Skill Unlocked: Art!
Skill Increased: Art lvl 6! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat CHA.)
Skill Increased: Skin Magic lvl 10!
New Virtue: Shifting Skin!
Skill Increased: Skin Magic lvl 12! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat KNO.)
Icy Devil: Wreaths your hand in ice, imbuing it with the ability to chill anything you touch for the next three minutes. Single use. Self only. Required size is roughly 1 square foot.
Liar’s Cup: Allows you to drain minor toxins from your body, such as boscleaf, alcohol, caffeine, terrablend, nicotine, or granchar, and stealthily deliver them by touch. Infinite use. Self only. Required size is roughly 2 square feet.
Lecher’s Vine: Produces a small, thin vine that can surround any standing entrance such as a door or window for a period of twenty-four hours. You will be alerted any time something passes through the ring of vines. Single use. Self only. Required size is roughly half a square foot.
Surface Sheath: An object pressed against the tattoo will skin into and become part of the magic of the skin, allowing it to be retrieved later by pulling at the edge of the tattoo. Object must be inserted within thirty minutes of tattoo completion. Required size depends upon the size of the object to be stored.
Snake: A non-poisonous snake comes to life and slides from your skin. It has normal intelligence for a snake and holds no particular affection for you. Single use. Self only. Tattoo size determines size of the resulting snake. Taking care of a snake is a big responsibility!
There was a hidden cap to tattoo magic, which was that it seemed to depend on my Art skill, something I hadn’t known existed until I’d tried to draw something with the tattoo gun. I wasn’t using my own skin, and instead spent some time mucking about with the clonal kit until it gave me a piece of fresh skin to work with (profession, “tanner”). The tattoos themselves were very tightly specified in terms of angles, arcs, inks, and relative size of individual pieces. It called to mind an assignment we’d had in art class to make a vector logo; logos needed to be scalable and consistent, so each part of them had to be defined in mathematical terms, allowing infinite, varied reproduction. A tattoo mage wasn’t just drawing a devil on the skin that came to life and gripped his hand, he was drawing a very specific devil.
And as it turned out, I just didn’t have the skill with a tattoo gun to complete all but the five most simple tattoos, of about thirty in the half book that Fenn had grabbed. Still, a few hours of practicing had allowed me to put a number of tattoos onto my skin, and the new virtue I’d gotten made moving them across my skin to other areas as easy as directing a thought at them, which meant that I could do all my tattooing on the relatively large expanse of skin on my thigh, moving the tattoos elsewhere when I was finished.
All thing considered, it was more or less a bust, which was why I moved on to gem magic.
According to The Commoner’s Guide to Gem Magic, gem magic didn’t have analogies at all. Instead, gem magic had three different axes of effect, and each gem could be assigned a numerical value for each of those axes on the basis of its color. The book didn’t call it the RGB color model, but it kept using the words red, green, and blue..
(It goes without saying that this made no sense. I mean first of all, the entire reason that RGB was a valid model for color at all was that human eyes only had three color-sensing cells that responded to those wavelengths. It would be entirely possible to make an organism that had different spikes at different wavelengths, or one that had another color-sensing cell. There were creatures on Earth that had four color-sensing cells, and it probably went without saying that with 200 mortal species on Aerb there were some that didn’t sense colors like humans did, a fact specifically mentioned by one of the appendices of the book. But apparently, gem magic was implemented in the world in accordance with human color definitions.)
All of the colors were offensive, all projecting force onto the world, with variance in terms of number of projectiles, spread, speed, refresh, and what seemed like a dozen other things. It wasn’t until the book laid it out in an example that I really got it (though that did make me feel like a commoner).
- A pure red gem will fire a constant projection of force, half of which will be directed back at the user. This beam will have 0 spread.
- A pure blue gem will fire once every eight seconds, emitting fifty projectiles at a spread of 180 degrees, which will alter course toward user-intuited targets up to 90 degrees.
- A pure magenta gem will fire once every four seconds, emitting twenty-five projectiles at a spread of 90 degrees, which will alter course toward user-intuited targets up to 45 degrees. One-quarter of projectile force will be directed back at the user.
Skill unlocked: Gem Magic!
Achievement Unlocked: By Your Powers Combined
I was a little bit annoyed when thinking about light going through the gems allowed me to gain access to the magic within them, because that was the second thing I had tried. Sure, I understood more about gem magic now than I had then, including some knowledge about what effect the crude gems made by the clonal kit would actually do, but I’d already gotten the analogy down, hadn’t I? The gems had to be about light, if the output was light and the underpinning was RGB values. Maybe the analogy didn’t matter, in this case, and it was the knowledge that counted, but it really did seem like the sort of thing that I should have been able to get on my own.
I got another little bar, which popped up right beside the bar measuring blood. This one was a cerulean blue and throbbed with a faint light. A quick look showed its label as “Mental Exhaustion”. It had a value of 9/12, which was equal to three times any of my mental stats aside from MEN itself. If I could knock over four end tables before draining myself of mental energy, ho boy, look out world, here I come. (Yes, I was disappointed in the ability to shoot magic lasers out of my hands, because I had become spoiled.)
The hotel room wasn’t actually a great place to practice gem magic, which I learned with the first blast of red light, which knocked over the end table. Fenn had applauded that, but she was making her way through The Prince and the Handmaid, and returned to her book after it was clear that I wasn’t going to start knocking other things over.
I set up a target area with a few pillows from our bed and a thick-skinned citrus fruit we’d gotten with dinner, then started using the red gem to knock it over. The gem wasn’t quite pure, and it became clear to me that it was really, really important for gems to be, if not of a pure color, then at least with a favorable combination of effects. It reminded me a lot of finding a randomly generated gun in Borderlands and hoping that it was more than the sum of its parts.
And it wasn’t just that I had to worry about color, because there were so many aspects to the gems which altered their behaviors in different ways, ways which depended on each other. A larger gem had more power than a smaller gem, but a lack of clarity increased the mental exhaustion of using a gem in relation to its size. Facets could have different types and levels of symmetry, which changed the metrics involved, some flatly negative, a few flatly positive, and most with some tradeoffs involved.
And all that was fucking useless because the clonal kit refused to provide me with any more than the eight gems it had provided for me the first time I’d tried, no matter how many permutations I tried on the basic premise. From what the book had said, gem mages all carried unique loadouts, so maybe the clonal kit was confused by trying to create what “a gem mage” would carry, which was why it kept creating the same thing.
I fired off a few blasts of red at the fruit, going over to set it back up each time. I was relieved to see that the gem wasn’t actually costing me three mental exhaustion each time, but that meant that mental exhaustion in the game sense was a numerical representation of my actual mental exhaustion, and that was what gem magic was draining. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, especially because I was pretty sure that I would need my mental acuity tomorrow, and as was typical, the game wasn’t giving me any hints on how quickly I would recover from mental exhaustion.
Firing off enough red blasts to get Gem Magic up to level 5 took me down to 6/12, which was low enough that I decided to stop there. I tried all eight of the gems, which had their different (but more similar than unique) effects. It was only black and clear that I couldn’t get to work; going on the basis of RGB, white would be all values set to 255 and black would be all values set to 0, but apparently those two were “special”, and beyond my ability; the black one was countermagic for gems, capable of negating an assault to within limits defined by the gem’s characteristics. Diamond had no offensive capabilities at all, and was instead used to boost gem magic, though The Commoner’s Guide to Gem Magic was silent on exactly how that was supposed to work, given that you could only use one gem at a time. Working in pairs, maybe?
It would suffice to say that gem magic was also kind of a bust. I was glad to have it, rather than not have it, but it seemed like a pistol would clearly outmatch it, at least given the gems and ability I had. And worse, the gems were quite expensive, probably beyond our ability to pay with the clonal kit’s high prices, which meant that if I was going to have them on hand, I was going to have to forgo the use of the clonal kit.
“You didn’t eat all your elk,” said Fenn, when she noticed me staring at the gems in my hand.
“Yeah, not that hungry,” I said. I’d had one of the three thick strips, then set it down.
“You had some street food during your sojourn to the bookstore?” asked Fenn.
“No,” I replied.
“Well, you’ve got to eat,” said Fenn. “Especially if you’re sick. You fucked up your bones and you’re low on blood, elk is good for you, it’s got iron.”
“Yeah,” I said. I’d lost fifteen pounds after Arthur had died, but then the lack of appetite was caused by depression, not whatever was going on with my guts as a result of not having a magically functional rib cage, or whatever it was. I’d had similar talks, about how I had to eat, from my mom, my dad, and Tiff. Eventually I was just shoveling food into my mouth, trying to ignore the fact that it didn’t really have a taste. So I decided that Fenn was probably right, and cut up four room temperature pieces of elk, chewing them quickly and swallowing them down.
“You okay?” asked Fenn.
“Sooner is probably better than later, when it comes to the rescue plan,” I said. I rubbed my hand. It did feel a bit weaker than before, but it was hard to tell, because it was my left hand, and I’d only had a short time of experiencing ambidexterity.
“Grak is ready to jump the gun too,” said Fenn. “He’s been in town a month trying to crack this thing. I’ve given him some hints as to our resources, which has made him quite eager.” She watched me eating the cold elk. “I can get different food for you, if you’d like,” she said.
“No, it’s fine,” I replied. I glanced at the book she’d been reading. “Anything good in there? Or … plot relevant?”
“Bad guy wins,” Fenn replied with a shrug. She paused. “Plot relevant in the sense of?”
“In the sense of … I don’t know, was there a clue? Or something like that?” I asked.
“How did you get this book?” asked Fenn with a raised eyebrow.
“The shopkeep was reading it when I came to the store,” I said. “When I left, he said something about me needing leisure reading too, and then added it to the pile, free of charge.”
“And you think that it has some … relevance?” asked Fenn. “You think that the shopkeeper was reading that specific book because the universe meant for you to have it, because it has a cosmic connection to some unspecified thing?”
“It might,” I said. “I mean, it’s not out of the question. That’s the kind of thing that elf luck would do, isn’t it?”
“Not really,” said Fenn. “It’s more a feeling of going with the flow, moving along a certain path, weal and woe kind of thing. Not random guys giving you books that turn out to have hints. You’re saying that’s how games work?”
“It’s how narratives work,” I replied. “Anton Chekhov was this playwright in the 1800’s who posited that, basically, every element in a play needs to be there for a reason. If you have a gun placed on the mantle in the first act, it has to be fired by the end of the third act, because otherwise you screwed up by putting a gun there in the first place. Ernest Hemingway was the same way, I think.” I flexed the fingers in my left hand, which didn’t feel quite right, and which flexing didn’t quite fix.
“Games are different though, because you can’t guarantee that the setups are going to have payoffs unless you take away all elements of player choice, or plan multiple payoffs for each setup. I mean, in a tabletop game, you place a gun on the mantle at the start of the session and then maybe the action moves somewhere else without the GM being able to do anything about it. My own personal strategy was to just lay down as many details as possible and then wrap them back in whenever I could.”
Fenn sat patiently through all that. “You really like your games, don’t you?” she asked. “We should play sometime.”
“Seriously?” I asked. “I mean yeah, I would probably like that, if we ever got a decent stretch of time where we weren’t running out of food or money, or where people weren’t trying to kill or torture us, or … you know, the kind of garbage we’ve been dealing with.” And then I can get sent from Aerb to a different fantasy world I made for the game-within-a-game. Yay! “But what I’m trying to get to, at least a little, is that some amount of game logic might apply, because of my own particular brand of something like luck, so if The Prince and the Handmaid is a clue, what kind of clue is it?”
Fenn picked up the book and flipped through the pages until she reached the very end. “What’s your last name?” she asked.
“Do you honestly not know it?” I asked. “I can’t tell whether you’re joking or not.”
“Alright,” said Fenn. “You tell me your last name, and I’ll tell you whether or not I was joking.”
“Fenn, we’ve been together for almost three weeks now, how is it possible that you don’t know my last name?” I asked.
“It never came up!” said Fenn. “Do you know my last name?”
“Greenglass,” I replied almost immediately.
“You’re a filthy cheater, that’s written on your eyes,” replied Fenn, nearly as quickly. She laughed at that. “But seriously, what is it?”
“Smith,” I said.
Fenn nodded, then sat next to me and pointed out a line in the book.
The wedding took place in the gardens of Castel Chernwith, one of the old holdings of Uther Penndraig with plants yet living that were planted by his firm hand. The largest of these was a juniper tree, which had grown to shade a large bronze statue of the great smith Merschen Edel. It was here that Uther was said to come from time to time, and so in the same shade his magnificent ancestor had stood under, steeped in the ancient history of Anglecynn and promising himself and his bride to its legacy, did the Prince and his Handmaid finally marry, sealing their vows with a kiss.
“Like I said, bad guy wins, the prince is a total dick that poisons the guy the handmaid is in love with, and she’s a bit of a cunt because as soon as that guy gets weak from the poison she loses interest and goes back to the prince.” Fenn pointed to the line again. “But there, juniper and smith, seems like the kind of thing that might be a clue.”
“It’s proof,” I said slowly. “Proof that he knew me.”
“Uther Penndraig knew you?” asked Fenn. I could hear the skepticism in her voice, but she wasn’t being dismissive, like I thought she would be, like she normally was when the topic of Earth came up.
I hadn’t told her about Arthur. I hadn’t said his name out loud yet, not since I’d arrived here. I didn’t like saying his name, because it brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. And maybe there was a part of me that thought it was sacred, and that any hope I’d had about him still being alive somewhere in this fantasy world would be washed away as soon as I admitted he had ever existed at all. But that was all stupid stuff my brain was doing that didn’t make sense, I could see that, and now it was at the point where it needed to be said, because I was going to need help, if I was going to find the Lost King.
So I told her about Arthur.
Fenn was a good listener. I mean, she wasn’t a good listener in general, she was actually kind of terrible at it, even setting aside that some of that was an act or her sense of humor, but while I was telling her about Arthur, she sat beside me and listened to what I said, nodding along when I needed encouragement and then slipping her hand into mine when my voice went hollow.
“I’m sorry,” said Fenn.
“Yeah,” I replied. I was silent for a bit. “Anyway, that was him. Uther was his character, the Best King Ever. I have a quest to find the Lost King. And he … he planted a juniper tree beside a statue of a smith, and that was where he went when he wanted to think about me. I know that’s all just my version of things, that it might just be the dream-skewer talking –”
“No,” said Fenn. “I believe you.”
“You do?” I asked. “All of it?”
Fenn had been holding my hand, but now she unlaced our fingers. “All is a strong word,” she said. “I think there’s a place called Earth, and your soul, with all its experiences, is from there. Maybe that’s what the dream that skewers is, one personality writing itself over the other like a palimpsest.” She hesitated. “But there are so many things that you say are from your games, or taken from your world in some way, and … I don’t see how that makes sense, because it would mean that this entire world is about you and only you. That would mean that not only am I your actual, factual companion, I only exist to be your companion.” She clenched a fist. “Sorry, really don’t want to be talking about existential stuff right now, but … it’s kind of doing my head in.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “The whole thing has been kind of a head trip for me too.”
“Yeah,” said Fenn, “I guess so.” She looked down at the copy of The Prince and the Handmaid, which was sitting on the floor. “So that was the book’s purpose? To spur on this conversation? Or … to give you some concrete detail about Uther?”
“I’ll need to follow up on it,” I said. “Maybe it’s just me trying to connect the dots.”
“Well, fuck,” said Fenn. “It’s not like I was planning on doing anything better with the rest of my life. When we find the Lost King, he better have some well-oiled, muscular men waiting for me.”