“How long are we going to wait here?” asked Fenn after an hour had passed.
We’d had a late supper, a cold meal of shredded meat and crumbly cheese between slices of yambread that was almost, but not quite, what I would call a sandwich. I forced the food down; with Fallatehr dead, fixing my ribs had been delayed for the time being. I had to hope that getting to level 20 again was going to allow me to do it, because I’d killed the most skilled teacher available to me.
“Through the night, I think,” I replied. “I’m worried that the Abswifth is going to stop by. I’m more worried that the Bendon is going to show up. I don’t really have a firm grasp on how the government actually works in Parsmont. If they have the license plate of the car, then maybe they could comb through their files in order to figure out who the car was registered to, which would lead them right back here.”
“Maybe I should learn how to clean up blood in a hurry,” said Fenn. “That, or pray for some rain. Fallatehr left quite the puddle.”
“Yeah,” I said with a grimace. Both corpses were stored in her glove, their souls in their own separate bottles. “I don’t feel great about that. Toward the end … even though he had Grak, even though Amaryllis was — wherever she is, I guess, even then, I felt like he actually was trying to figure out some kind of compromise with me.”
“You are such a sap,” said Fenn. “It’s a good thing that you have me around, you need someone with street smarts. I’m reformed though, just to let you know.”
“Reformed?” I asked. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
“I’m not sure what I’m reformed into,” said Fenn. “Reforming, more like.”
“Let me know if I can help with that,” I said. I was sitting by the window on the second floor, and looked out onto the yard, which was lit by the outdoor lights. Beyond that was the road leading to the farm, and if Amaryllis somehow found her way back to us, I thought that was probably the way that she would come.
“There ought to be some limits to how much a single person can be to you,” said Fenn. She didn’t elaborate on that one way or another, and I let it hang in the air, hoping that she would say more, but I have to confess that my mind was elsewhere. The party, such as it was, had been sundered, three members here at a farmhouse near Parsmont, and three others somewhere else. One of them was the big spooky deer, admittedly, and Valencia was probationary, but it left me feeling incomplete.
“You miss her?” asked Fenn.
“I’m worried,” I said. The only idea I’d had thus far was that we could try to torment the answer out of Grak. The idea of actual torture left such a bad taste in my mouth that it was a non-starter, and I doubted that it would be effective even if I was willing to stoop that low, but there were other ways that we might get to him. We had Fallatehr’s soul in its own small bottle, which meant that we could make Grak an offer on what we would end up doing with it.
“But do you miss her?” asked Fenn.
“Yeah,” I replied. I tapped at the window once, idly. I thought that I had seen something, down by the road, but closer inspection revealed only cropland, stalks of something that was close enough to corn that it felt like home.
“I do too,” said Fenn. “Not that she’s actually been gone that long, but it feels like, when are we going to see her again? And I didn’t get to say goodbye.” There was a subtle change in the lighting, and I looked over to see that Fenn was holding one of the small glass bottles with a soul in it. “Solace,” she said by way of explanation. “If our princess is dead, or worse, just … gone, I’ll,” she shook her head. “I’ll write a strongly-worded letter to the Dungeon Master.”
I felt my heart flip at that. It was possible Amaryllis was dead. It wasn’t the kind of thing that I would ever have done as a DM, but it was possible, especially since we’d been delving deep into narratives. I felt the need to do something, to make myself useful, to not just sit and wait, hoping that Amaryllis would come home.
“I’m going to try to level up soul magic,” I said. “See if I can get it back to 20, see if I can maybe fix Grak, then maybe, I don’t know — if they have the key, I feel like they’re a long way away. So it’s probably pointless.”
“I’ll keep guard,” said Fenn. “Good luck, have fun.”
I dipped back into my soul and began mindlessly browsing, letting myself get lost in the soul trance. Level Up had moved back up the rankings, though not far enough that it was in strong competition with the things that I thought were core, and I moved it back down. I took a trip to Fenn’s soul, just to confirm that she was clean (and to look at that value, Nellan, that I hadn’t yet asked her to answer for), then over to Amaryllis’ soul, to make sure that she was alive, or at least that her soul was still accessible. I wasn’t sure what would happen to the links if either of them died, especially given that those links didn’t seem like a natural feature of souls to me.
After that I pulled out and asked Fenn for some pencil and paper, which she supplied from her glove, then spent some time going in and out of my soul in order to make some recordings of what was in there, which I thought Amaryllis would appreciate when she came back. The Essentialism skill was climbing, but slower than I had hoped for; I wasn’t doing anything too useful with it. I tried burning through my bones and replacing them to boost the skill faster, but that seemed like exactly the kind of grindy munchkinry that the game layer actively discouraged, and my only feedback was making guesses at what was causing a single number to rise.
“Wait,” said Fenn as I popped back out of my soul. She leaned down and opened the window. “Friend or foe!” she yelled out.
There was a long pause.
“Friend!” came the reply.
“They say they’re friends,” said Fenn. “Two of them, in the fields, skulking around.” She was jabbing her finger out the window, into the dark, and her eyes had to have been better than mine, because I couldn’t see shit. “Neither of them is eight feet tall, which I think probably means there’s cause for celebration, unless we have another changeling on our hands.”
It was slow, as reunions went, due to suspicions on both sides. They were, clearly, Amaryllis and Valencia, and we were, clearly, Juniper and Fenn, but given everything that happened, we were all understandably cautious. Amaryllis was asked to demonstrate mastery of her heirlooms, and I triple-checked that her soul was intact. My Anyblade was invested in me by Amaryllis, so I could prove that I was really myself by shaping it, plus by having Ropey vouch for me. Amaryllis wanted Fenn to fire her bow, and Fenn cheerfully told her that she could fuck off, but did offer a demonstration of her archery skills, which I had to imagine would be nearly impossible for all but a very small group of people to fake (and we didn’t, to my knowledge, have any supernaturally skilled archers as mortal enemies). Lastly there was Valencia; for the sake of completeness, I tried to slide one of my tattoos onto her skin, and found that it wouldn’t cross over, as expected. She had no soul, no part of her was magical, save perhaps for the gift that the game had bestowed on her.
“Is Grak okay?” asked Amaryllis, once we were done with the confirmation process.
“I’m not sure how long it will take for the effects to fade,” I replied.
“Fallatehr spoke of it in terms of stability,” said Amaryllis. “There’s nothing grounding what Grak feels about Fallatehr, so it should evaporate more quickly, if I understand it right.”
“Next time let’s fight something dumb,” said Fenn. “My vote is some kind of monstrous bear, something that I can shoot from a distance, preferably without armor.”
Something had changed between Amaryllis and Valencia. I had known as much when I’d seen Valencia without chains or ropes, but watching them together, even the way they stood, it was different; Amaryllis angled her body so that Valencia was implicitly included in the conversation, and spoke to the center of the group. I still had my doubts about Valencia, and could see that there were problems with her on the horizon, but the fact that Amaryllis seemed to accept her assuaged my concerns.
“We’re running out of safe places to go,” said Amaryllis. “We have an hour until the key is done recharging, and I think we’d be better off not being here.”
“Agreed,” I said.
“We also need to go back to Barren Jewel,” said Valencia. She was keeping her back straight and trying to project her voice, but the attempt at speaking with authority was fairly transparent for being an attempt. Not currently with her infernal superpowers then.
“What’s in Barren Jewel?” asked Fenn, raising an eyebrow. Her eyes were moving over Valencia, curious and wary.
“We owe a bone mage for her services,” said Valencia, casting a glance at Amaryllis. “Four million tcher.” She looked down at her dress, which I saw was ripped. “And we’ll need clothes, if you have some.”
At that, Fenn finally burst into a wide grin. “I think I might have something in just your size.”
I reached level 20 in Essentialism the next day, as I ‘meditated’ on a warm, flat rock in the middle of some very empty woods. I got the Soul Slip virtue back again, and this time had more freedom to explore my soul. The virtue still had a horribly vague description, but I was hopeful that one of the clauses, the one about ‘altering that which had been unalterable’ would allow me to fix Grak. Before going to where he was tied up, I looked in at my soul, to where the ability numbers were lined up. There was nothing that I could change there without lowering the cap on some of my skills, and so many of my skills were at their cap that I couldn’t do it safely. I thought that I had to be nearing another level, so decided to wait until then, when I would have the points to play with and wouldn’t risk lowering my skills, if that was what happened when the cap got permanently lowered.
The second thing I did was to go to one of my little-used skills, Bows, and lower it by a point. When I had lowered Essentialism, I’d been kicked from my soul, which made sense given that I had zeroed out the skill and temporarily lost it. Here, I was trying to see whether lowering a skill actually gave me anything, because the description for Soul Slip explicitly mentioned trade-offs. After feeling around the internal space of the skill section in my soul, I eventually realized that I could feel something slippery there, and with a push of will, could apply it to one of the other skills. I applied it to One-handed Weapons, which was at its cap, pushing it up to 22.
One of the annoying things about being inside the soul was that I didn’t get any of the HUD notifications that I got in the ‘real’ world, but waiting in my list of Afflictions were two new entries.
Overcapped: Skill will decay at 1 per 10 minutes until under cap.
Skilled trade: Skill will decay at 1 per 10 minutes until returned to baseline.
Not permanent, then. After five minutes had passed, I checked my skills, and saw that Bows was still down a point, and One-handed Weapons had reverted to 21, which confirmed that the times multiplied, and that it was a semi-permanent cost to be paid. I hoped the same wasn’t going to be true for trading ability points, because those were one of the most valuable game resources I had; it made me nervous to even try.
But the point of leveling Essentialism wasn’t to get those benefits; it was to see whether or not I could do something about Grak.
When I came to him, he wasn’t looking good. We hadn’t taken the gag from his mouth because we were worried he would try to bite his tongue, which meant we hadn’t been able to feed him or give him anything to drink. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his hair was matted to his forehead with sweat. We’d kept him tied up, too, and while Fenn had cleaned up after him, there was still a lingering odor; keeping someone bound for long periods of time was fraught with difficulty. He lay in one of our tents, set there to keep him out of the rain.
“Hey,” I said to him. I reached out and placed my hand on his head. “I’m going to try to change you back to normal.”
He screamed around his gag, and I could see his pupils dilate, but I tried to push all of that aside and concentrate on the feeling of my skin against his. There was latent magic in skin, and magics of many kinds had connections to the soul, so I thought that was a decent enough place to start. If your bones connected back to the soul somehow, then your skin probably did too, if only because it was through a force of will that the tattoos were activated. I was looking for a thread, or a tunnel, or something like that I could search along, something that would lead me backward to his internal structure.
It took me four hours to worm my way in. After an hour touching his sweaty forehead, I used the Anyblade to make a cut on the pad of my thumb and the back of his wrist, then tried mingling our blood and finding a connection that way, and when that didn’t work, I tried to find his soul by first burning through one of my bones to heal him, and then burning through one of his bones. That was what finally worked, but it was still two fucking hours of trying to tug on that metaphorical thread before I was in his soul.
When I finally got it, it was different from how I’d experience Amaryllis and Fenn’s souls. Those had been, in some respect, extensions of my own, governed by the same logic, at least from my point of view. By way of analogy, if my soul was an enormous sheet of paper, Grak’s was another sheet laid on top of it, this one without writing. I had to navigate between the two frequently, because his soul didn’t have the order to it that mine did. It felt like sitting in front of a television with a printed out sheet of paper, trying to follow an FAQ to a game, going from instructions to screen and back again.
Eventually, I found Fallatehr in his mind, and after triple-checking and taking a deep breath I could barely feel, I dialed it down into the negatives. It was only because I saw the value moving downward that I was confident enough to do it; I was only accelerating a process that would have happened on its own without me.
When I removed the gag from Grak’s mouth, he said a word in Groglir that was, from context, a curse. “Untie me,” he said. I didn’t bother with trying to save the rope, and used the Anyblade to cut his hands and feet free of their bindings. He began rubbing at his wrists, and I placed a hand on him to give him healing — a hand he swatted away.
“I don’t like having my soul touched,” he said.
“I was going to give you healing,” I replied. “It’s not good to be tied up for so long. You get bedsores, have your circulation cut off.” A little thanks might have gone a long way, but I didn’t say that. “How are you feeling? Back to normal?”
“No,” replied Grak without elaboration. I let him sit and massage where the ropes had been digging into him. “I was … I had purpose.”
“Serving Fallatehr,” I said.
“It wasn’t service,” said Grak. “It was wanting something more than myself.”
“Amaryllis didn’t describe it like that,” I replied.
“No,” said Grak. He stopped rubbing his wrists and laid down on the ground. “She wouldn’t. She is more person than I am.”
“More person?” I asked. This felt, in some respects, like the most true conversation we’d ever had, despite all my attempts at inroads.
“She has purpose,” he said. “Fallatehr gave her another purpose. She feels relief at returning to her previous path.”
“And you don’t have a path,” I said with a nod. I knew how that felt, but didn’t want to say it. Here on Aerb, there were paths galore, but back in Kansas, there were times I’d felt utterly adrift, even before everything had gone to shit. “What happens when you take your thousand pounds of gold to Darili Irid?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said Grak, looking past me.
“I have a quest for it,” I said, but at that he turned further away from me. “I really don’t understand you.”
“There is not much to understand,” replied Grak.
“Sure,” I said. I was watching him closely. I wanted to say that all of this could have been avoided if he’d just been more loyal to me, or that I had been trying with him, was trying with him even now, and it was frustrating for it to not be paying any dividends, but that wasn’t the kind of thing that I thought would be helpful, and if I needed to vent, I would go vent about it to someone else.
“I didn’t like being told I was part of something,” said Grak, into the silence. “Back in Barren Jewel, when we met. I did not like it. You are like family to me.”
“Family,” I said, rolling the word over in my mouth. “Family, because you’re stuck with family, and you have an obligation, or they think you have this obligation, and if you could pick … if you could pick your family, you wouldn’t have picked the ones that you ended up with.” That was how I felt about my parents, when they were fighting, which was often. Even sometimes when they weren’t fighting. “You left your family to become a warder. And when you came back, they tossed you into a marriage that you didn’t want. So you left. Am I that kind of family to you?”
“No,” said Grak, returning his gaze to me. “You are not the family I would pick, but you are also not like my father.”
Loyalty increased: Grak lvl 8!
I wanted to ask what it was about me, but that seemed like a conversation that would just irritate me. Count on a guy like Grak to sap all the enjoyment from having made a breakthrough in soul magic and fixing him.
Fenn found a mark for us back in Cranberry Bay, a man she’d found sitting in a tavern drinking beer with his friends. It had taken a show of cash for her to tempt him back to the hotel room we were staying in, and when he saw me, he must have gotten the wrong idea, because she had to block the door and talk him down.
“He’s a healer,” she said. “Any minor injuries you’ve sustained, he’s going to fix them. You’re probably going to ask what’s in it for him, because you already know that what’s in it for you is a fuckload of money for just sitting there. For him, it’s a study of anatomy, one that he can do without having to inconvenience you in any way besides you sitting there, which you are, I repeat, going to be paid well for.”
“So I won the lottery?” he asked, wrinkling his nose, clearly not buying it.
“Yes, actually,” replied Fenn. “There’s a certain noble, who I’m not going to name, who’s taken ill, of-late. One too many indiscretions with ladies of the night, but you didn’t hear it from me. He’s got problems, ones that take a skilled medic to fix, and my friend here is that skilled medic, but it’s always easier for him to do the work if he knows what healthy is supposed to look like for his employer.” Fenn placed a finger on the guy’s chest. “It’s a rush job, so I rushed out and found the first person who had enough of a physical resemblance. You’re human, you’ve got the right shoulder width, chest width, and height, and you appeared, to my eyes, to be both virile and intelligent enough to just take a gift horse when it lands in your lap.”
He didn’t seem to catch the mangled expression in there, and to my surprise, sat down without further grumbling. Fenn put on a radio play — aside from internet and cell phones, television was my most-missed invention — while I worked, and while I at least knew what I was looking for now, finding the thread was still the easy part. Even with what I thought was probably the equivalent of a PhD in soul magic, it took me an hour and a half to actually gain access to his soul and enter the trance.
Copying over the bones was fucking terrifying. Having restricted read-write access to the base data structure of my physical and mental presence in the world — or something masquerading as the base data structure that still had an actual impact on what it was to be me, for all that distinction might matter — wasn’t really something that I had ever wished for. I’d monkeyed around with my computer a fair amount on Earth, but editing the registry had given me the same sweaty, anxious feeling.
When I was done, we sent our unwitting donor off, far richer for the experience.
“Did it work?” asked Fenn.
“Don’t know yet,” I replied. “I didn’t want to do the healing process while he was here.”
“Well what if we need him back?” asked Fenn. “What if, I don’t know, you need to redo it?”
“If it goes that badly, I think I’m probably going to die,” I said.
“Well that’s fucking great,” she replied, folding her arms across her chest. “I better keep my powers if you die.”
“Mean,” I said, but I knew that jokes were her way of dealing with things. “Okay.” I felt for the bones in my hand, ready to burn them to heal my chest. In an ideal world, my soul would already be fixed, and all I would be doing was bringing soul and body back into concert. “It’s kind of fucked up that I could have brainwashed him into being my slave, isn’t it?”
“Just do the healing already, I’m getting antsy,” said Fenn.
I laid both hands on my chest and concentrated my power, burning through bones on my left side in order to fuel the healing in my ribs. It would take some time to reset those bones, but that was now a solved problem. The changes came fast, first sensation returning to my skin, then a gnawing hunger from an appetite that was finally waking back up. I didn’t suffer from a sudden heart attack, as I had feared that I might, and whatever the soul’s conception of the body was at the boundary areas, nothing horrible like a rending of my flesh happened at my shoulders or hips.
The quest didn’t show up as completed though, and I slapped my forehead when I realized why; I’d drained bones in order to complete the healing. A quick dip into my soul was enough to fix that, and I came back out quick enough to see the notifications in my view, before they were washed away.
Affliction: Drained Bone Removed!
Skill increased: Essentialism lvl 23!
Quest Complete: Boneitis – Your body is back to normal, and under your control to a far greater extent than in your wildest transhumanist dreams, if you dare to risk fucking it up.
END BOOK IV