultaneously with Juniper, but the impact had jarred her aim and she heard him swear too.

Rather than turn to follow them, the umbral hounds reconfigured their arrangement, the rear sawbeak sliding up to form the new head as the other end did the reverse. That gave them another opening, and with a thwip she took out the middle bird on her side and collapsed the hound. Two seconds later, Juniper fired again and the other one fell down as well.

“Good work, both of you,” Amaryllis said.

“What the fuck was that thing?” Vince asked.

“I’m sorry, you both seemed familiar with the concept of the undead so I assumed that extended to the umbral undead as well,” she said. “The necrotic field animates dead muscle, with the heart of a creature acting as a nexus. With unanimity-of-purpose, the individual fields of multiple creatures can overlap and take a new shape. Rather than conforming to the volume of the body in the individual case, the field takes a new form and the individual bodies are moved to fill that shadow. When fighting these undead, it’s important to break apart any umbral forms and prevent new ones from forming, as they gain more strength and coordination the larger they are.”

The research summaries she’d read had stated that only mortal species and eusocial animals were capable of enough uniamity-of-purpose for that, which was why she’d not expected the sawbeaks to also demonstrate the same phenomenon, but a significant part of her value to the dream-skewered boys was as a guide to Aerb and so she wouldn’t be admitting ignorance unless she could reframe it as a reminder of their own lack of knowledge. Part of her wished that she could investigate what failure of experimental design had led the researchers to discount the uniamity-of-purpose to be found in swarm, pack, or flock behaviors, but as a high-ranking princess of Anglecynn such work was best delegated to others.

“Kind of like the zombies in World War Zed?” Vince asked. “Sorry, z-word.”

“I don’t remember reading that,” Juniper said.

“Not the book, it was in the movie, the Brad Pitt one,” Vince replied. He wove around one of the sawbeak corpses lying in the middle of the road from where it had been killed earlier in the chase.

“So what’s the plan?” Juniper asked. “Are we trying to get out of the necrotic field or destroy whatever’s creating it?”

“We’re headed towards Silmar City,” she said, weighing up how much to share. “It was the target of the attack that formed the Risen Lands, it’s awash with the walking dead, and there was once a secret facility there dedicated to the study of necrotic field effect, which I believe contains a key we can use to teleport ourselves to safety.”

“Awesome,” Vince said.

Back at the ranch, they circled around the fence before finding a gate that could be unlocked with the void tunneler. Once inside, they parked the car up against it to keep it shut until morning.

They were fortunate that Vince found a patch of wild grass in the field of a species with large starchy bulbs, widespread in the less developed parts of the continent or as insurance against the failure of less hardy crops, but stubbornly unsuitable for large-scale cultivation and unpleasant when eaten raw. She had sampled the cooked form during her exploration of the diets of the poor, and as she’d been explaining that the car gave its first display of any magic: the loud internal engine started up spontaneously, and within moments the bonnet was radiating heat. Joon dug out a knife from the knapsack and cut the bulbs into slices, frying them on the hot metal.

“My dad taught me how to do this once, when our car overheated on the way back from the shops. It was nearly a hundred degrees, all the food in the back was going to be ruined, so instead of calling a mechanic he invited our friends from the town around to have an impromptu barbecue.” A rare smile was on his face.

The fried bulbs were as unpalatable as she remembered, bitter and gritty, but there were enough for them to all eat their fill and store another couple of meals’ worth in the trunk of the car. Over the meal, as the clouds parted and the stars shone down, the conversation turned to Aerb.

“It’s easiest to think of Aerb as a hexagon, where moving across one edge will return you to the opposite side. Like Earth, this area is divided into many polities, of which Anglecynn is the most prominent superpower. Most of these polities are affiliated with the Empire of Common Cause, which primarily serves as a mechanism for coordination on laws, standards, and sanctions. In addition to humans like ourselves, there are approximately 200 mortal species,” Amaryllis explained.

“Okay, but what about magic?” Vince asked.

“There are twenty-two major magics on Aerb, as well as the specic, bloodline, free, and pseudo-magics. However, we agreed we’d take turns asking questions,” she said, annoyed. “Joon, your turn.”

“Uh, are there any magics you’d be able to teach us?” he asked.

“I attended the Athenaeum of Quills and Blood, but even the simple applications of blood magic that I can perform take years of study.”

“Could you try teaching us anyway? Joon has his game layer, he might be able to learn it faster than that.”

Amaryllis sighed at how quickly they’d abandoned the exchange of questions. “Blood magic taps into the raw, vital essence of the body, tapping it and shaping it for other purpose. The most skilled blood magi can extend their power beyond the body itself, extending their essence into the shape of a tool or weapon. That sort of magic is beyond my level though, and I’m only telling you about it for the sake of illustration. For now, close your eyes and feel your blood pumping within you. Listen to the beat of your heart and feel your pulse, not with your fingertips but just as it flows through your neck, your arms, your thighs.”

Both the boys followed her instructions.

“This next part normally causes some frustration,” she said. “Once you feel your blood, truly feel it, not just as some part of you that operates automatically without your involvement, you have to think about it in parts. Think about the warmth of your blood, think about how your fingers would feel if you tied them up with string and cut your circulation, then think about the warmth of your blood spreading back into them. That’s an exercise we practiced, but we don’t have the time for it now, not to do properly, and don’t want to risk your fingers.”

“Now,” said Amaryllis. “Call on the warmth of your blood and push it to your fingertips.” She concentrated on her index and middle fingers, which ignited with flame. She let them watch for a few seconds, then released the spell. “Now you try.”

Joon’s finger lit up, a tiny flame flickering on the end of it.

“That spell took me months to learn. Months. I had the best teachers in the world and literally centuries of institutional knowledge on how best to coax someone into understanding. You… had me, giving you a haphazard lesson from incomplete memories, over the course of a few minutes. It should be impossible, unless...” She stopped with downcast eyes, sorting through hypotheses. An inverse of the Ell, living and learning at a hundred times speed? No, they’d have starved by now. An incomplete skewer? Skill transfer with soul magic? No, that would need contact.

“Unless?” Joon prompted.

“Unless?” Vince echoed.

“Unless you knew blood magic in your previous life and the skewer took you only incompletely,” she replied.

“No, I think it’s the game thing,” Joon said, blithely dismissing her hypothesis. “What’s the limiting factor on blood magic?”

“Personal skill.”

He spread the flame across my fingertips, then covered his entire hand in it until it was blazing like a torch.

“Dude, sick!” Vince commented.

“So I can keep doing this indefinitely? Does this do anything other than provide light?”

“The light it produces is a reflection of the heat you’re invoking,” she said, agape at his unnatural pace of learning. “It doesn’t have much utility, though you can go around without carrying a lighter. I swear the reason smoking was even remotely popular at the athenaeum was that it allowed people to show off their proficiency.”

“Do you have any other spells?” Vince asked. “I want to see if I can learn this too.”

Amaryllis nodded. “Fine then, something more advanced in the realm of blood magic,” she said. “Feel your blood coursing through your veins, then feel your pulse, feel the movement of it within your veins. Now, draw back, and with the next pump of your heart, as you feel the blood flow down your arm --” Her fist blurred through the air with a snap. “Draw on the force of your heart.”

Juniper copied her on his first attempt. Beside him, Vince had his face scrunched in concentration. A moment later, a tiny flame appeared on his own fingertip.

“There we go!” He crowed.

“That’s enough blood magic for tonight,” Amaryllis said. She did her best to hide her bitterness at seeing the fruits of three years of study replicated in minutes by a pair of bumbling dream-skewered nobodies. “Those flames will be visible for miles and the Coterie will be hunting us. Who’s taking first watch?”

Chapter Text

Fenn strolled down the streets of Silmar City, letting whimsy guide her whenever she came to a junction. Her luck sense had pushed her to slip away from the rest of Fireteam Blackheart during the latest argument between Tova and Quills about conflicting objectives and missing intel, and she felt best about her luck whenever it agreed with what she wanted to do anyway.

Her ear twitched as she caught a mechanical whirring sound from outside the walls, getting closer. In moments, a rounded white car crested the top of the twenty-foot stone wall and then drove down the inside of it, hitting the ground and skidding to a halt in front of her.

The driver whooped inside it, and the other two passengers looked a lot more shaken and disoriented. It was too late for her to duck back into the alleys, so she gave them a wave and a broad grin to show off her human teeth instead.

"Greetings, hoomans! What brings you to Silmar City?"

The driver, a blond slab of beefcake, got out the car and gave it an affectionate pat then waved back at her. Thank you, luck.

"We're tourists!" He said. His eyes flicked to her ears, as usual, but not to her teeth.

"I, too, often find myself wandering about in cities deep in the heart of exclusion zones," she said, sauntering over to get a better look at them. "Myself, I'm looting. Violation of imperial law, that, but if the empire is going to just let all this stuff go to rot, then I don't consider it the worst crime a person can commit to steal some of it away."

"Oh, we're looking for souvenirs as well," Beefcake shot back. "Or, well, -"

"Thank you, Vince."

The other passengers had got out by now, a cute boy who was remarkably average in every respect even for a human and a very pretty woman with a long red braid who had just interrupted Vince.

"Those are Host fatigues you're wearing, even if they're unmarked. Where's the rest of your Fireteam?"

Fenn yawned, stretching her arms above her head with her warbow in hand, and caught both the boys appreciating the view. She could work with that.

"I am technically a consultant to Fireteam Blackheart, but they're really kind of a bore and I didn't have much of a choice in my recruitment."

"And we're supposed to believe you wandered off in the middle of an exclusion zone?" the woman asked.

"I was feeling lucky."

"Even with elf luck, that's suspiciously convenient."

"I know, right? I was just thinking, 'Fenn, you should find a new group that's less rude and secretive,' and bam! Over the wall you came. Cool entad, by the way."

"Cypress, I think we should extend Fenn some trust. It was unlikely that we'd run into you, too," the smaller boy said to the redhead, putting an odd emphasis on the human's name. So they were recent allies of convenience rather than an established kharass? That bode well for Fenn's chances of slotting herself in with them, and she felt a burst of gratitude at his support. "I'm Juniper, but you can call me Joon."

"Are you familiar with Sorian's Castle?" Cypress asked in a less hostile tone.

"I've ventured in there once or twice before," Fenn said. "Is that where your souvenir is?"

She nodded.

"The corporate castles are death traps," she said. "Funny enough, they weren’t designed with the living suddenly becoming the undead in mind. There were a few hundred people living in each of them. When the buildings lost power, they switched to a backup, and when that backup eventually failed, all the doors opened, as a fire safety measure. Well, that meant that the undead were free to roam, but their stochastic motion meant that they all ended up in the same spots, and since they all lived and worked together, unanimity-of-purpose is higher, which means more umbral undead than you might otherwise expect from a highly populated area.” She shrugged. “Other than that, it’s your typical case of close quarters combat against enemies who can only be killed through precision or overwhelming firepower, plus it’s within the stalking grounds of the Biggun, whose entire existence is devoted to killing interlopers. So I believe the human term would be 'cakewalk'?"

She turned and shot an arrow through the heart of a red-eyed undead as it shambled down the alleyway behind her.

"The Biggun?" Vince asked.

"Probably the umbral giant we saw inside the walls on the way in," Joon explained.

"You're an expert," Cypress said, begrudgingly impressed. "Welcome to the group. Vince, send Herbie back to the farm for us to pick up later. We'd better get moving if we're to reach the twenty-first floor without encountering the rest of your Fireteam."

There was the rub, that as well as surviving the climb through the castle she'd also have to deal with her ex-colleagues. And endear herself enough with these newcomers that they wouldn't leave her behind once they found the teleportation key. Fenn held back a smile.

Vince took point, borrowing Fenn's dagger and with a rugged canvas coat looted from one of the shops on the way wrapped around his off-hand. Fenn went second, to guide him, and she didn't miss that Cypress and Joon's void weapons behind her would be just as effective against her as they were against the undead.

Her ears perked up as she overheard a whispered exchange between the two of them.

"Hey, last night, we didn't get around to answering any questions you had for us," the boy said. "I wanted to apologize for that."

"Moving through hostile territory is a bad time to have this conversation," said the redhead. "But thank you. Once we are safe you're going to tell me all about earth and your game."

Then two more walkers shambled out from the next junction and Vince interposed himself, holding them off with his improvised shield while the rest of the group fanned out to pick the undead apart. Fenn was glad to be able to keep her artillery shot a secret.

"The first thing to know about Fireteam Blackheart is that they have a meatshield, Carter, a kashoonk. Can't miss him, he's seven foot tall in full plate, with a tower shield and a hand cannon," she said as they resumed moving.

"I presume Carter is linked through the soul to take the hits for the rest of the party?" Cypress asked redundantly, because that was the dictionary definition of the brute role.

"Yeah, for some reason they saw fit not to include me in that linkage. Quills is the muscle, a bladebound porcupine animalia, then there's Leonold the tattoo mage and Tova the bone mage as casters."

"What's the tattoo mage's loadout?" She asked.

"All sorts, but the highlights are two Prince's Invulnerabilities, several Pseudo Perimeters, and a Faltering Candelabra."

"Prince’s Invulnerability lasts for about six seconds?" Joon asked. "Covers six people?"

"You know a lot about cutting-edge military-grade tattoos, hooman."

"Then we need to focus fire on him before he can activate that or the Candelabra, and we'll have a hard time surprising them if he's keeping a Perimeter active like he should," Cypress said. "Last known position?"

"The other side of Sorian's castle, by the walls. You know, I can't help but notice that I'm the only one sharing information here. As it happens, one of Blackheart's objectives is to look out for a person, and I wasn't told who or why. Any of you have an idea of why you might have a Fireteam after you?"

"Well, if they want me or Joon we couldn't tell you, because we're both dream-skewered. From our perspective, we arrived on Aerb a day ago and haven't had the chance to make any enemies. Now, we arrived on the plane so the people we got dream-skewered into probably did some bad things, but they were already being punished for it," Vince said.

"Bullshit," Fenn said.

"They're after me," Cypress said. "Amaryllis Penndraig, tenth of her name, Special Liaison on Existential Emergencies for the Kingdom of Anglecynn, long may it stand."

Fenn glanced over her shoulder. Amaryllis looked the part, now she knew she was looking at one of the Lost King's get, and while Vince had faltered Joon seemed unsurprised by the reveal.

"Well, fuck."

The front of Sorian’s Castle was a massive portcullis that rose up almost twenty feet. It was down, but a corner of it had been bent outward, enough that even Vince could comfortably walk through it without ducking. Beyond there was a courtyard with two dozen undead roaming and the shattered glass front of the castle. There was light coming out from the third floor between the pillars on that level.

"We need to punch through them, fast, before any umbral undead can form and without making too much noise," Amaryllis said.

"Vince and I could use the Crimson Fist to knock them out of our way?" Joon suggested.

The princess frowned, then nodded. "Give me your pistol, Fenn and I will stay close behind you and pick off any undead you have trouble with."

Fenn bristled at being spoken for like that, but it was a sound plan. A minute later Vince was topless, both arms now wrapped, while Joon now had her dagger instead of his machete and Amaryllis had a void gun in each hand.

They strode out into the courtyard, not quite at a jog, and the muscles on Vince's back tensed before his punch blurred forward and caught the closest walker in the chest, launching it backwards with the sound of rotten ribs snapping and knocking the two undead behind it to the floor. Joon's own punch only staggered his target, but he followed up with three stabs with the dagger to the heart and it dropped to the floor.

"You're cleaning that for me," Fenn bantered, loosing an arrow to pierce the heart of another walker, while the thwip of the princess' guns sounded at regular intervals.

They made it halfway across the courtyard before the first umbral undead formed, the three walkers Vince had knocked into a pile getting up in the shape of an umbral hound and charging at them. Fenn and the princess both shot at it, taking out the front legs to make it fall and skid, but it was reforming even before it came to a halt and more were grouping together.

"Run inside!" Amaryllis commanded, taking up the rear and plucking something from a pouch at her waist with her pistol hand.

The four of them ran for it, Vince ploughing through the undead and throwing them to the floor without the rhythm of blood magic. When they got to the doorway he turned to try and hold the chokepoint but Amaryllis tugged him onwards to vault over the reception desk, and Fenn and Joon followed her lead.

They landed on the other side with a thump, breathing heavily from the exertion. A moment later, there were two whumps and an inrush of air. Peeking back over the desk, Fenn saw two spherical holes eaten out of the support pillars by the entrance, undead streaming between them, before the remaining stone cracked under the load and the whole front wall above the entrance collapsed down.

The sound of it was deafening and seemed to go on for a whole minute, and the air was thick with grey dust when it finally finished. Amaryllis pointed up questioningly rather than open her mouth, and Fenn gestured towards the central staircase.

Joon led the way up the darkened stairs, his borrowed dagger being easiest to bring to bear against the undead that popped up every other floor and his other hand aflame with Aarde's Touch for light.

"Void guns and now void bombs? So much for the Imperial Ban," Fenn teased. "Is that why you got sent here?"

"The Empire needs better controls on void weaponry, and I can't enact those controls if I'm dead," Amaryllis said, annoyed, between sweeping doorways with her pistol. "Those were my last, and that collapse won't have gone unnoticed by your Fireteam."

"They're not my Fireteam any more, as long as you know where to find the teleportation key."

Past the tenth floor Vince took over from Joon after he received a nasty scratch across the forehead from the latest walker. He took to shattering undead chests with Crimson Fists instead of stabbing them, but at this height the walkers were thankfully thinning out.

Finally they reached the top floor, emerging into a sunlit reception area with a desk against one wall and a blue and yellow crest with a badger on it behind that. The humans were all sweaty from the long climb, but there were two doors out and Amaryllis instructed them on the basics of breaching while they caught their breath. Each time, Joon kept his back to the wall and delivered a blood magic-fueled back kick to the door, slamming it open, with Vince already having built up speed to charge through and Amaryllis and Fenn sweeping a side of the room each.

The first door led into a long corridor with several more doors leading to connecting rooms. It was a windowless area, lit only by the purple glow of crystals drawing on the ambient necrotic field for power. A few walkers shambled down the corridor, but Vince crouched down and Amaryllis and Fenn picked them apart with void and arrow before they could reach him.

The second door instead led to a wide open space, a dome almost two hundred feet across with large regularly-spaced windows and full of what was recognizably lab equipment distributed across wooden tables in regular rows. There were no undead to be seen.

"The key should be in the next room," Amaryllis said. She was taking a keen interest in the experiments as they moved between them.

"How come the top level is so much emptier than the first?" Joon asked.

"Stochastic motion, without anything living to chase down the undead just wander around with a bias towards their habitual routes in life. Most people wouldn't have the clearance to visit the top floors on a regular basis, so fewer undead shamble on up here," Fenn said.

"Seems like bad design, the higher levels becoming easier," he said.

"Like I said, nobody built their castle with the expectation of the occupants all dying at once."

"I meant more in the sense of... Nevermind."

The next door was locked, and Amaryllis crouched down to carve a cylinder out of the lock with her void pistol. She held up a hand to stop Joon before he could deliver another kick to break the remaining pieces of the mechanism and slam the door open.

"I'm seeing movement inside, four undead, with their uniforms they'll likely go umbral as soon as we breach," she whispered. "Normally I'd suggest we play it safe, barricade the door then spend half an hour taking chunks out of them through the keyhole until they can't move, but we went loud getting into the castle and we don't know how far behind the Fireteam is. Thoughts?"

"Four of them, they'll make another umbral hound?" Joon asked. "Vince, if I give you the machete, could you hack at them to break up the umbral form?"

The burly guy nodded and accepted the blade.

"Fenn, they brought you in as a consultant for a reason, any thoughts?" The princess prompted.

Fenn thought for a moment, or rather consulted her intuition. She grimaced. "Fighting inside and on a time limit wasn't my specialty, but I've got a bad feeling about taking our time. I say we breach."

Amaryllis nodded, then counted down on her fingers one more time. The door slammed open from Joon's kick, splintering at the hinges, and then Vince was through and in among the undead. He made sweeping swings to try and keep them apart, but the undead had no fear of the blade and it soon caught halfway through the side of a uniformed chest. In the whirling melee, neither of the girls could get a clear shot at the bodies clawing at him, and then they rose off the floor and assembled around him into the shape of a hound.

The umbral hound pounced, leaving the wounded Vince behind as the component bodies flowed around him. Fenn was out the way before it even started moving, following the lead of her elf-luck, and Joon tackled Amaryllis to the side but they were still clipped by the mass of bodies as it crashed into the benches of lab equipment behind them. Fenn loosed three arrows into it point-blank, too close for her ancestral bow to be useful. The arrows pierced through long-dead limbs and into the wood of the workbench it had crashed into, but the monster tore free with umbral strength and was back on its feet before the pair of humans could untangle themselves.

Before it could leap again and crush them against the unyielding stone, a flickering collection of lights danced in the center of the room. The hypnotic flames floated without any support or source, and in her peripheral vision Fenn could see that the umbral hound was also entranced, staring at the phantasm like her.

"Faltering Candelabra," she heard Amaryllis mutter in a daze behind her. "Don't look..."

Yeah, easier said than done, princess, she thought hazily.

A deafening gunshot sounded from the other side of the room and the umbral hound exploded into pieces, fragments of dry flesh and bone landing in Fenn's hair. She flinched on reflex but couldn't move beyond that, and the sound of it echoed like thunder as it bounced off the walls.

"...could've broken the spell," she heard Leonold say over the ringing in her ears, and Carter grunted in response. Fireteam Blackheart had arrived.

Chapter Text

"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!


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.

Achievement Unlocked: Tutorial Complete!

Level Up!