The day after the wedding, Figaro Finch (no relation) came into the house for a meeting. He did this every once in a while, mostly to see what wheels he could grease. He didn’t seem terribly happy with his assignment, especially in comparison to Jorge. So far as I could tell, he’d prided himself as something of a detective, and this particular role, which mostly involved calling in favors and wrestling with international bureaucracy on our behalf, wasn’t one that he liked too much. I don’t know if he couldn’t transfer out or if he just didn’t want to, but he stuck with us, living down in the village and making daily pilgrimages up to see Amaryllis. It was rare that I was part of these meetings, but Amaryllis had requested me.
“Interesting wedding,” he said as I came in. “Odd wedding. That’s an odd wedding and an odd birth I’ve seen from your little Council. New members too, all of them odd. And I couldn’t help but notice that your half-elf was missing.”
He didn’t know about Fenn. Our funeral hadn’t been public, and it wasn’t like Amaryllis was going to send out a newsletter on the matter. We weren’t hiding her death, not exactly, but we also weren’t telling anyone. It still made me a little bit angry to have him bring it up, even though it wasn’t his fault, and he couldn’t have known.
“What did you come here for?” asked Amaryllis. She was back into business casual, a blouse and skirt that were trying to be as unassuming as possible, and doing a good job of it. The room we sat in was her office, with books lining the walls and light streaming in through huge windows.
“The Athenaeum of Sound and Silence finally got back to me,” he said. “You’re approved for a double, one week at the Li’o’te Temple, one tap from the Rod of Whispers.”
“Oh,” said Amaryllis. She straightened up. “Well, that’s very good news.”
“It’s not free,” said Finch. “You’re up to something here, I know you are, and our support isn’t unconditional, especially not after how your last two visits to athenaeums turned out. So far as I know, you’ve got the last living locus, you’ve got a variant non-anima, and you’re starting some kind of technological revolution, with unknown origins, using a newly minted kingdom of tuung, who are being aged up at ludicrous rates, through unknown means. There’s a bigger picture, and I want to know it. You asked for, quote, critical training, unquote, and I’ve done my best to provide it, but as a condition, I want to know the bigger picture, whatever it is.”
Some of what he knew we’d told him, and some he had figured out himself, mostly from information that it hadn’t been possible to keep secret. We’d hired on a lot of teachers and engineers, and the fact that we were burning through years was pretty damned obvious, even if the mechanism was not.
Amaryllis steepled her fingers. “I’m not sure that I like this negotiation,” she said. “If we give you a part of the picture, you could always argue it’s not enough.”
“You could give me the whole picture,” said Finch. “We’re talking about opening up one of your members, ideally one that’s trusted, to restricted magics. Sound and Silence has always played a little faster and looser with the rules than the others, because if someone goes rogue they can’t induct more rogue members, but still, this is me sticking my neck out for someone I really don’t have to stick my neck out for.”
“It’s complicated,” said Amaryllis. “We have a time chamber, a powerful one, and an entad that allows us to use it more than the normal amount. Our plan is to have one of our members granted access to both still and vibrational magic, then undergo the requisite training to use the magic under compressed time.” This was all technically true.
“You’re calling it a time chamber?” asked Finch. “From what I’ve heard down in the village, because you people tell me practically nothing, it must be the biggest time chamber in the world, and you’re chugging through years like there’s no tomorrow.”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis.
“Any particular reason you need a mage of many talents?” asked Finch. “Some project you’re planning? The great return to Anglecynn, perhaps?”
“Perhaps,” replied Amaryllis with a smile.
“You tell me first this time, alright?” asked Finch. “What happened at Speculation and Scrutiny –”
“Won’t happen again,” replied Amaryllis. “The circumstances were particularly unique.”
“If I send one of you to Sound and Silence, I’m not going to have you come pleading to me and hoping I’ll make some novel problem go away?” asked Finch.
“That’s not how I would characterize what happened last time,” said Amaryllis. Her lips were thin. “And no, it’s my hope that we can send Juniper to Sound and Silence for a week without any major problems. If there are unforeseen problems and unique circumstances, can I count on your aid?”
Finch glared at her. “Depends on the circumstances,” he said. “You’re very fortunate that no one involved wanted anything to do with the authorities. Speculator Masters seemed to want to sweep it under the rug.” Finch didn’t know about the illusion magic exclusion zone, because we hadn’t told him.
“All our crimes were victimless,” said Amaryllis, folding her arms.
“If your victimless crimes keep requiring me to spend Uniquities resources, I’m going to have to start charging,” he said with a huff.
Amaryllis actually laughed at that. “As though a non-member polity could funnel money into Uniquities without a whole army of accountants and lawyers descending on us?”
“Point taken,” said Finch with a grimace. “I wasn’t serious. What I am serious about is having some cooperation between the Council of Arches and Uniquities, more than we’ve had in the past. You’ve captured Jorge in the world’s most obvious honeypot, but he reports to me, and we can still pull out at a moment’s notice.”
“You have what you wanted from the outset, pressure on the tuung,” said Amaryllis. “As for the other thing you wanted, a lever on Anglecynn, that’s not something that we can rush with a time chamber.”
“We both know you’ve got more plates spinning than just that,” said Finch. “The locus isn’t with you for no reason. Neither is the non-anima. Jorge is talking my ear off about waging war against the hells –”
“Something that you’re discussing under heavy wards?” asked Amaryllis, suddenly taut.
“No,” said Finch. “We have an entad that removes the need for one.”
<It’s an obsidian doorknob that allows him to open a door into a pitch black extradimensional space,> Bethel said into my mind. <It seems secure enough. He has it on his person.> I saw Amaryllis relax, and assumed that she’d gotten the same message.
“You understand that the infernals can’t know about Valencia,” said Amaryllis. “Ideally, no one would. She’s the best weapon that anyone has ever had against the hells. It could provoke infernal unification.”
“I have more faith in tight lips on my side than on yours,” said Finch. “That’s one of the reasons that I want to know more. There are secrets you’re keeping, and they’re bound to come out. You want Juniper to be a still mage and a vibrational mage, on top of his other skills, which I’m sure I’ve seen only a fraction of.” Finch glanced at me. “He’s going to spend years of his life in a time chamber to do it. Why?”
“He’s one of the few people I can trust,” said Amaryllis. “He’s also extraordinarily intelligent and with a demonstrably enormous aptitude for magic.”
“For unregistered magic,” said Finch. That was true. I didn’t have any certification or license to practice blood magic, bone magic, tattoo magic, flower magic, or, most seriously, soul magic.
“I could have attended the athenaeums under an alias,” I said, giving him a bit of a smile. “In the interests of making your job a bit easier though, no, I’m not registered, and I have no papers. I’m also not intending to ply a trade.”
“Well, you’ll have papers at Sound and Silence,” said Finch. He looked me over. “You’re just going so you can become stronger?”
“Yes,” I replied. “That’s about it. I can be there in a few hours.”
Finch frowned at me. “And if you get in trouble?” he asked. “What will you do this time?”
“I’ll wait for the authorities,” I said. “I’ll explain to them what happened, give them your name, and wait quietly in a cell for you to fix everything.” I didn’t want to lie to the man, but I didn’t think he would be happy if I added on ‘if circumstances permit’. I kept my caveats to myself, and felt bad about it.
“Fine,” said Finch. “I suppose I’ve already arranged it.”
Quest Accepted: The Sound of Silence – Uniquities has pulled some levers to get you to the front of the line for access to two major magics. Go to the Athenaeum of Sound and Silence and speak with the Bursar.
It seemed simple enough, which made me leery.
Before we left, there was one lingering issue to take care of: Masters.
Our original plan had been to go into Boastre Vino and send word up to him, so that we wouldn’t have to risk getting within range of the illusion exclusion, and so that we could set up a defensible location with an easy exit. Instead, Raven had declared that she would bring her father to us, along with the entads that seemed like they were intended for us. (I was particularly looking forward to getting a new suit of armor, since my old one had been left behind at the Library, an unfortunate casualty of our rapid exit.)
Raven had her own way around the world, an entad that only worked outdoors and by all appearances, flung her straight up into the air. It worked once a day, and she could bring a single person with her; she’d left shortly after the wedding had finished, and now she was back with her father in tow.
“You’re going off with him,” said Masters as they climbed the hill to Bethel. “You’re going to put your life on the line again.”
“I’m an adult,” replied Raven. She had a wooden box in her hands. It was sized for jewelry, with aesthetically pleasing hinges and silver detailing on the top. “For gods’ sake, it makes more sense now than it did when I was young. You have to understand that this is important work, don’t you? Now be quiet, please, we’re probably close enough that they can listen in.”
“Do you think I care about that?” asked Masters as he climbed the hill. “Let them listen. I’m stepping into the sanctum sanctorum of a dream-skewered warrior already, throwing myself at his mercy, and I will not waste my time worrying about what he thinks of something so small as my pleas to you.” He huffed. “Raven, you put too much of the weight of the world on your shoulders, far too young, and for what?”
“To save it,” replied Raven. She wore a frown.
(It probably goes without saying that we were watching in, courtesy of Bethel-vision.)
“And that’s what you’ll do for the remaining millenia of your life?” asked Masters. “You’ll push on ahead, working yourself to the bone, all in pursuit of some ideal? Or because you’re still chasing him?”
“Enough,” said Raven. “I don’t want them listening to this.”
“I’ll tell them to their faces then,” said Masters. “Raven, my little bird, you’ve been through enough. You’ve done enough. Do you understand what it was like for me, as a father? Every week hearing some new thing that Uther and his Knights had done, some adventure they’d made it through by the skin of their teeth? And I know that I never heard the half of it.”
“I came through,” said Raven. “We all did. The world is teetering on the brink, it’s always been teetering on the brink, whether we knew it or not, and it needs strong hands to keep it from falling over the edge. I can’t leave, I can’t quit. Not until we’ve secured the future.”
They continued trudging up in silence.
“Do you think about him, when you say things like that?” asked Masters.
Raven gave no response, even though she would have had just enough time to get the last word in before they reached the door.
The image cut out when they reached the room where we were waiting. I was with Amaryllis, but it was just the two of us. Valencia didn’t want to be in the same room with Masters, and Solace had politely said that she had better things to do with her time. Of the core group, that left Grak, who had little interest in the meeting, and whose expertise was already mostly covered by Bethel. (Pallida and Raven kept their distance from one another, as much as possible, and while Pallida occasionally made private comments, Raven didn’t seem to feel that there was a story that needed to be set straight.)
“I apologize, profusely,” said Masters when he came into the room. He bowed to us, so low that it was embarrassing. Amaryllis was staring at him with hard, calculating eyes.
“You brought the entads?” I asked.
“Here,” said Raven. She set the box on the desk.
“We’ll be having these looked over by warders first, naturally,” I said.
“I have descriptions of their functions,” said Masters as he finally rose from his bow. “If there are any elements of subterfuge, they were placed there by Uther for his own arcane purposes.”
“Why would he poison one of his caches?” asked Raven, looking at her father.
“We could ask why he did many things,” said Amaryllis. “Regardless, we’ll have our warders look over them carefully before they’re put to use. We will, naturally, take the descriptions as well.”
“They’re already in the box,” said Raven.
“I am sorry,” said Masters. “It was five hundred years at Speculation and Scrutiny, you have to understand that, and so many unsolved mysteries left behind in the wake of Uther’s disappearance, so many questions about my only daughter’s role in it all that — it’s not an excuse, I can’t excuse myself, but I only wanted the truth of the matter.”
“What have you told him?” I asked Raven.
“Nothing,” she replied. “Only that I’ll be traveling with you, for the time being.”
“I’m not inclined to spread our secrets far and wide,” said Amaryllis.
“Please,” said Masters. He looked to Raven.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll tell you what I know.”
“Juniper,” sighed Amaryllis.
<He’s an illusion mage,> I replied to her, by way of Bethel. <His magic is confined to the zone, but he’s still a useful ally.>
<Fine,> she replied back, but in a way that really made it seem like it wasn’t fine.
So I talked for a bit, about things that I was getting a little bit tired of talking about. Unfortunately, I couldn’t answer all of Masters’ questions, because a lot of them had answers that I didn’t know.
“But why did he win so consistently?” he asked.
“He didn’t,” said Raven. “Everyone always says that, but there were times that he lost.”
“Definitively lost?” asked Masters, glaring at his daughter. “Not as a prelude to some greater victory, not as the inciting incident for one of his cycles, but a true loss?”
“His wife lost everything below her ribcage in the Blight,” said Raven, gesturing to her own body with her hand. “I don’t care how you want to reframe that so it doesn’t count, but it was a loss, a true one.”
“To answer the question,” I said. “The Dungeon Master entity is, presumably, powerful enough that he can ensure a close win every single time, no matter what the odds seem like they should be on the face of it. Why he would choose to do that, I don’t really know, especially since it seems from where I’m standing that it was nothing more than an unusual form of extended torture.”
“But why was he so secretive about it?” asked Masters. “Why would he set me to my task at Speculation and Scrutiny without telling me this?” He was insistent, but that insistence was a little easier to handle now that he wasn’t using magic against us.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It would have weakened him politically, if people had known that he was dream-skewered, and even more if they had known that he was receiving supernatural aid of some sort. That still doesn’t explain why he didn’t tell his Knights, but,” I shrugged. “Maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he had his reasons. I’ll ask him, if I ever have the opportunity.”
Masters glanced at his daughter. “Don’t let him take advantage of her.”
“Take advantage?” I asked. I looked at her with a raised eyebrow.
“Not like that,” said Raven with a tight frown. “He means — he thinks that I’m more impressionable than I am.” She turned to Masters. “I am one of the most renowned Ell to have ever lived and a central figure in the history of the world. I can handle myself. I know there’s nothing that I can say or do that will make you believe that, but I can.”
I’d fought her; I believed it. Of course, if I had been thinking properly at the time, I probably could have caught her off-guard and murdered her before she had a chance to react, defensive entads be damned. Beyond that, Bethel had cut all of Raven’s fingers off two weeks ago, which also wasn’t the sort of thing that Masters would have wanted to hear.
I answered more of Masters’ questions, which took quite a while, but there was only so much that I could say, and he didn’t seem to find all of my answers that satisfactory. I told him about Maddie, in brief, leaving a few choice things out. It raised more questions, a lot of which I still couldn’t answer. Some of those questions were ones that I was curious about myself, questions about Uther, questions about the Dungeon Master, and questions about what it was all for and what it all meant.
He left soon after, declaring that he had taken leave of Speculation and Scrutiny for a time and would be staying down in the village, which Raven seemed distinctly displeased to hear.
“It’s always the same arguments,” said Raven, shortly after he was out the door. “They say that’s how it is among the Ell, that we’re slow to change our minds, but he goes beyond that. He never listens, not to me, not where Uther is concerned.” She turned to the box. “It’s irrelevant. This is the reason it was worth talking to him at all.”
“That’s a harsh way to speak of your father,” said Amaryllis.
“Perhaps,” said Raven, looking over at her. “I would think that you would understand how paternalism could be grating.”
“My father died when I was two years old,” said Amaryllis.
“Ah,” said Raven.
“I’ve always thought it better to have allies who disagree on what’s best for you than to not have allies at all,” said Amaryllis. “I might empathize more if he had the capacity to stop you in any meaningful way, but he’s helpless and burdened by forces completely out of his control.”
“I won’t complain more, if it bothers you,” said Raven.
“I didn’t say that,” replied Amaryllis.
“Can we get to the loot?” I asked. “I’m itching to be armored again, and the sword that I’m currently using isn’t up to snuff. We’ll want Grak and Bethel to look them over to make sure there’s nothing unwanted in there, but –”
“I’ve already looked them over,” said Bethel, appearing beside me. “I’ll take Grak’s second opinion though. He’s a more capable warder than I am, and might see something that I’ve missed. I wouldn’t want to take in something toxic to me, if Uther planned for this.”
“You understand that we’re just exercising due caution, right?” I asked Raven. “I wouldn’t want you to think that we don’t trust you.”
“I understand,” said Raven. “To be honest, it’s refreshing.”
It took some time for Grak to look over the box before he was willing to declare it safe. Once he did, Raven opened the lid and took out a pair of tweezers that was held in place with a set of tiny pegs in the lid. She picked up a number of miniature entads and set them out, then tapped each of them twice, which caused them to grow back to their normal size.
It was the entirety of the armory that Pallida and I had found at Speculation and Scrutiny: five suits of armor, two dozen weapons, and two full display cabinets full of miscellaneous trinkets.
I couldn’t help myself; I got giddy.
While none of it was completely worthless, some of it was niche, and not really worth talking about. The other stuff? Pretty good.
- Space Plate: Airtight, watertight, pressurized, and with two days air supply, this one had been lifted from the Fantasy in Spaaaaaace part of one of my campaigns. It was impact resistant, but you’d still be taking the hit, meaning that the armor did what mundane armor did and spread out the force of impact into something that the body could handle better. Good for deep sea diving and hostile environments (potentially including Fel Seed’s, given it could block spores). As a bonus, the helm was completely transparent, allowing full field of view.
- Gardner’s Plate: It had twelve small holes at various points around it, from which vines could be projected while it was worn, though they only worked for a few minutes before retreating. The vines were fully prehensile and under the control of the wearer, though they were difficult to use for everyone but me. My guess was that it was because of the Ambidexterity virtue, but the game didn’t give me any feedback on the matter.
- Alvion’s Vambrace: The reason that so many suits of armor were a consideration was this little beauty, a tube of metal worn around the forearm with an opal set into it. With a twist, the opal allowed an instant change of clothes, where ‘clothes’ was fairly permissively defined and could include both weapons, armor, and things carried up to two hundred pounds (though our attempts at lassoing another person and swapping them into the extradimensional space failed). It was innocuous enough, for an entad, and could even be hidden beneath a long-sleeved shirt, which would help it avoid a cursory examination by a warder. There were three notches, meaning two ‘outfits’ stored and one worn.
- The Probability Blade: My new primary weapon. It was a gray blur of metal when held, but when you went to cut something with it, or parry a blade, it became whatever sword was best suited to the occasion. Imagine Schrödinger’s cat, but it’s a sword.
- Needler: My new secondary weapon. It was a throwing dagger with a blade of crystal, and whenever a blade was thrown, a new copy would appear in my hand. Twisting the handle caused the copies to blow up. Any of the copies would disappear if they were more than a hundred feet from me, which limited it somewhat, though with some obvious exploits.
- Ring of Upward Bliss: Tapping the ring three times would teleport me up a mile up into the air. Without an accompanying entad to slow my fall or otherwise survive the drop, it was of limited use, but we were still planning to get Prince’s Invulnerability to me, something that we’d meant to get a long time ago (we hadn’t been able to find a qualified tattooist), and I was going to get the slow-fall tattoo that I’d first had when I’d been dropped out of the plane. It went better with the Immobility Plate, in my opinion, but Amaryllis insisted that it was an easy entad to switch over in a hurry, and that if someone were to survive or get out of a jam in a hurry, it would be me.
- Pedant’s Pendant: Worn around the neck, it gave the ability to precisely recall rules, facts, pronunciation and other miscellanea. In effect, it was a limited form of eidetic memory with a rather narrow focus. Amaryllis took that one.
- Choker of Concordance: Warders needed a pool of concordance to draw on, which could be tapped dry, leaving them able to manipulate wards but not actually make them. The choker, black with an inset crystal, could be used to triple the pool, though it would still take some time to refill. Grak and Bethel had a minor fight about who would get it, until eventually settling on a compromise whereby Bethel would use it first to reinforce her wards, and then after that, Grak would use it in the field.
It was a huge haul, no doubt about it. Solace finally got some armor, which instantly resized to fit her and could be dialed in to protect against different elemental threats at short notice, though she complained that the metal clashed with her aesthetic. Bethel became more powerful in a lot of ways, not that she needed to be, though the biggest get for her was a suit of armor with telekinetic effect, one that effectively gave an increase to the functional synthesis force she could project with her other telekinetic effect and the momentum exchanger. Solace even got a staff to replace the one that had been voided, a gnarled wooden one that gave her partial control of plants, an ability that mixed well with her druid powers (or so she claimed).
“How much loot is there?” asked Tiff.
“Shhh, no complaining,” said Reimer. “We’ve been behind on loot since level four.”
“When it rains, it pours,” said Arthur.
“Now, I’m not going to suggest that Juniper forgot,” said Craig. “But is it possible that Juniper forgot? Just asking questions.”
“He always forgets,” said Reimer.
“I don’t forget,” I said. “It just doesn’t make sense for the enemies to have loot sometimes, especially level appropriate loot. If you go by the guides, the enemies have treasure parcels, but there are only certain situations in which that actually works without breaking the reality of the world. So instead, yeah, treasure gets a little uneven and the Skinner box of loot distribution isn’t working at maximum capacity.”
“What Joon is saying is that adventuring is supposed to be its own reward, rather than just numbers-go-up,” said Arthur.
“But I like numbers-go-up,” said Reimer. “Who doesn’t like numbers-go-up?”
“We all like numbers-go-up,” said Tiff. “But the question is just whether this is the right way for numbers to go up? I mean, in theory, it’s better if we’re getting loot at regular intervals, right? Both for balance, enjoyment, and whatnot.”
“Joon has been DMing too long,” said Arthur with a laugh. “That’s how he used to do it, until we got in this big argument about why this necromancer was leaving magic items on his zombies for no good reason.”
“Was that it?” asked Reimer. He looked over at me. “I remember that, is that the moment you decided that you weren’t going to give us loot like a sensible DM?”
“Arthur is trying to tell a story,” I said with a shake of my head. “If you wanted to make a narrative about it, then sure, I was a mild-mannered DM until one fateful day we had an hour-long digression about how a smart necromancer strips the magic items from his zombies and puts everything of value in the most secure, hidden place he can think of, and that argument changed me forever. That’s not really accurate though. It was more like … I don’t know, there are elements of unreality to the D&D experience, and I’ve always kind of hated them, because you bring in these game elements and that undercuts both the world and the narrative.” I shrugged. “Realistically, sometimes you’re fighting enemies that don’t have loot. Sometimes you get front-loaded on loot because someone wants you to succeed at the task they gave you. Sometimes accomplishing your goals doesn’t actually earn you anything material. So yeah, it’s a bit uneven, and yeah, that’s not the best thing for balance, though I think I’m doing a pretty good job of adjusting for that, but it at least doesn’t spit in the face of realism.”
“You can just admit that you forgot to give loot,” said Craig.
I let out a beleaguered sigh.
In my ideal world, we would have gotten to play with the entads a bit, figure them out, then spend some time divvying them up. Doing that with Fenn and Grak was still one of my fondest memories on Aerb. Instead, they were just handed to us, already figured out by Uther and his people and stored away for later use. I’m not going to lie, I sort of resented it, as childish as that might have been, given what a gift it was. Still, when I went to Sound and Silence, I finally felt like we had level appropriate gear.
At noon the next day, Bethel lifted up into the sky and minutes later, landed in an empty field ten miles away from Sound and Silence.
I was, at least for a week, going to college.