It took a day of training to get my skills up high enough for what I started thinking of as the Sacrifice. I kind of hated going over the annotated paper copy of the character sheet with the group, because it was my character sheet, but I could see the wisdom in it, and resisted the urge to make post-hoc rationalizations for why it would be better for me to make the decisions on my own. We decided that there should be four skills traded in, because that would push Essentialism up past the presumed milestone of 100, and once we’d decided that there should be four, it was only a matter of picking which ones it should be. I vetoed Gem Magic, since though I didn’t use it much, it was a pain in the ass to level up, and I felt roughly the same about Horticulture. Eventually, we decided on Bows, Unarmored, Unarmed Combat, and Shields. The first two were fairly easy choices, because Fenn had high skill in both, which meant that through Symbiosis I was at least middling. Unarmed and Shields both had the virtue of being little-used and seeming like they’d be straightforward to train.
I did the training at Safehouse 5, which was a small cabin fifteen miles from the nearest town and ten miles from the nearest neighbor. It was our “get the fuck away from civilization” safehouse. You couldn’t even get there by car, given that someone (cough cough) had knocked an enormous tree over, barring the path. The teleportation key made all locations equidistant, so long as you had been there once, so having a safehouse like that was quite convenient.
(Amaryllis had been the one to plan out most of the safehouses, and while they each served their own specific purpose, I’d eventually cottoned on to the fact that she’d deliberately chosen inconspicuous and uninteresting places, and given them the most boring possible names. It was, pretty clearly, a narrative thing; if the safehouses weren’t special or important, and we had no particular attachment to them, then they couldn’t be used as an emotional lever, and, perhaps, they wouldn’t make for good set-piece battles. Contrast a mostly anonymous cottage in the woods with spartan furnishing to an immense cathedral with a significant name that had once belonged to a dead god, and you might understand her line of thinking.)
I got the virtue for Bows at 20, and for Shields and Unarmored at 10.
Steady Aim: Completely eliminates the penalty for firing a bow while moving. Halves the penalty for firing a bow under pressure or duress. Triples the amount of time you can hold a bow at maximum draw.
Bulwark: Shields you hold are twice as durable. If a force acts on your shield to move you, you will move only half the usual distance, with the reduction capped at ten feet of movement negated.
Hardened Skin: Lessens the toll that physical damage in combat takes on you. Slightly increases natural healing. Increases force required to break skin.
And, when Unarmored finally hit 20, there was an extra virtue:
Monkish Warrior: While unarmed and unarmored, you may parry attacks as though you held a weapon, dodge at twice your effective skill, and automatically re-roll injuries if they are in the lowest five percent of outcomes (you keep any lower rolls).
This was the third time that I’d gotten an extra virtue, with the first two times being Nascent and Neophyte Blade-bound. It was a bit more clear where this new one had come from, given the references to “dodge”, “unarmed” and “unarmored”. It was far too restrictive for what it did though, and unless I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t wear my armor or hold a weapon, I wasn’t planning on being able to make use of the perk. It wasn’t anything that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice on the altar of Essentialism 100.
I ended up putting the two extra ability points into MEN even before we went into the bottle. Fenn already augmented my social skills, just through Symbiosis, and if Amaryllis got up to 20 Loyalty (something that both of us wanted), I thought that I would pretty much be set. That meant that it was either PHY or MEN, and while I had more skills with PHY requirements, my MEN skills were the more valuable, especially because I was sharing half their level with Fenn. Unlocking more of those magics was a priority, and a few of them were low-hanging fruit, but tracking down a water mage to teach me seemed like exactly the sort of thing that might cause the dread narrative to rear its ugly head.
With some trepidation, I used soul magic to adjust those points, now that I could do so without risking putting a skill above its cap. I backed out of the soul interface and quickly checked the afflictions, but nothing showed up there. After some prompting from Amaryllis, I was convinced to try moving another point from MEN, which would lower the caps and leave a few skills over, but wouldn’t drop them below 20 … only to find that I couldn’t. Some very, very careful testing showed that I was only capable of moving two ability points around (or alternately, a single point that was put into one of the three ‘master abilities’). My guess was that I could move around a number of points equal to one tenth my Essentialism, but that was just a guess.
(There was, briefly, some talk about a total restructuring of my character build. I’d written out all 256 skills shown in the soul, along with their primary and secondary attributes, which Amaryllis had pored over and then cross-referenced with all the skills shown in Fenn’s soul, as well as those from hers, skills which I’d noticed had gone up since I’d hit level 12. In the end, Amaryllis didn’t have a strong enough preference toward a particular build, though of course there were a lot of changes that she would make. I wouldn’t have said that I was entirely happy with what I’d chosen, but in the absence of concrete knowledge of what the future held, and with the difficulty inherent in getting some of the magics unlocked (particularly Revision Magic and Still Magic, both of which would probably require me to at least briefly enroll at an athenaeum), I was fairly content with staying the course. Changing things around in the limited window I would have available as a master soul mage seemed like a somewhat poor use of resources, especially given that the ‘soul trance’ destroyed my ability to keep track of outside time.)
We descended into the bottle together, as a group. For me, Grak, and Val, it was the old travel-by-glove routine, while Fenn held onto Amaryllis, who was taking us all down in the immobility plate. Fenn had refused to go into the glove, citing one too many bad experiences with it, and for whatever reason, Amaryllis indulged her, even though it meant that the descent took quite a bit longer than it otherwise would have.
Before I knew it, I’d been popped back out, and was once again in the bottle, standing not too distant from the large tree in its center where we’d spent a somewhat idyllic week. I’d expected cold, but it was stiflingly hot, for no apparent reason; the bottle hadn’t been getting the right amount of sunlight, which I would have thought would lower the temperature of the mini-biome.
The Six-Eyed Doe was there, watching us, head held high, but something about the way it moved seemed subtly off, as though it was putting on a show of strength for us. I still found it creepy; my distaste for deer was as strong as ever. I couldn’t actually think of a mammal that I would have had as much instinctive dislike toward as a deer. A rat, maybe? I’d worked on my uncle’s farm enough to have a fondness for farm animals of all kinds, from cows, to pigs, to sheep. The Six-Eyed Doe was pretty, I supposed, aesthetically pleasing, but I couldn’t quite help myself from appending ‘for a deer’ to that. Every time I looked at it, I thought about how much more awesome it would have been to have a giant six-eyed bear. As a doe, it didn’t even get antlers.
While all that was running through my head, Valencia took tentative steps toward the locus. We stayed back, by unspoken agreement (or possibly, given that I was only privy to about a third of the conversations between my party members, by spoken agreement). Val reached out a hand when she was ten feet away, then kept walking forward, shaking slightly. I was worried about what I would do if anything happened to her; bone magic didn’t work on her, because she didn’t have a soul, and I strongly suspected that fairies wouldn’t either. For her, a broken bone was a serious problem that would take weeks to fix, rather than being almost trivial (if incredibly painful).
When her trembling hand was a few feet away, the Six-Eyed Doe bowed its head, took a step forward, and licked her on the face. Val let out an ‘eep!’, then began to laugh as the doe nuzzled her. I found myself smiling as relief flooded through me. After a few minutes of this nuzzling, the locus put its head down lower, between Val’s legs, and before I could utter a word of caution or move to stop it, the Six-Eyed Doe lifted Valencia up and with a jerk of its head, plopped her onto its back. Once she’d got her bearings, and was holding the sides of the Six-Eyed Doe, it took off, racing across the interior space of the bottle, as Val held on for dear life and screamed in delight.
(And though I saw it happen, I still couldn’t quite say how the locus managed the feat of lifting Val up with its head and having her tumble backward along its neck to reach a perfect sitting position with no seeming effort on either of their behalf. It annoyed me, thinking about it later, because it seemed like the same kind of bullshit ‘fuck you I’m magical’ thing that I’d come to expect of the locus.)
“Better than expected,” I said as I watched the Six-Eyed Doe prance off into the distance. “We need them back here so we can start though.”
“Oh hush,” said Fenn. “That’s the happiest I’ve ever seen her.”
I glanced at Fenn, and saw her smiling. Whatever her misgivings, she seemed pleased to watch the two weird ones getting along together.
“We’ll give it some time,” said Amaryllis. She’d been carrying some tension in her shoulders when we’d arrived, but was relaxed now, at ease. “The locus has been alone, I think it would be good to be social with it.” She hesitated. “I don’t know whether or not it knows about Solace.”
Fenn held out her gloved hand and a small jar appeared in it. “What are the odds that you can save her?” she asked me.
“If Uther could have brought people back from the dead, he would have done so on a number of occasions,” said Amaryllis. “That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, but it’s unlikely.”
“Ten percent, let’s say,” I added. We had talked about this; I thought that Amaryllis was probably right. “We should lay everything out. Unicorn bones, the elf bones, all the souls we have available to us, anything that I might have a use for in the limited window after the Sacrifice.”
“Stop being so damned ominous about it,” said Fenn. “It’ll only take a few days to get them back. You’re being a whiner.”
“Fenn?” I asked. Hand going to my heart. “My most loyal companion? How could you wound me so?”
“I’m the self-appointed court jester,” said Fenn. “My role is to tell the king the things that no one else can, because he’d get pissed off if it came from someone else. Ergo, you’re being a whiner about your very nearly godlike powers.”
“Not for the first time,” muttered Grak, loud enough that I could hear it.
“Sorry,” I said. “I think there’s a decent point of order here though, which is that I don’t know how fast I’ll be able to get the skills back. When I drained Essentialism down to zero, I had a hard time getting it back up.”
“Yes, all of a few hours,” said Fenn with a smile. “How dreadful.”
“No, he has a point,” said Amaryllis. “If it rots away the ability to learn a skill, which it might — was Essentialism slower to rise?”
“Yes,” I said. “I think so. It’s hard to say because I was doing different things with it, and the soul trance makes it hard to track time, and the notifications don’t show up while I’m looking at it, but … I think so, yes.”
“There might be a limited number of times that we can use the trick,” said Amaryllis with a shrug. “And perhaps we’ll find that it’s not worth it because of the afflictions associated with it, which might be more severe at upper levels. We’ll be running into a number of firsts.” She turned toward me. “I still think that it’s prudent.”
“I’m coming around to it,” I said. “And even if I weren’t, you can’t maintain a democracy if you’re willing to defect from it when the votes don’t go your way.”
“Well, I’m ready whenever you are,” said Fenn. She’d laid out a fair number of things from inside her glove, bones, souls, and a few entads.
“I want to do everything possible before the Sacrifice,” I said. “That will mean trying to at least see the Six-Eyed Doe’s soul the normal way. There are a lot of ways that this can go wrong, and I want to minimize them.”
“They look like they’re coming back,” said Grak. He had his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun, and was looking off toward where the Six-Eyed Doe and Val were cavorting. They were moving toward us slowly, haphazardly, stopping to look and play together.
I decided that it was time to bite the bullet. I’d been making an honest effort with him over the past few days, but nothing had come of it. “Grak, is there anything that I can do, or say, or that we can talk about that would help your loyalty?” I asked. “It’s at nine right now. Another point would give me quick access to your soul.”
“Is it that high?” asked Grak, looking me over. “Asking doesn’t help you.”
“I know,” I replied. “I’ve been trying to make an effort, to connect with you, to do it the natural way, but that obviously hasn’t worked. I’m asking now because I might have to move fast, and it would benefit us both.”
“Not sure that this is the time, Joon,” said Fenn.
“It’s fine,” said Grak. He ran his hand over his beard. “Juniper, you treat the world as though it owes you something. You treat me as though I owe you my attention, affection, and loyalty.”
I thought for a moment before responding to that, trying to pick the right words. “Oh fuck off,” I said.
Grak snorted at that, a faint, slightly mean smile beneath his mustache.
“I put in so much effort with you,” I said. “More than with anyone else in the party. I’m continually trying to find some common ground, or talk to you, or just … I don’t know, something that will let us come to a mutual understanding of each other.”
“That’s his problem,” said Fenn, cutting in on the conversation. “He kind of feels like you try to talk to him and expect that it will make you friends, then get frustrated when that doesn’t work. And because he feels like you only talk to him with these expectations, it makes him really resistant to what you’re trying to do.”
“Thank you, Fenn,” said Grak with a nod.
“That’s asinine,” I said. “I get penalized for trying? No sane social system can work like that.”
“It isn’t about making an effort,” said Grak.
“Look, I really think that we should table this,” said Fenn.
“The effort has always been in service of reward for yourself,” said Grak. “There was always a cost to me if I did not provide that reward. It grates.”
I threw up my hands.
“You attempted to solve this issue in five minutes,” said Grak. “Think on that.”
I looked over to where the Six-Eyed Doe was still prancing around with Valencia. They hadn’t moved any closer to us. Solace was able to hear anything that went on in the locus’ domain, and I assumed that the same was true for the locus. Even if it didn’t fully understand what we were saying, it could probably read tone, and so it was staying away — keeping Val away. Good.
“Okay,” I said. “It’s like you said, we’re family. We didn’t get to choose each other.”
“I chose you,” said Fenn.
“That’s — thank you,” I said. “But I meant Grak and I. If the game layer hadn’t said anything about it, we would have used him to get up Aumann’s tower, rescued Amaryllis, and then went off without him, leaving him in the lurch.”
“Well that’s fucking harsh,” said Fenn with a frown.
“It was your plan,” I replied.
“Oh, right,” said Fenn, brightening up. “That was ages ago.”
“Water over the bridge,” nodded Grak.
“But the point was that the only reason that Grak is part of the group is because the game said so, and the only reason that he stayed with us is because we paid him,” I replied. “And even if he made a connection with both of you, he never made one with me — never tried, but that’s not surprising, because trying is apparently a sin.”
“I did open up to you,” said Grak. “You seemed to think that it was of no consequence.”
I stared at him. “When?” I asked. “If this is all some stupid misunderstanding –”
“At Weik Handum,” said Grak.
“The … the thing with your, um, friends at the athenaeum?” I asked. I’d almost said it out loud, but realized at the last second that maybe this wasn’t actually something that he’d shared with the others. Had we talked about it as a group? I couldn’t remember, but as I tried to sift through the weeks we spent together, I was dismayed to realize that we probably hadn’t.
“Yes,” said Grak. His arms were folded across his chest. “That is fine. It is who you are. It does not inspire loyalty.”
“Give me a second,” I said. I had thoughts brewing, but I didn’t want to have them while I was this socially inept. I dipped into my soul, an action that was almost automatic, moved points from Mental to Insight, then opened my eyes and tried to resume thinking.
There were very few personal details I knew about Grakhuil Leadbraids. Most of those, I had learned from his biography. The only personal story he’d ever told me had been when we’d been at Weik Handum, a story that I thought was just him being incredibly blunt about weird stuff that I didn’t care about, by way of telling me not to sleep with Fenn. And my response to that had been to say ‘sure’, and then the very next morning Fenn had teased him, very graphically, about all the ways that we hadn’t had sex. Worse, I’d only really put effort into trying to raise his loyalty after learning about the Twinned Souls thing, which hadn’t really been my intention, but I could see how that looked.
“Fuck,” I said. I closed my eyes and scrunched up my face, trying to think of some response without the distraction of having to look at anyone. “Okay, I can see it now. I’m going to have to hope that I can explain what was going through my head at some point, but I want some time to think about things, how it looks from your perspective, and where our different cultures are getting in the way. And even if I could explain it perfectly, that probably wouldn’t be enough, because with you, I failed. I need to just … listen more, I guess, and focus less on the end goals, at least when it comes to our kharass.”
I opened my eyes.
Loyalty increased: Fenn lvl 22!
Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 16!
Loyalty increased: Grak lvl 10!
Companion Passive Unlocked: Twinned Souls (Grak)!
To be honest, I was a little put out by seeing those notifications stacked up and waiting for me. In a way, it was like having an apology thrown back in my face, that same feeling of someone gleefully taking an admission of guilt or wrongdoing and rubbing your face in it. That wasn’t what they were doing, because the game layer was the one sending me the messages, but it still stung a little bit.
“Oh,” said Grak. He was looking down at his thick, meaty hands with something approaching wonder. I watched him closely as he took out his warder’s monocle, which he held up to his eye for a moment, looking around him, then slowly returned to its usual pocket. “I have the warder’s sight.”
I tried to recall whether I’d read about that in the (absolutely worthless) Commoner’s Guide to Warding, and came up blank.
“The monocle will burn the retinas, if overused,” explained Grak. “I no longer need it. It takes thirty or forty years of intensive study to develop the sight. It marks a person as a true master.”
“Congratulations!” said Fenn. “Maybe we can swing by the Athenaeum of Barriers sometime, let you show off to some friends.”
“The skill is unearned,” said Grak. He was looking around him, moving his head quickly to take in new sights. Whatever was going on with his eyes, he was still adjusting to it. “Welcome, but unearned. I would not pretend to call myself a master because of this gift.”
“Well I’m going to keep entering archery contests,” said Fenn.
“I’m happy for you, Grak,” said Amaryllis. She looked over at the Six-Eyed Doe, which was approaching with Val on its back. “It looks like they’re finally finished. Fortuitous timing.”
Val hopped down off the doe’s back and landed on the soft earth. Her dress flared up slightly with the air as she fell, which made the dismount seem easy and carefree.
“She likes me,” said Val with a shy smile. “And I like her.”
“Good,” I said with a nod. “We have work to do though.”
“She tried to fit in my maw,” said Val.
“It … what?” I asked.
“She could see that I was hollow,” said Val. “So she tried to fit inside of me, just to explore. I had to keep my maw open so that I wouldn’t bite her.”
“The locus … tried to possess you?” I asked. I looked to Amaryllis, our default authority on all things, but she looked just as bewildered as I was.
“She didn’t mean anything by it,” said Val, seeing my look. “And after I explained things, she retracted from me. She-she’s not a devil, I don’t want you to think it’s like that, we’re just in her domain, and she has power here, and that power can fit inside me, because I’m hollow.” She looked from me to Amaryllis, looking slightly distraught. “If I did something wrong –”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was smooth and gentle. “The locus is a mysterious entity, we just didn’t realize that there would be any interaction between the two of you. This … might be the first time in history that a non-anima has ever met a locus.” Amaryllis’ brow furrowed. I wondered whether she was thinking about the Second Empire.
“And is that … can the locus, ah.” I wasn’t sure how to phrase it. Being back with the locus, and wanting to be conscious of its desire to stay cloaked in mystery, was already grating on me. I wanted to know whether the locus could empower Valencia, and if it could, then whether that might possibly work outside the bottle, so long as she was close enough, since that was how it worked for druids. But the locus rebelled against definitions and descriptions, and I didn’t want to destroy this weird magical relationship between them by dint of over-analyzing it.
“We don’t need to know more,” said Amaryllis, seeming to pick up on my train of thought. “We’ll try not to inspect it too deeply, or ask too many questions that don’t have answers.”
“Okay,” said Val, still glancing between us, still looking worried.
Fenn stepped forward, with a bottle in her hand. Solace’s lily-white soul was moving within it. “There’s a bit of bad news,” said Fenn. “Solace –”
The locus turned its head toward the sky and began to yell, a weird, braying sound that set my teeth on edge. This continued for some time, until Amaryllis moved forward and wrapped the locus in a hug, her head resting against the doe’s breast. When the Six-Eyed Doe lowered its head, there were tears coming from each of its six eyes, with absurdly large drops as though surface tension had gone out of control, each tear the size of my fist.
(Had it not known, or was it like a mother seeing her son’s casket come home from a war overseas, emotion spilling forward when an immaterial death was made real?)
Grak gave me a slight push, and that got me moving. We surrounded the doe, comforting it, and eventually it laid down, first so that its legs were curled beneath it, and then in a small circle, in a way that I associated with a fawn. I felt awkward and uncomfortable patting it, and tried my best to murmur something comforting, but I had always been bad with grieving.
Tiff wore a black dress, one that came down to her calves, and black shoes with a slight heel. She’d come into my room without knocking, and sat down on the bed beside me, without saying a word. Her lip was trembling; from her eyes, she’d been crying, and though her cheeks were dry, I doubted that they would stay that way.
“Why didn’t you come?” she asked. Her voice was shaky.
“I,” I began, then stopped, because I didn’t want to cry. I was wearing black socks, black pants, a black tie, and a white buttoned-down shirt. It was an outfit that I had picked out with Arthur, when I’d been a witness for mock trial. He had thought it would be fun, a thing we could do together, and I didn’t really take to it.
“People asked, and we didn’t know,” said Tiff. She reached over and rested her hand on top of mine.
“‘Never count a human as dead until you see his body,’” I said. “He used to quote that. Dune, I think.” I tried to keep my tone clinical, to take refuge in dissociation. It wasn’t really working.
“Joon,” said Tiff. “I needed you.”
“I know,” I said. “I just … I couldn’t. I got dressed and I was sweating, I felt like I was going to puke. All of those people. And they didn’t know him like I did, to them he was just someone they saw in the halls.”
“He was in a lot of clubs,” said Tiff. “Activities.”
I wasn’t entirely sure if she was rebutting my point or not.
“Yeah,” I replied. It should have been me. He was a keystone. If it had been me, only the D&D group would have even noticed. No one understood him like I did, but he at least left his mark.
“Are you going to be okay?” asked Tiff.
“No,” I replied. I didn’t even understand why she’d ask that question.
“Please don’t say that,” said Tiff. She leaned over and wrapped me in a hug. She was crying, with a hitch in her breathing, but they were the tears of a person who’d been crying a lot.
“He’s not coming back,” I said. “There’s never going to be anyone like him again.” I wasn’t sure that she grasped the enormity of it. How could she?
“I can’t lose you too,” she said. She was shaking her head. Her hand was gripping mine. “Not you too.”
Suicide. It slowly dawned on me what she was talking about. Not actually, ‘are you okay’, but ‘are you going to hurt yourself’. I might have flashed back to old conversations, if I weren’t so numb, times I’d told her about feeling lost and hopeless even when things were going well, standing on the edge of the dock at my uncle’s cabin and contemplating how nice it would be to slip beneath the water and never be seen again. I wished that I had kept my mouth shut, during our nights together, that I hadn’t revealed so much of myself.
“I’ll be okay,” I said. It came out wrong, the most obvious lie in the world.
Tiff hugged me. I hugged her back, but it was awkward because of the way we were sitting. It wouldn’t be the first or last time that she would go to me for comfort, or try to comfort me, only to realize that there was a gulf between us.
Eventually she did lose me too. She had to, for her own sake.
We spent a long time with the deer, comforting it as a group. I seemed to be the only one that felt awkward and uncomfortable, unsure of what to do with myself. I wasn’t sure how long we were going to give the locus either, whether this was going to be five minutes or two hours.
After what seemed like an eternity of me trying to awkwardly pat the deer, I laid my hand on it and tried to get Amaryllis’ attention. Eventually she looked at me, and I splayed my hand across the doe’s flank, looking down at that hand suggestively. Amaryllis shrugged, and when I raised my eyebrows, she gave me a curt nod of either assent or agreement. So long as we were all sitting there, I would make my best effort at getting into the locus’ soul.
It was still a painfully hard process, to see into the soul of another person without the aid of the Twinned Souls shortcut. I had been hoping that it would be easier with the locus, but if anything, it was harder. I could feel the soul in mortal species, leaking through the skin, pumping through the veins, because those magics were linked to the soul in some way, manifestations by proxy, inextricably linked back — which was why there was no latent magic in Valencia’s blood, skin, or bones. For the locus, it was different. If it even had blood, I wasn’t able to feel it, and if you were going to say ‘fuck off’ to physical laws with abandon, why bother with blood? So I was trying to root around blind, feeling for something that seemed like a soul.
It took three hours. Valencia was the only one that stuck around for the whole time. I was doing my best to block out everything that was going on around me, but I saw the others milling around, and occasionally talking to each other in hushed tones while I went about my work. They stayed close by, and I sort of wished that they hadn’t, because it might have been easier to concentrate if barely-audible whispers didn’t keep reaching my ears. Eventually my soul-sense snagged on something though, and it felt so obvious that I guessed that the locus had finally raised some kind of mast for me to grab onto.
Its soul did not map to mine. There were no text or numbers. Instead, it was artwork, of the same variety that made up its biography, a kaleidoscope of scenes that bled together in a style that was more toward the surreal than the real. It was less of an identifiable story than the biography was though, reminding me of when we’d made historical dioramas in eighth grade and set them up next to each other, though these ran together in places, and were arranged organically rather than in a grid. Most of it was nature: trees, animals, inclement weather, sunlight, damp earth, sometimes repeating for reasons that I couldn’t fathom. There were people too, individuals and massed groups, and sometimes impressionistic scenes with people in them. I moved through all of this quickly, trying to get some sense of what I was looking at rather than concentrating on the specifics.
Needless to say, none of this was at all helpful to me, or my quest to restore the locus to its former glory. The soul was supposed to be raw data, or at least, that was how it had been described by Fallatehr and how it presented itself to me, even without Twinned Souls. If the locus had anything like that, there was a layer on top of it, which interpreted all of those pretty, neatly ordered numbers and made virtually incomprehensible artwork out of them. Even if I could have found, say, the specific scene that represented me, I wasn’t at all clear on how I would go about editing it, nor what changes any hypothetical editing would bring.
And what I was supposed to do was transplant the locus to the outside world, presumably by fucking with its essential link to the land inside the bottle, maybe creating a new link to this land at the foothills of the Spine of the World. It seemed like a really tall order.
“Okay,” I said, “The soul of the locus is, ah … not going to be easy to deal with, I don’t think. It’s all in abstract, mystical images that I don’t even know how I would manipulate. So on with the Sacrifice, I guess.”
Here was the plan that we’d worked out, in four brief parts:
- Observation: Look at Essentialism, see whether it’s reached an absolute hard cap or whether it can go beyond 100. Do a very quick overview of the soul, looking for any features that weren’t there before. Look for any new lines branching off from the soul. Take a few seconds to look at connected souls. Leave the soul, glance briefly at the outside world, look for new virtues on the character sheet.
- Stabilize: If it seems at all possible, and isn’t automatic, make non-permanent adjustments so that Essentialism can remain as high as possible without decay. Temporarily moving all available ability points, including stripping down PHY and SOC to 0 (below their starting values) would be enough to leave me with 24 points in KNO and 14 points in WIS, for a cap of 70 on Essentialism. That would put all my PHY and SOC based skills over their caps, but might be worth it, if it seemed like it would give me more time.
- Fix the Locus: Somehow. The foothills of the Spine of the World wouldn’t be a bad place for it to have a new domain, or for it to extend its domain outward if it stayed in the bottle; that was part of the logic in choosing this place, long ago when we’d first made camp there (it was two and a half weeks prior, but a lot had happened since then).
- Upgrade Everyone: It wasn’t clear to what extent this would be possible (or safe), but if I could, for example, take a few of my unicorn bones, use them to reach into the soul of the unicorn, then retrofit them into myself in order to give me unicorn powers … fuck yes I’d do it. Maybe I’d understand how to give myself extra arms, which seemed like a thing that Essentialism could do, or maybe maxing the skill out would let me arbitrarily increase skills, or rearrange memories to make me eidetic, or something else equally awesome.
It wasn’t clear how much time I would have to get all that done. We’d worked out a system where Fenn would slap my thigh once every two minutes, in order to help me keep track of time; in testing, that had gone pretty well. Optimistically, I would have 104 Essentialism, and it would stay above 100 for 20 minutes. Less optimistically, it would cap at either 100 or 99, and giving me roughly five minutes at max, or about an hour above 90. Pessimistically? I might have a handful of seconds as an uber-soulmage, or it might just not work at all. Really pessimistically, just by trying I would permanently fuck something up.
With everyone prepared and everything I might need set out in front of me, I dove into my soul and began the Sacrifice, draining the pre-selected skills one by one, putting all of the points toward Essentialism. With the last of them spent, I looked at the Essentialism skill and saw that it was a different color, sitting at 104 but a bright blue and pulsing slightly. I ignored it, for the time being, and quickly went to other parts of the soul, looking for new features.
I knew more, now. It was less like Neo in The Matrix, more like Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity. The knowledge was there, when I needed it, but it hadn’t thrust itself to my attention, and there was a lot that I didn’t know that I knew, not without something to prompt me. That was another difficulty that we’d anticipated; Fenn’s difficulty with getting a handle on all the magics that had opened up to her with Symbiosis was precedent.
I found my True Name, which I won’t give here. I found a record of my lineage, with unfamiliar names above my own, most likely the root mechanism by which the heirloom entads identified who they belonged to. There was a record of the items that had been invested in me by Amaryllis, my armor, my dagger, the Anyblade, in a spot on my soul that seemed virtually barren with just those three. Interesting, but nothing that I could break the game with. I knew, as if I’d had it drilled into my head long ago, that my True Name could not be changed, and there was no way to hack my lineage so that I was Uther Penndraig’s eldest son; these things were excluded, impossible now, but hadn’t always been.
There were so many things I couldn’t do. As I thought of what I wanted to try, I could see the walls ahead of me, almost always a limitation imposed by exclusion rather than being something that soul magic was naturally unable to do. I’d been thinking of the exclusions of being something like patches to the game (making the exclusion zones places that had been grandfathered in), and if that was the case, then soul magic must have been the cause of a whole host of patches:
- I couldn’t change the primary or secondary abilities of my skills.
- I couldn’t copy my soul.
- I couldn’t double any information within my soul.
- I couldn’t copy skills over to other people.
- I couldn’t create additional bones in my body.
- I couldn’t lower abilities below zero.
- I couldn’t lower skills below zero.
- I couldn’t lock my soul as it was.
- I couldn’t edit my bloodline.
- I couldn’t edit my species.
- I couldn’t take unique magics from another’s soul.
- I couldn’t create skills.
All of these things had once been possible, at least according to my magically granted knowledge, and all of them were now locked away, patched out, except in some specific corner of the world, or except for some singular person, and given how many exclusions I hadn’t been able to match to exclusion zones in the past, some things were just patched out without anyone even knowing about it.
I was still on the first part of the plan, observation, when I felt a second slap on my thigh, which meant four minutes had passed. When I looked to Essentialism, it was down to 102, which meant two minutes per point, better than I’d expected it would be.
When I looked to the lines away from my soul, I stopped and stared. There should have been four, three intact (Amaryllis, Fenn, Grak), one broken and waving in the wind (Valencia). Instead, there were eight. One was likely the Six-Eyed Doe, granted to me even without the loyalty for it, while the other two would belong to the other two as-yet unfound companions. The eighth wasn’t white, but black, thick and sinuous, utterly unlike the others.
I followed it.
Distance was meaningless in this place, but it took longer to get to the end. The line — cord really, bumped and gnarled like I thought of an umbilical cord being — grew thicker as I traced it back to its source, until the black stretched from horizon to horizon, and then beyond that, closing up over my head until I was just moving through a black void with only a vague sense of direction. It occurred to me that I should back out, that this was something dangerous, but I couldn’t stop myself. I literally couldn’t stop myself, even though I could think of no justification for continuing on.
The black switched to white in an instant, leaving me standing on solid ground with ambient white light all around me. I had a body again, and I patted it down briefly, confused as to what had happened. A body, made manifest within my soul? Or within someone else’s?
I noticed the other guy after I’d got my bearings. He appeared as though a mental block had been lifted that prevented me from seeing him. He was dressed in a dark grey hoodie that said “Mr. Dice Guy”, with blue jeans and sneakers that wouldn’t have had a place on Aerb. Mid-30s, a full beard, brown hair, blue eyes, a slightly crooked nose, and a wry smirk. It wasn’t just his clothes that spoke of Earth.
“Hullo Juniper,” he said with a smile. “I thought maybe it was time we had a chat.”