I got some awkward looks when I came into the common room. Everyone was seated around the large center table except for Valencia and myself. We didn’t have assigned seats, except for Grak and Solace, who needed special chairs to make it less awkward to sit at the table, but we did have places we normally sat. That defined order had been thrown out though; Fenn was sitting across from where she usually did, having given up her seat next to me. I sat down and tried not to look at Fenn. I assumed that she’d told them, or that maybe Bethel had, given that our house had surely heard everything.
Amaryllis cleared her throat. She’d changed out of her armor, and was wearing athletic clothing I thought she’d probably gotten from Earth. “We need to talk about next steps,” said Amaryllis.
“I’m not going with,” said Bethel. Her imperious form was in her usual (illusory) seat.
“I missed something?” I asked, grateful that the topic of conversation wasn’t on me and Fenn.
“Amaryllis would wish to wield me like a weapon, much as her ancestors did,” said Bethel.
“No,” said Amaryllis. “That’s not my intent at all. You’re a valuable member of this party, but if you’re stationary, then you have little input on whatever happens when we’re abroad, and we can’t make use of your considerable skills.”
“You could bring those people here,” said Bethel. “They would find a warm welcome in my domain, from how they’ve been described to me. And if they were lacking, then we would be better served where they could experience my might in a direct manner.”
“They wouldn’t allow it,” I said. “Sorry, I don’t really have a handle on the complete argument, but they have a warder, and that warder would take one look at you, then sound the warning and have everyone leave. Right?”
“Possibly,” said Grak. “The signature is unique. The magics are strong and readily apparent. Everett has some knowledge of the house’s power. He might balk. He did not seem entirely present.”
“So they’re allowed a magic fort and we’re not?” asked Fenn. “Lame.” Her voice sounded off. She was making an effort to talk, but I had little doubt she was in the same confused fog of emotion that I was. She didn’t sound like Fenn; she sounded like Fenn pretending at being Fenn.
“It would be best for us to meet on neutral ground,” said Amaryllis. “If they were going to attack, then it would be best for them to attack right when we returned, during the disorientation of our arrival. It’s what I would do. They may or may not know what method we’re using to cross the distance, and we can teleport in anywhere we have a worldline, but they’ll still have us at the advantage because we’ll be on their home turf.”
“You’re turning adversarial against them,” I said.
“I’m assuming the best and preparing for the worst,” said Amaryllis. “I think they have vital information, and I would like more than what we were able to get from our first round of conversation with them. The idea of the world ending two years from now, and the future being so uncertain that it could go from five to two so rapidly, should put a healthy fear into all of us.”
“It does,” I said. “But we’re going to need allies, and I pretty firmly believe that you don’t get allies by being shitty to them. They let us go as a gesture of goodwill, and replying to goodwill with a wary stance doesn’t help us.”
“What do you propose?” asked Amaryllis.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was thinking that I could tell them more. I could invite them to help solve some of our problems. I could explain the game interface and what we know about it, in case it helps to explain something unexplained about Uther and how he operated, or what happened to him.”
“Do we care?” asked Fenn, folding her arms. “Seems like we have better things to worry about than where he ran off to.”
“We care,” I said. “We care deeply. He left, and the problems stopped, or at least were stopped by outside parties. If we can get to the bottom of why he left, or even how he left, or what happened to him if he didn’t leave, then we can do an end run around all the other problems.”
“We need to look at it on a meta level,” said Amaryllis.
“I’m really not in the mood for narrative,” I said.
Amaryllis shifted in her seat. “It’s not necessarily about narrative,” she said. “If we take as a given that Juniper is cosmically significant, and all signs point to that being the truth, then we have to say that the same is likely true for Arthur, if only by extension. The question is whether our efforts should be focused on cosmically significant endeavors, or those that are simply a natural part of the world.”
“Assuming that we can distinguish between the two?” I asked.
“Yes,” nodded Amaryllis. “But we have your quests, which should provide some metric for us to go by.”
“I have a lot of quests,” I said. “I don’t think that they’re all necessarily cosmically significant, if that’s the term we’re using. There are too many enpersoned exclusion zones for them to all be meaningful, I think.”
“We could look at Uther’s life again,” said Grak. “We could take wisdom from what he did and did not do.”
“Or we could elect to assume that he did things wrong,” said Bethel.
“That was what I meant,” grumbled Grak.
“We don’t know enough,” I said. “We don’t even know if he was playing by the same rules. If we had different rules — I mean, it seems like we did, doesn’t it? His so-called Knack seems stronger than whatever you’d call the thing that I have.”
“Washater,” said Fenn, from across the table.
“And … what does that mean?” I asked. Step one of getting back on the right footing with Fenn was, after all, treating her more seriously. I had no idea how things were going to look between us going forward, but I could at least see the shape of things.
“Washater,” said Fenn. She seemed unaccountably annoyed that I’d asked. “Just an elven word that fits pretty well.” She paused slightly. “It means a system of rules, basically. I don’t think you’d want to call it a game.”
“No,” I said with a nod. “I don’t even really think that mentioning narrative is the right way to go. Maybe we could phrase it as a godly test? Both ‘game’ and ‘narrative’ seem trivializing to me.”
“That aside, narrative is the term that Arthur used,” said Valencia. “It’s in our best interests to make cleaving distinctions where we can. Juniper, you did very well when you pointed out that your companions were all sexually appealing to you.”
I frowned at her, but her look was the picture of innocence. “I’d rather not talk about that,” I said. “It makes me uncomfortable.”
“All companions?” asked Grak. He was speaking toward Valencia, but I noticed an eyebrow raised in my direction.
“A number of those across the table found the argument compelling,” said Valencia. “Their collective was formed in preparation for Uther’s return, in order to deal with him. You’re not what they expected. The more you can prove that you’re a different presentation of the same problem, the better. It probably wouldn’t hurt to simply hand them a stack of our notes on the differences between Arthur and Juniper.”
“We would have to scrub the notes,” said Amaryllis. “There are things we didn’t tell them, and we would want to stick with the sanitized version of events, unless there’s more that we want to reveal.”
“You’re still treating them as adversarial,” I said.
“Some of them are,” said Valencia. “I’m not entirely sure what O’kald, in particular, will do if the group rejects his call to violence. That’s also a problem because he’s likely to be their most difficult opponent for us to kill.”
“How long have you been channeling devils today?” asked Solace.
Valencia frowned. “I haven’t stopped for more than a few seconds at a time since we got to Speculation and Scrutiny,” said Valencia. “I don’t think that there are any side effects though.”
“You said that it takes an act of will to recognize that the preferred suggestions presented by your borrowed skillset might have moral consequences,” I said. “Even if there aren’t side effects, you’re still expending mental effort, and if you get worn down, the devil’s biases will start to come through more.”
“I don’t think she said anything too shocking,” said Amaryllis. “It’s a judgment of combat prowess, and important for us to take into consideration.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I worry,” added Solace, holding up a hand to show that she was willing to relent.
“We still need a plan for meeting with them tomorrow,” said Amaryllis. “Joon, you think we should do something approaching full disclosure?”
“Yes,” I said. “Maybe. I’d like to lay out some of the basics about the washater to them, and possibly ask them whether they know anything about the addictive power of the level ups. Either Uther had something similar and there might be some solution that they know, or it will help distinguish me as being different from him. Either way, I worry that I’m not that far from the next one, and if the problem has a solution, it’s something I want solved.”
“Sure,” said Amaryllis. “I’ll spend some of tonight making a proper presentation. Bethel, would it be acceptable for me to use the time chamber for that?” Her wording was careful, pointedly so.
“If you’d like,” nodded Bethel. “I have few compunctions about you taking advantage of it for brief personal matters. I should note that when the tuung are using it, you won’t be able make those quick trips in the same way.”
Amaryllis let out a sigh. “Yes, I figured as much,” she said. “And we’re a week away, though the Republic seems like a waste of time and resources if we’re going to be dealing with the end of the world in two years’ time.”
“We’ll save the world,” I said. “The library has always been wrong in the past. That’s kind of the point.”
Amaryllis nodded, but still seemed glum.
“I have a question,” said Solace. “We spoke before about those quests with cosmic significance and those without. It’s an issue I’d like to revisit.”
“Ah,” said Amaryllis.
“I was wondering which sort the quest to restore the locus was considered,” said Solace. Even when she wasn’t making much of an effort, Solace always sounded calm and understanding, so when she was actually trying, it was only like shifting a few gears up, not a change in general strategy. It was still noticeable.
I squirmed in my seat. Amaryllis saying ‘ah’ was much more understandable now that Solace had spelled it out.
“We don’t actually know how to solve that quest,” I said. “We don’t have any leads, you tried for years or decades to find those leads but came up short, and the only real option at this point seems to be leveling up again and hoping that I can unlock something else within the washater.”
“No,” said Solace. “You could attempt to increase loyalty.”
“That’s not something that I’ve had much success with in the past,” I said. “Pursuing loyalty with mercenary intent is sort of destructive to the process. Maybe I’m just bad at it, but that’s been my experience. I can try to maybe open myself to the possibility, but –”
“How much time have you spent in the bottle since we were reunited?” asked Solace.
“Not much,” I said. “Point taken. If you can get me in and out, then … I guess I’m going to need a new room anyway.”
“You are?” asked Grak.
“Why?” asked Amaryllis.
I looked between the two of them, then to Fenn. “Uh, Fenn and I … broke up.”
Amaryllis’ head whipped toward Valencia. “What did you do?” she asked.
“Wait,” I said. “She was really helpful, I thought. And Fenn didn’t tell you?”
“I didn’t want to make a big thing of it,” said Fenn. “I really didn’t want to have a group meeting about it.”
“She said that it could have gone better,” said Amaryllis. She looked back and forth between the two of us. “You broke up? I need some time to think about this.”
“We should leave them alone,” said Grak. “We’ve spoken enough for one night. We should save our voices.”
“It’s a shame,” said Solace. “I thought you made a wonderful couple. Very carefree.”
“That was part of the problem,” said Valencia.
“Was it –” Amaryllis began.
“It wasn’t sabotage,” said Valencia with a frown. “I know that’s not what you were going to ask, but it’s what you were thinking.”
“You were supposed to fix this distraction,” said Grak.
“Oh, sorry that our relationship is a distraction, gods forbid we have feelings,” said Fenn with a huff. “For what it’s worth, I was trying to keep things quiet so we didn’t have to have a big talk about it. And if that’s what we’re doing, then I should probably just go.”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “It’s not something that we should be talking about as a group anyway, I agree with that, but the timing of internal conflict is both unfortunate and suspicious.”
“Suspicious?” I asked. “You suspect narrative?”
“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “Regardless, there are a few other issues that we should discuss, and more detail we should go into with regards to the pros and cons of strategy. I’m planning to spend two days in the chamber to get things in order. Anyone can come in with me, if they’d like to combine our intellects, but I’m not sure that’s necessary, especially since the chamber still isn’t an ideal place to spend a few days, and time is a resource we need to conserve. I’d also like to do a group reading of Degenerate Cycles, if anyone else is interested.”
“We only have the one copy,” I said. I’d taken it from Heshnel, same as he’d taken the Monster Manual from me.
“I can make more,” said Bethel.
“Let me know what you find,” I said. “The idea of being in a cramped space for a handful of days doesn’t really appeal to me.”
“Me either,” said Fenn. There was a bit of hard edge to her voice. She was still angry with me, it seemed. I hadn’t expected her to change her mind at the drop of a hat, but I’d hoped that she’d be heartbroken, not pissed off.
“Then perhaps Juniper can spend the night with me in the bottle,” said Solace.
“Sure,” I said.
“There’s one last issue before we break,” said Amaryllis. “We need to talk about decision-making within the group.”
I pursed my lips, not liking the sound of that. “I’m sorry for what I did,” I said. “Things were happening fast, we didn’t have time to talk, and if I had concrete objections, or even weak objections, I should have raised them.”
“That’s appreciated,” said Amaryllis. “But I don’t think that it gets to the heart of the issue. The problems that we face appear, to me, to be ones regarding internal structure. A fireteam might take an informal poll, in order to gauge the wisdom of some course of action, but it’s also got an unambiguous leader and a clear chain of command. I think we need that. Sometimes time is tight, and it’s often the case that acting decisively in a suboptimal way is better than waiting, whatever plan you might come up with given the extra time.”
I frowned slightly. “Sure,” I said. “But that leaves the issue of who our group leader is.”
“It should depend on the needs of the individual mission,” said Amaryllis. “With a default to you if we haven’t planned for whatever mission we find ourselves on.”
“Me?” I asked, somewhat surprised. “I’d have thought that you’d pick yourself.”
“You’re strictly better than I am at a great deal of things,” said Amaryllis. “You also have access to information and resources that I’ll never have. If we were going into Anglecynn to retrieve something from the libraries there, it might make sense that I would be the one calling the shots, but absent a specific scenario, I think it makes the most sense for it to be you.”
“Juniper is worse at making dispassionate decisions,” said Valencia.
“I do not know if that matters,” said Grak. “Dispassion should not be our main criteria.”
“I would prefer decisions with a bit of emotion, speaking for myself,” said Solace.
“The only criteria should be the expected speed and correctness of decisions made,” I said. “And, obviously, no one should take the mantle of leadership if they don’t want it.” I glanced at Fenn when I said that, and she raised an eyebrow in my direction. “With that in mind, I’ll be the default if everyone wants me to, but I’m not actually sure that I’m the best choice. Ideally, we’d look at my successes and failures, and stack them up against Mary’s successes and failures, if we’re the two primary candidates.” I hesitated just a fraction. “Unless someone else wants to throw their hat in the ring.”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “I’m bowing out.”
I stared at her. “This had better not be about narrative,” I said.
Amaryllis shifted in her seat. “I don’t think I need to justify myself,” she replied.
“You do, if the reason that you’re doing this is that you’re worried the Dungeon Master doesn’t like you taking charge,” I said. “We’re not going to make decisions on the basis of what we think the Dungeon Master wants. I don’t think that he wants us to make choices that way.”
“So you’re ordering me to take charge?” asked Amaryllis.
“No,” I said with a sigh. “I just want to know that your reasoning is sound.”
“If there’s a specific instance where I think I’m better, I’ll gladly take the reins,” said Amaryllis. “As it stands, I think you have a stronger grasp of the fundamentals of our situation, and special knowledge that I can’t yet replicate. I’ve read a fair number of the source books you’ve used, but that’s not enough, especially not given how much inspiration Aerb takes from your own particular styles of play. Do you remember in the prison, when we came across those statues? You argued that it was a trap, and if I had been team leader then, I would have walked right into it even if you’d warned me.”
“That was a long time ago,” I said. “You know more now than you did then, and you trust me more. I hope.”
“Juniper, if you don’t want to be a leader, you can say that,” said Solace.
“No,” I said. I squared my shoulders. “I’ll take a position as default leader. I just want to make sure it’s for the right reasons.”
“Then that’s settled,” said Amaryllis.
“I want to know that if I say we should get out, I’ll be listened to,” said Fenn. There was something timorous in her voice.
“I will,” I said. “But just because I listen doesn’t mean that I’ll decide in favor of the course of action you suggest.”
“Fine,” said Fenn. She got up and left the room without saying another word.
“I’m hoping that’s not going to be a problem,” said Amaryllis.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
I spent the night in the bottle, and put some effort into getting to know the locus. My heart wasn’t really in it, and my presence was mostly to appease Solace.
“My uncle owned a horse,” I said. I was leaning against the locus, who was curled up and half-asleep. She felt warm, though not quite feverish, which was good, because the air was cool. Bethel had crafted an open-air patio for the bottle to sit in. It was held in a stylized bronze hand that jutted up from the sod surface, surrounded by greenery and rocks from Earth, and exposed to the light that fell on the Isle of Poran. From the inside, it almost made the bottle seem invisible, in a way that being set on the grass at the foothills of the Spine of the World didn’t. It was about the best environment for the locus’ domain to be in. I felt guilty for not having spent more time in the bottle, but Solace had the only easy way in, and Bethel was pretty adamant that we were living in her house, not in the house inside the bottle.
I missed Fenn. We’d been sleeping in the same bed since after Solace had been reborn, and I’d gotten used to feeling her next to me. The stars were out and it was late, but I was still up. I wasn’t sure whether the locus slept out of habit or because she needed to, but she was beside me, halfway nodding off. I was talking to her, not really trying to bond, but because I wanted a better therapist than Valencia had been. There was still a thought at the back of my mind that Valencia had sabotaged things, and while that might have been for noble reasons rather than selfish ones — well, no, I couldn’t think like that, because it wasn’t like I could actually have her prove her intentions to me.
“I could fight her, I guess,” I said. “She can’t do social manipulation and combat at the same time, so maybe I could fight her, and then ask her questions at the same time. If she didn’t sabotage us, then she’d probably never forgive me, but so far as I can see, that’s about the only way that I would ever know if she’d been trying to tear us apart. And obviously there’s some culpability on her part, because even if she was telling the truth that she wanted us together, she wasn’t willing to, I don’t know, let us have our stupid, unhappy relationship. It wasn’t actually that unhappy though.”
The locus snorted.
“Yeah,” I said, “My mind is wandering. I was going to tell you about my uncle’s horse.” I paused. “I don’t actually understand you, and I don’t know how much you can understand me. There was a play, maybe you’ve seen it, called The Star War, which was based off some movies from Earth, where I’m from. Anyway, there was this character, Chewbacca, and he’s a companion to this other character, Han, and some of the humor comes from the fact that Han is always responding to Chewie, but the audience is left to imagine what it was that Chewie said. They do that with R2D2 too. Anyway, that’s what I was doing, pretending that I knew what you meant as a kind of joke. I didn’t want to leave you out of the loop.”
The locus snorted again.
“Right, the horse,” I said. “Horses on Aerb are about how they are on Earth, but on Earth there isn’t a whole lot of competition. I mean, cars, sure, but historically, the horse was dominant. On Aerb, there are all kinds of animals you can ride, birds, lizards, turtles, wolves, moose, whatever I’d dreamed up or stolen from someplace else, or had to find some way to justify because someone wanted one in one of my games. You know?”
The locus was silent.
“So if you picture my uncle’s horse as being just a regular horse, you’re pretty much right,” I continued. “It wasn’t a giant, wild stallion or anything, it was just a horse kitted out in all the horse stuff, I don’t know, a bridle, saddle, reins, that sort of thing. My uncle thought I’d have a fun time learning to ride, and I didn’t want to back down just because the horse scared me. I think I’d heard one too many warnings about how I should stay the hell away from a horse’s back end because a single kick to the head could leave me braindead, and that message stuck a little more than my uncle had maybe intended.” I let out a breath. “So I was about ten or eleven or something, and I got up on this horse, and my uncle gave me a bunch of instructions that I don’t remember anymore, stuff about steering with my knees, and I was just scared out of my mind, and thinking that it was stupid for people to do this. How had the first people to ride horses done it? What intrepid soul had figured it out?” I thought about that for a moment. “Maybe that wasn’t how I thought about it at ten, but it’s how I think about it now.”
It was cold enough that I could see the fog of my breath. “Anyway, riding the horse was great. My uncle was leading it around and giving me instructions, and I thought, you know, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was having a good time. But when my uncle let go of the reins, the horse bolted. It started galloping as fast as it could go down the gravel road, and I was hanging on for dear life. We got a half mile away before my uncle came by with an ATV. The horse didn’t really have plans for me, he might have just been spooked, or wanted to run, or I just wasn’t controlling him how he was used to being controlled or something.”
I was fairly sure from the way the locus’ breathing had changed she was asleep.
“I mean, the parallels are pretty obvious,” I said. “Not that I’m calling Fenn a horse.”
Loyalty Increased: Six-Eyed Doe lvl 6!
I smiled at that. “But relationships, for me, are like riding a horse that first time was. Scary, but kind of exhilarating, and then the horse just decides to go its own direction, and I’m left clinging onto it, hoping that I’m not going to get thrown off. There’s not a Relationships skill, you know? There’s just loyalty, and I have no idea what the hell that’s tracking, because apparently people can still break up with you even if they’re very loyal to you. Which is good, I guess, in that it means loyalty isn’t mind control, or maybe just not that particular kind of mind control, but … I’ve got some really big questions about loyalty right now.”
The Six-Eyed Doe stood up, and I stood up too, because I had been leaning against her. She circled around, then leaned down in front of me, tipping slightly to press her flank against me. I touched her once, uncertain.
“You, uh,” I said. “You want me to ride you?”
She didn’t respond.
“Sure,” I said. “But I only ever had that one horse-riding experience, and swore them off after, so be gentle.”
I climbed up onto the locus’ back. Her pelt was soft to the touch, and she was making an effort to keep me centered. Riding the locus wasn’t something that I would probably have done in normal circumstances, but I felt a kind of energy in the air that came with a cold night. I was also riding a high from getting a loyalty point, but it wasn’t just the thrill of seeing the number go up, it was from having it go up from a joke. Most of the loyalty increases I’d seen had been from somber, serious things, or more lately, from me putting effort into not being a shit about things. It was nice to have a loyalty point from being silly.
The locus didn’t go terribly fast, which I appreciated. I had seen both Fenn and Val ride her before, and she’d gone at breakneck speeds for them, letting the wind whip their hair. For me, the Six-Eyed Doe moved at a gentle trot. It was good, except it was giving me too much time to think. There were too many people to deal with, and I couldn’t trust them all to be straightforward, not even Fenn anymore. Valencia could cloak whatever she was doing, and I couldn’t tell whether my paranoia was justified or not. Amaryllis was attempting to manipulate the narrative. And Fenn … I wasn’t giving her what she wanted, whether because I had failed as a boyfriend, or because it had been doomed from the start to be something brief.
“Faster,” I said.
The Six-Eyed Doe picked up the pace, stepping with preternatural grace and delicacy over rough terrain, which smoothed out the ride. I tried to use my knees to steer a bit, though given the intelligence of the locus, it was more like giving her a suggestion than anything else.
(I’d made a conscious choice to switch to thinking of the locus as a ‘her’, mostly out of mercenary interest in bringing us closer together. ‘It’ was impersonal. To my surprise, changing my internal narration did actually help a little bit.)
I tried to shut off my brain. I didn’t want to be thinking. Worldbuilding has always been my go-to for that, before Arthur had died, but after, there were too many reminders of him in everything I thought of, and the results were always twisted and cruel. Videogames had been a standby, but those weren’t really an option on Aerb. Everything else had been tainted with the memory of Arthur; he was the one that I talked with most about books and movies.
I managed it, somewhat, but as soon as I was in the moment, I was thrown right back out of it again.
Loyalty Increased: Six-Eyed Doe lvl 7!
That one I was a little less comfortable with. I probably should have turned as much of the HUD and notifications off as I could, if I was going to be with the locus. The thought that the locus enjoyed me losing myself in the moment as an escape from something approaching depression was … well, unsettling. Something had happened to Solace when she’d come back and been aged up, and I had no real choice but to hope that there hadn’t been any horrible changes in the process. The locus liking me more (or whatever loyalty was actually a proxy for) because I was seeking mindlessness as an escape didn’t really say too much that was good about the locus.
She could sense something had changed, and slowed down a bit, until she’d trotted back to the tree house where I was going to be spending the night. I was feeling a little bit ill, brought back down to reality by the game. It was tempting to blame everything that happened on the game, or on the Dungeon Master, but I had never been a terribly big believer in free will, and one of the ways of making sense of the world if you assumed there was no free will was to decide that it still mattered what you decided to do, even if everything was all predetermined.
“Sorry,” I said as I climbed down. “There’s just a lot going on up here right now.” I tapped the side of my head. “You helped, but the game — the washater — was being intrusive.”
My mind went back to the achievement I’d gotten, ‘Petite Mort’, and the other one I’d gotten a progress update on, ‘A Key For Seven Locks’. There were a lot of things about Aerb that made intuitive sense to me, things that had a clear cause and effect. Other stuff … not so much. Those achievements seemed scummy for the sake of being scummy, intrusive and invasive just to show me that my life wasn’t wholly my own. It was the Dungeon Master whispering in my ear, just a bit, saying, ‘this is a game’. What was the point though, especially when I’d already rejected that notion?
Solace had long since gone to bed, and I got into one of the cubbies, making sure not to pick the one that Fenn and I had slept in. I didn’t want to wake up to those sorts of memories.