Rune magic wasn’t hard to unlock: all it really took was gobs of money. We had been in the midst of liquidating assets in order to convert to gold and fuel gold magic, which meant that there were funds to slide the way of the rune mages.
We went to one of the ‘satellite’ runeforges, which was away from Stars and Sigils, but still within a city. Grunnings was almost entirely centered around the enormous, labyrinthine green ziggurat. There really weren’t that many runemakers in the world, compared to some other magics, and that was owing to the hard limits that the runeforges presented, which put a hard cap on how many man-hours could be spent forging runes. The city formed concentric rings, with the runeforge at the center, supporting businesses around it, and then support for the support around that, with residential and basic commercial zoning beyond. It was one of the most boring fantasy cities I could have imagined, centered around a mystical source of power, but with almost nothing in the way of artistry or interest beyond that. It really made me reconsider my view that the world was a series of interesting locations, but maybe you’d still count Grunnings, because it had the runeforge.
Getting a jump on the process wasn’t quite like at Sound and Silence, where money was a well-accepted part of the process, with codified shortcuts that could be bought for the right price (or with the right contacts). The Rune Council put as much effort as possible into ensuring that everyone who was a member got equal time, on the theory that this would give strong incentives to do as much pre-planning as possible, minimizing downtime of the runeforge as a whole. With that said, master runemakers did still require more time, and that was the loophole that we’d eventually used, circumventing the Rune Council: I was coming in as an apprentice.
“Apprenticeship is a grey area,” said Xo, whose robes, pointy hat, and long grey beard make him look like a very wizardly wizard. He was human, but possibly human with a touch of something else, or maybe just from a far-flung part of the world where humans had different facial features. “There’s a need for apprentices, that much is true, but if you start bringing extra people into the runeforge, you get some extra logistical challenges and start running into the dread shenanigans. Of which this is an example, of course.”
I nodded. We were waiting our turn, and while I didn’t really care about Xo or feel like talking to him, I was trying my best to humor him. “What’s grey about them?” I asked. “In terms of how the rules are structured.”
“Do you like rules?” he asked.
“Eh,” I replied. “You’d have to define what you mean by the word.” I waited for a moment, but he let me continue. “I like systems of rules if they’re entirely self-contained, strict and rigid. It’s where they interact with the real world that I start to get exasperated. There are always matters of interpretation, corner cases, things like that, which sucks the fun out of the rules. If that makes sense?”
He nodded. “Very astute. You’ll make a good rune worker, if you like hard rules. There’s no grey area, no interpretation here. The runes do what they do, with no ambiguity. Unfortunately, the Rune Council is filled with people who are used to the first kind of rule, but are tasked with dealing with the second kind.”
“So where does the grey area come from?” I asked, more to be polite than anything else.
“There’s something in rune magic that tracks who did what within the runeforge,” Xo replied. “As a general rule with one very noticeable exception, you can only use your own runeworks, but if someone else touches your runeworks, that doesn’t instantly disqualify them as yours. In fact, it takes quite a bit of actual physical work for the tagging to fail. Therefore, a runeworker can have an apprentice whose job is to run parts from station to station, setting everything up for him, and sometimes taking minimal steps. Now, most don’t have their apprentices do too much, because then tagging fails and a whole day at the forge could be wasted, but the Rune Council ran into this problem of intent, because what’s stopping someone from bringing on an ‘apprentice’ who just does all the work and circumvents the restrictions on time in the forge?”
“They could patch it though,” I said.
“Patch it, and apply penalties, which they’ve done,” replied Xo, nodding happily that I seemed to have followed along. “But their patches aren’t very strong, and if we get caught, you’re paying the penalties for me.”
“And the intent is that I’m doing everything here?” I asked.
Xo nodded. “In practice, I’ll be your teacher and you my apprentice, with rather more in the way of hands-on experience than normal, and nothing actually produced by me. Ideally, you’d have gone to Stars and Sigils to get some of the basics. They have non-functional replica stations that you can practice on. Obviously there’s a lot of theory you’re going to be completely missing. No offense, but it seems like you have more money than sense.”
“I would take offense, but I have so much money that it’s hard to take it as an insult,” I said.
“Well damn, then I should have charged more,” he replied.
“Do you do this often?” I asked. “Get people to be your apprentice?”
“No, first time,” he replied. “So I’m going to hope that it’s not a huge mistake.”
“We’ll be fine,” I said. “I’m not sure it was in whatever brief you got, but I’m already a mage.”
“No shit?” he asked, sounding much less like a wizard than he looked. “Which one?”
I took a breath. “Blood, bone, water, air, passion, still, vibration, star, and ink. Plus I had skin and soul, before they got excluded.”
“Neat,” he said, nodding along, like this was something he heard every day.
“I mean, you could at least pretend to be impressed,” I said, frowning at him.
“Eh,” he replied. He gave me a smile. “I charge extra for pretending to be impressed.”
“You really have no idea who I am?” I asked.
“Nope,” he replied. “Better that we keep it that way, unless you’re willing to let me reciprocate. I don’t like hearing life stories, not unless I get to share mine too. We all go on long and winding roads, right? None more special than any other, in the end.”
That was a very faux-enlightened way of looking at things, and I had several very obvious objections. Xo was weirding me out a bit. Maybe he thought that I was lying, and it really shouldn’t have mattered to me whether this particular guy thought that I was hot shit, but to blithely brush me off … well, it was putting me off-balance. I was the most important person in the world, aside from maybe Uther, or the Dungeon Master, if you counted him as a person. I swallowed my objections though.
We didn’t have to wait all that long for our turn, and the waiting we did was mostly because of an insistence that no one ever be late for the runeforge. It all still seemed a little bit quaint to me, since I had been picturing something like air traffic control, with detailed flight plans submitted well in advance and coordination between paths so that the whole of the runeforge could be maximized by every individual involved. That didn’t really seem to be the case though, and my best guess was that without computers, they were down to trying to track everything using pen and paper, with maybe a little bit of entad assistance or custom-built scheduling schemes, which simply weren’t up to the task.
Skill Unlocked: Rune Magic!
Achievement Unlocked: Wrack and Runes
I got the unlock the moment I stepped into the runeforge, which was a bit of a relief. If the unlock were the only thing we needed, we would probably have tried to slip in through one of the unused entrances to the runeforge. They were warded, but we had Grak, who could slip someone through a ward without even dismantling it (which he could also have done pretty easily). The problem was, we didn’t just need the unlock, because unlocking rune magic on its own did nothing for me. Instead, what we needed was for me to boost the skill as much as possible while making as many useful low-level runeworks as I could.
“Impressive,” said Xo as he watched me work one of the machines. “Usually there’s a bit more hesitance, if someone is coming in completely fresh.”
“I thought you didn’t really do this?” I asked.
“Not this,” he replied. “But I’ve broken in apprentices before, usually young men and women who are looking to work for me for a year or two before signing on to Stars and Sigils. There are limited slots. The Rune Council worries about having too many rune workers, and being an apprentice for a year or two looks good on an application. That’s assuming you don’t just buy your way in.”
From the outside, the runeforge looked like a giant jade ziggurat, but on the inside, there was a distinct lack of order. I was fairly sure that the design was one that I’d used for a campaign that featured a brief jaunt into a parallel universe, inspired by the idea of hostile architecture, or at least what I’d read of the concept on a Wikipedia page. Hostile architecture was most famously associated with spikes put in place to prevent homeless people from sleeping places, but if you thought about it for a bit, you could make the hostility a little bit more subtle, if no less effective. During the time of segregation, it had been common practice to segregate toilets and drinking fountains, and then make places where black people effectively couldn’t go because there were no colored fountains or bathrooms there. There were lots of reasons to design a place that was hostile to certain people or activities, but here, as in the campaign the design had been lifted from, it was just for flavor, and maybe a bit of spite.
The acoustics were terrible, for a start. It was hard to hear people right next to you, but very easy to hear the sounds of rune work from down the halls, echoing and bouncing off surfaces so that it was difficult to tell where any of it was coming from. The noise wasn’t very loud, but it was loud enough to get on your nerves pretty quickly. The floors were uneven, making it hard to keep your balance, and the stairs had been made so that you were likely to trip, or miss a step, always unable to find a stride, and requiring full attention. There were also a lot of stairs, random changes in levels that seemed to have no point, so it was a problem that came up a lot. Almost nothing was at a right angle, and the floors sloped, sometimes severely. Worse, it was hard to keep your bearings, not just because everything was all done in a single style, but because there was no adherence to conventions. The temperatures swung wildly, sometimes hot enough that you’d risk heatstroke, other times cold enough for frostbite. Surfaces ranged from rough enough to rip off flesh, to slick enough that you’d slip and fall no matter how sure your footing.
There had been a time when rune workers had taken pride in surviving the hostility of the runeforge. Knowledge of the internals was closely guarded, seen as the mark that someone was worthy. That time was long past. The interior of every runeforge had been mapped, and pains had been taken to soften the harsh edges, where that was possible. There were stations set up at regular intervals to provide for biological needs like food, water, and waste management, and the most flagrant of the unfriendliness had been corrected, usually by building on top of the existing floors or stairs. Rune workers brought in earplugs to help with the sound, along with tools to help them, which was no surprise given that the whole profession was about making tools. One of the first things that most rune workers created for themselves was thermoregulators so that they wouldn’t have to worry about the temperature swings.
Through the ages, scholars had asked themselves about the nature and origin of the runeforges. They seemed like a gift, a way that a useful magic had been added to the world, but why then were they so hostile? And why did they discourage but not outright stop their use? If you could make something like the runeforge, and make it so that it was deliberately hostile to use, then why not make it worse? Why not make the inviolable walls so tight that no one could fit through? Why not place the workstations on the ceiling? Or flood the place with poison, or radiation? Most people settled on it being a test of some kind, a way of weeding out the unworthy, but that was because most people who considered the question were rune workers. The truth was, rune magic was almost exactly Reimer’s kind of thing, and the inherent hostility of the runeforges were a reflection of my personal feelings towards those types of magic.
“What is it you’re making?” asked Xo, finally taking some interest in what I was applying runes to.
I had a blueprint next to me, with notes about where each rune was supposed to go. There were a wide variety of stations, so I was doing the work in an unintuitive way, all of one symbol, then all of the next symbol at a different station, and so on. It was like writing a novel by putting in all of the letter T, then all the letter B, and so on.
“I’m a multimage,” I said. “It’s mostly multimage stuff, leveraging what I can in a relatively short amount of time. You can look at the blueprint if you’d like.”
Xo frowned, and looked at the runes on the blueprint, then at what I was doing. “You’re already working like a practiced hand.”
“I learn fast,” I said. I was already up to seven points in the skill, after not much more than lining up the level and pulling it down at the right spot a few times. I was starting with a practice piece, so the stakes were quite low, but I was still trying to do a good job, on the theory that skill acquisition worked better that way (for which there was some limited evidence).
“Look at the scale on this thing,” said Xo, pointing at the blueprint rather than the piece I had in hand. “You know that you’re going to have to carry this around, right?”
“I’m a star mage,” I said. “All this is going to be placed into a kind of subspace assembly that I’ll wear on my back. That’s a work in progress, but it’s mostly done.”
“Intriguing,” he replied, returning his attention to the blueprints. “Some of this is wrong.”
“Nope,” I said. “Just unconventional.”
Xo nodded, tracing out lines as I stamped in more runes to the sheets of metal I’d brought with me. “This is all … some advanced overload mitigation technique then?”
“You’re pretty fast,” I said, not slowing down. “From what I’ve heard from talking to other rune dudes, it takes a lot of time to grapple with an unfamiliar design.”
“So someone else designed this?” he asked.
“Nope,” I replied. “It was all me. I did run it by some skilled rune dudes though, just to make sure that I wasn’t wasting my time.”
“‘Rune dudes’,” he said, laughing a bit. “You’ve got some cheek, I’ll give you that. It’s rare in this profession. Or at least, the humor is different.”
“You don’t have people thinking up ridiculous creations that are technically within the bounds of rune magic?” I asked. “Like, as a joke?”
“We do,” he said, giving me a look as I continued my work. “But you understand how that’s a bit different?”
“Of course,” I said. “And a lot of the creations wouldn’t be practical in any real situation, or there would be enormous hurdles that you’d just have someone wave away, or exploit some specific entad, but that’s part of what makes it funny, and fun to think about.”
“You have a good understanding of the culture,” he said. “But not such a good understanding of the actual craft.” He came over to me and pointed at a section of the fin I had been working on.
“Fuuuuuck,” I said. “Welp, I guess that’s ruined then.”
“Smart,” he replied. “Most people just getting into rune magic try to figure out some kind of modification, some way to salvage it with a workaround.”
“I know I’m out of my depth here,” I said. “And if I’m going to get killed, I’m going to try my best to not be hoisted by my own petard.” I zooped the metal fin off into extradimensional space, then pulled out one of several spares and continued on with the work, starting from the beginning. I wasn’t sure what had caused the fuckup, and was hopeful that it was a low roll somewhere inside the internal systems of the game that governed my skill.
“So,” said Xo once we were on our way to the next station. He’d been silent while I did the replacement work, perhaps because he felt guilty about distracting me, though that obviously wasn’t a concern given that I had the Multithreading virtue. “I think I have a bit of a handle on what you’re building, but what’s the application?”
“Protection,” I said. “It’s as simple as that.”
“Oh, I figured that much out,” he replied, stepping beneath a low beam that seemed to be there for no more reason than to smack people in the head. “But I’m looking at what you’re making, and thinking about what it will do, then going backward to reconstruct the requirements. It would all be a lot faster if you would just tell me what you’re planning to do with this thing.”
“Sure,” I said. “But I imagine that it would be less fun for you. And if you work through things, maybe you’ll help me understand more about this noble profession, in which I’m only a tourist.”
“I’m mostly worried that you’re engaging in the kind of forbidden project that will end with both of us dead at the hands of bureaucratic assassins,” he said. “I don’t suppose you’ve read through the rule books?”
“Books?” I asked. “There are multiple? And in case that didn’t answer the question by itself, no, I didn’t read anything.”
“Even admitting to that would be asking for a lifetime ban, if not worse,” said Xo, shaking his head. “Of course, you’re not even a proper member of an organization, just an apprentice, so I suppose it matters less to you.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “A rules lawyer is one of the most powerful tiers of rune workers?”
“How is it that you don’t know that?” he asked.
“I dunno, rune magic isn’t really my thing,” I said. “No offense. It’s going to be a single tool in the arsenal, one magic of many, used to shore up some of my other defenses.”
“Against what?” he asked. “That’s what I’m having trouble figuring out. It seems as though you’re avoiding proper conduits because you want to protect against overloading, but the only use case that comes to mind for that is if you were worried about some massive energy source, and if that’s the case, all you seem to be doing is converting it into raw, focused light output, which is incredibly dangerous.”
“Dangerous why?” I asked.
“Do you actually not know, or are you testing me?” he asked, looking a bit perturbed at either option.
“Making sure that I didn’t miss anything,” I said. “I’m trying not to poison the well by saying what I was thinking.”
We arrived at another station, where a totally different type of machine was used for stamping in a different rune, this one primarily with applications in focusing the light.
“I’ll leave you to it,” he said, as I began putting my petals into place.
“It’s fine,” I replied.
“I have a book,” he said, “It’s no problem.”
“No, go on,” I said. “Tell me how the output is dangerous.”
“Normally if energy absorption is a runic defense, the energy goes into a rune assembly that keeps it contained until it needs to be used,” said Xo as he watched me continue on with my work. “Alternately, if you can spare the weight, it gets bled off into material generation, which can soak practically as much energy as you can throw at it. But if you’re just blasting that energy back out, then there’s a good chance you’re going to get, at minimum, some backwash. More likely, you’re going to destroy a bunch of stuff you don’t want destroyed.”
“Wait,” I said, stopping what I was doing to look at him. “Material generation?”
“As in, you want an explanation?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
He sighed. “Rune magic contains a concept of mass-energy equivalence. You put in some small amount of mass, you get an enormous amount of energy out. Now, the runes that can do that are limited, meaning that the limitless power available comes out to be more of a trickle, and to have even that functionality is usually more trouble than it’s worth. People would rather use solar, or combustion, or anything else.”
“But you can flip it around somehow,” I said. “And you don’t get killed by the same rate limit? Meaning you put unlimited energy in and get mass out pretty much as fast?”
“In theory, if you built it right, you would be able to skip past the rate limitations,” he said. “But that’s only in theory, because as far as I know, no one has actually tried to build such a thing. The mass-energy equivalence is what kills you, even if you’re generating something with a high value.”
“Huh,” I said. “And the runes for mass generation —”
“Mass-energy conversion,” he corrected.
“Sure,” I replied. “But given how many elements there are, surely there’s not a rune for each of them, right?”
He held up a hand. “You have to distinguish between true elements and chemical elements,” he said. “True elements have their own individual runes, but we don’t have the full suite. Chemical elements have their own numbers, which corresponds with … something, it’s been a while. The number you want gets selected through a supplemental rune assembly, increments and decrements.”
“I see,” I replied. “And if you select a negative number, it …?”
“Fails,” he replied. “Breaks stuff, I think. Not really my field.”
I was pretty sure that this was the answer to a lingering question of mine, which was how Amaryllis had gotten her hands on a huge quantity of antimatter in the Cypress timeline. She had mentioned only that it was a neglected area of rune magic, and as it turned out, that was almost enough. The only remaining issue was where to get the energy, but I was pretty sure that Amaryllis would figure something out —
— except that it would only take her a handful of minutes, because the answer was inherent to the question. Antimatter didn’t violently annihilate itself, it annihilated itself and the matter that it came in contact with, releasing the energy of both. If you had a way to directly and losslessly convert energy into antimatter, you would just need some additional matter, something as simple as dirt, in order to double your antimatter with every cycle. You wouldn’t need a massive power source to get your antimatter, you would just need mechanisms to run as many cycles as you wanted, doubling up until you had enough.
It wasn’t exactly something that I could do in an afternoon, given the enormous number of engineering challenges that would have to be solved, and it was possible that it was simply beyond my abilities, but it seemed like it would work, at least in theory. Maybe it would need to be hammered at by experts for a few months, then actually constructed, but it was a path toward enormous destructive power.
You’d have to stand next to it, unless you were a blood mage and used extensors, or used some other method of tricking rune magic into thinking that you were right next to this extremely dangerous, extremely fail-deadly contraption.
But to actually do it would almost certainly bring an exclusion down on rune magic, and rune magic was, unfortunately, linked in to soul extraction. If rune magic got excluded, then soul capture as a whole would evaporate overnight, and virtually everyone who died would end up in the hells. This was one of the primary reasons that a lot of potential applications of rune magic never got serious research and development. From what I knew, the regulatory apparatus for rune magic was huge and overgrown, but it hadn’t been trimmed back, because too much was riding on making sure that rune magic never got excluded. I had come to the runeforge in order to get some basics and cover some bases, and I was under strict instructions (that I didn’t really need) not to make improvisations or add on extra things beyond the base design. It wasn’t really my fault, but I had precipitated a fair number of exclusions, and rune magic getting excluded would have made things a lot worse for Aerb.
“Are you okay?” asked Xo.
“Yeah,” I said, continuing my work. “Anyway, the plan is full-on reflection, directed at the sky if there’s no enemy around, or at the enemy if one is there.”
“Oh, so you go into actual combat?” he asked. “Not necessarily rune magic’s forte.”
“Well, as I said, I know a pretty wide variety of magic. The fins will be tucked into hand-crafted extradimensional space, and hopefully save me from the worst of a major attack.” I kept going about my work. “Have you seriously never heard of me? I’ve been in the news. I killed two dragons?”
“Impressive, if true,” he said. “But no, I stay away from the news. Too much sensationalism these days, and if not that, then too much talk about dire circumstances on the horizon. I’m happier not listening, I think, especially since there’s not a whit I can do about any of it.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
“You’ll be able to react in time?” he asked.
“In time for a sudden attack?” I asked. “Well, once I’m done here, I was planning to become a velocity mage.”
“Of course you were,” he said.
The short version of how you became a velocity mage was that you had to exceed a set speed limit that went up with every person to become a velocity mage.
The long version was quite a bit longer, because there were all kinds of caveats. They were kind of funny, in a way, because I could see a dungeon master’s mind at work behind them, trying desperately to close loopholes. After all, if velocity was just distance over time, then your calculated velocity when you used a teleportation stone or stepped through an entad portal would be either infinite or close to the speed of light. You couldn’t have that, because it would break the induction right out the gate, so the velocity had to be sustained. Of course, people would come in with all kinds of magical solutions, so to fix that problem, you weren’t allowed to use magic. The restrictions on magic were, in my opinion, a little bit much: you weren’t allowed to use magic to go faster, to sustain your speed, or to survive the high speeds, which really cut down on how many different options there were. With every velocity mage inducted, the limit ticked higher, and where it once might have been enough to ride a very fast horse, the limit was now so high that actual engineering efforts had to be put toward the problem.
At the start of the Second Empire, they had been using rocket sleds, accelerating along a track by burning fuel, then slowing down as quickly as possible once they’d gone through the sustain phase and hoping that the candidate didn’t die in the process. It was scary and dangerous, but it worked, and in typical myopic Second Empire fashion, they had created a whole host of velocity mages, bumping the numbers up and forcing the rocket sled path to become more and more dangerous. (It was common to blame this kind of thing on the Second Empire, rather than the athenaeum, but that was mostly because the Second Empire didn’t exist anymore, and the athenaeums liked to disavow any work they’d done in concert with that most hated of empires. The Second Empire was a very convenient scapegoat.)
In the modern era, a large amount of money had been spent on a secret facility whose details were shrouded in confidentiality agreements and redactions, even (perhaps especially) from those who would use it. Fortunately, we had Raven, who had been around during the construction of the thing, and because of the Library, knew a lot of secrets that she shouldn’t have. The solution they’d come up with was dead simple: it was a huge tube going down into the earth, allowing a long drop. Gravity was the best source of free acceleration, it had just been a matter of harnessing it and then making sure that you didn’t kill candidates in the process. Because terminal velocity would have slowed candidates down too much, the incredibly long tube was kept in vacuum through the use of pumps. Because the vacuum would have killed candidates, they wore suits to keep them in pressure.
All the remaining problems to solve had been solved, with magic carefully kept away or worked around so that it wouldn’t taint the raw speed.
From my perspective, it was a matter of stepping into a tube, feeling weightlessness, then some time later, getting a little notification from the game layer before stepping out a few minutes later. Overall, it was underwhelming. I had wanted to do it on my own, but in the end, money solved almost every problem.
“Feel okay?” asked Amaryllis, once I was back on the surface.
“Fine,” I said.
“Perception effects?” she asked.
“None so far,” I replied. The perception effects were the major reason to skip velocity magic entirely, but it was already on the character sheet, and the balance of pros and cons had been made long ago. That didn’t stop Amaryllis from fretting.
“We can technically undo it,” she said. “Grak could attach a mobile ward anchored to you.”
“It would be difficult,” said Grak. “Better not to have to.”
“Time for a test drive then,” said Amaryllis. She looked out at the city around us, a place with a large number of granite buildings, and gestured for me to have at it.
I took a breath and then ran, leaping off a three-storey building and into the open air, feeling the magic surge through me as I gathered speed.
Velocity magic didn’t slow down perception of time, though I really wished that it did. Instead, it amplified reflexes, and at the higher levels, ran you on a sort of autopilot, with your actions being more a product of your will than anything you were consciously thinking. When I hit the ground, I twisted and rolled, applying just a smidge of still magic to keep myself from breaking an ankle. Then I was off and running, building up speed, feeling myself lose a part of executive function to a nebulous other as I picked up the pace.
The skill levels flowed quickly and freely, fast, for lack of a better word, and my speed built as I pushed through, running as fast as I could. Drag from the air became a problem, but it was a problem that I was used to from flying with gold magic, and I’d become relatively proficient in making tunnels for myself using air magic. To my mild surprise, the use of other magics was under the same effect, sped up and beyond my conscious control, the mental processes being piloted the same as physical ones. I was out of the city before I knew it, racing down a poorly maintained road as the scenery whipped past me.
I came to a stop when I got to a crossroads, stopping on a dime with still magic. I didn’t know how fast I had actually gone, but it was well in excess of what any normal car could do. Once I was stopped, I felt a bit of the perceptual changes, a sense that everything was moving quickly around me and my own body was lagging behind the commands that I was giving it. It only lasted for a few minutes though, and after that my perception was back to normal. I was thankful for that, and didn’t plan on abusing velocity magic enough that I’d suffer much for it.
To my surprise, Amaryllis appeared beside me with a gust of wind not long after.
“Huh,” I said. “You were following me?”
“I need testing and training with it, just like you do,” she replied. “Of course, I’ll always be worse, but it’s part of the toolkit. Have you hit the virtue yet?”
“Level 10 has come and gone,” I said. “So I’ll probably see it by the end of the day. It’s going up fast though.”
“Good,” she said. “Let me know what the virtue is. I’m a little surprised that Reimer wasn’t able to provide us with any information on it.”
“Velocity magic is based on a ruleset that I worked on with Tiff for a superhero campaign,” I said. “From what history Reimer and Tiff have provided for us, nothing of the sort ever happened on Aerb, and if no one ever decided to go with being a velocity mage, then Reimer would never have learned the virtue. And if it were me, I would never have written the virtue for something that no one was using. Could be that the virtue won’t exist until I actually get to it.”
“Maybe,” she said. She stretched out. “I’d challenge you to a race, but we both know you’d win. Any new synergies that you hadn’t thought of before?”
“The actual experience hasn’t been revelatory,” I said. “The virtue might be busted though, given that anything that upsets the symmetry of it would be great for rune magic. I kind of wish we’d done it in the other order, but —”
“If we need to, we can put you through the runeforge again,” said Amaryllis. “Gold magic is gone, which means that our only time pressure at the moment is the Void Beast, and perhaps an eventual attack from Celestar, both of which are years away.”
“True,” I said. “Well, I guess you’ll have to give me until the end of the day to find out.” I looked down at my hand and wiggled my fingers, trying to get them moving fast, but not really seeing much. “Care to spar?”
“If you want to beat me up, you can just say so,” she said. “I haven’t been able to keep up with you for a long time now, and velocity magic isn’t going to help matters.”
“You don’t think you’d be good enough that it would at least be interesting?” I asked. “I think you would. I wouldn’t just demolish you.”
“Oh, you would,” she said. “But that was an honest offer. If you want someone to beat the shit out of, I’m here for you.”
“Gross,” I said. “Not my cup of tea.”
She shrugged. “No judgment.”
“Is this about me and the locus?” I asked.
“A bit,” she said. “It just made me question how much I actually know you, and what you want.”
“Don’t overthink it,” I said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
“What will it take for you to have sex with me?” she asked.
I stared at her for a moment. “I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not … does it bother you, that we haven’t?”
“A bit,” she said. “It feels like a missing piece.”
“Eh,” I said. “I mean, in the sense that a conventional relationship would have that element to it, but of all the reasons for us to have sex, the fact that it’s ‘what people do’ shouldn’t even be crossing your mind.”
“Our lives are ruled by social expectation,” she said. “Our identities are crafted from them. But I’m not sure it’s that. I think it feels like a missing piece because you’re being timid with me, not expressing your actual self. I don’t want our relationship to be one where we both hold back because we worry about inconveniencing or upsetting the other. If we could just try it once, perhaps it would be awful and we could put it behind us, but at least then we would know.”
“You’re usually better at making arguments,” I said.
“With you, I try to restrict myself to honest expressions of what I’m feeling,” she said. “No sleight of hand, no manipulation with careful wording, no carefully calculated appeals. Definitely no lies. I think that’s the only way that you and I can work.”
“I appreciate it,” I said. “I really do, even if it makes things more difficult for you.”
She nodded. “I think there’s some part of you that thinks you would have to be a monster to have sex with someone who isn’t particularly interested in it.”
“Well,” I said. “Yeah.”
“I’m perfectly capable of making my own decisions, Juniper,” she said. “You understand that, right? And you understand that making my decisions for me is the kind of paternalistic crap that I don’t want from anyone, but least of all you?”
“Why least of all me?” I asked.
“Because I love you,” she said. “And because you’re the one person that I can’t bludgeon into submission in one way or another. When some senator from a neighboring republic treats me like I’m a stupid little girl, that’s just fine, because I know that with only a little bit of time and effort, I could crush him politically, or strip his life of meaning, or murder his wife and children — I wouldn’t, obviously, but the point is that I could, and whatever I might be feeling about that particular brand of rudeness, it’s easy to take comfort in my absolute power. I can’t really do that with you.”
“There’s a power disparity,” I said. “So the paternalism — what you see as the paternalism — has no real solution.”
“So long as we clarify that the power disparity only exists within our relationship,” she said.
“Er,” I said. “I don’t accept that we’re on the same power level, no.”
“In terms of combat ability, no,” she replied. “But within our own spheres? Grak is the best warder on the hex. You’re an extremely good fighter and an unsurpassed multimage. And I’m the most skilled political animal that Aerb has ever seen, and that includes Uther.”
“Things are going that well in Anglecynn?” I asked.
“They are,” she replied. “Sorry, it’s a sidebar, but — I would be helped if I knew that my own contributions to the team weren’t glossed over in your mind.”
“For sure,” I said. “I would be utterly lost without you. Probably dead. The work you do in the background so that I don’t have to think particularly hard about minutiae puts you at the top of a hypothetical companion tier list.”
“Thank you,” she said. “So the problem between us, from my perspective, is that you’re trying to shield me from something that I don’t need to be shielded from. You’re holding back, and I don’t think that you should be, not unless you really think that this is about your own complicated feelings. I don’t want you to feel bad, but if —”
“Okay,” I said. “Sure. We can give it a shot.”
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Why not. A week from now I might be dead, so either it’s great, and I’m glad I didn’t miss out, or it’s terrible, and then I’ll be dead.”
“Did you want to do it now?” she asked.
I looked around us, at what appeared to be a plain dirt road through the middle of some nondescript woods. “Er, no. That’s — later.”
She gave me one of her quiet, judging looks, the kind she gave when she was trying to figure me out. “Alright,” she said. “Later then. I’ll do my best to make it special.”
I lay on my back and felt my heartbeat slow back down. The scent of flowers was just about adequate to mask the scent of sex. The room around us was almost a parody of romance, with flower petals on the floor and a number of candles burning away. In my moment of clarity, I wondered whether this was something that Amaryllis had done for me, or for herself.
Amaryllis was staring at the ceiling, and when she saw me looking over, she turned to me and kissed me on the lips. She looked at my face for a moment, then resumed looking at the ceiling.
“So,” she said. “Something’s on your mind, and I can’t read minds. Yet.”
“Did you … did you come?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, then looked over at me again, watching my face.
“Huh,” I said.
“I wouldn’t fake it, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said.
“No,” I said. “I’m just … surprised that you were able to.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just … assumed.”
“You could have asked,” she said. “There can be a bit of awkwardness from having direct conversations, but if that was what was holding you back, then that’s a bit silly of you.”
“I’d been modeling you as asexual,” I said.
“Well, sorry I’m not a gold star asexual,” she said. “Except not at all sorry, of course.”
“Gold star?” I asked.
“By analogy to a gold star lesbian?” she asked.
“A what?” I asked back.
“It’s an Earth thing,” she said with a sigh. “Nevermind. All I’m saying is that there’s a lot of wonderful variation among people, and smacking them with labels is often counterproductive unless those labels hew really close to reality. One of the worst things that a person can do with their life is try to match a label. Especially us.”
“Because we’re different?” I asked.
“We’re exemplars,” she nodded. “I’m not even really Amaryllis anymore, I’m the Ultimates version of Amaryllis. It wouldn’t just be wrong to think of myself as being a collection of regular labels because that’s a normally unhelpful thing to do, it would be wrong because I’m so far outside of normal that it doesn’t apply.” She turned to me. “Sorry if this isn’t proper post-coital talk.”
“No,” I said. “It’s fine. Good. I like listening to you think.”
She reached over and threaded her fingers through mine. “You’re feeling okay?”
“Great,” I said.
“Sleeping with me wasn’t a mistake?” she asked.
“Nope,” I replied. “Whatever I was worried about, it was mostly in my head. I’m not sure I really understand it from your perspective, but … this worked out.”
“Good,” she said. She kissed me on the cheek, then settled back in beside me. “I know tomorrow is going to be rough for you.”
But as it turned out, we didn’t know the half of it.