I spent some time staring at her body, her corpse, the flesh that had contained her but now did not. It felt like the weight of her death settled on my shoulders and then stayed there, pressing me into place.
It probably wasn’t all that long, since Amaryllis moved over to Fenn and pointed the flickerblade at her forehead, making a hole using the brief appearance of the blade, then kneeling down to stick the runed spike into Fenn’s forehead. The soul was out moments later, and Amaryllis put it into a waiting bottle, which disappeared into Fenn’s glove the moment it was full.
“Heal Solace,” said Amaryllis.
“Give us some time,” said Solace. Her voice was soft.
“We don’t have time,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper, is the fix working?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I had to force the words out. “I don’t know how it works.”
“Body talks to the soul,” said Pallida. She was in the middle of stripping the fox Animalia of her effects. “Poison says to the body, hey, stop working, body says to the soul, hey, you suck, healer comes to heal the body and the soul says hey, the body is supposed to not work.” She looked over at us. “Devil’s tansy, usually you drink it,” she said. She slipped a bracelet off of Gemma’s wrist and onto her own, then dabbed at the blood by her mouth, looking at it for a moment. “Need that dejang, when you’ve got a moment, clock is ticking for the people inside.”
Amaryllis glanced at Valencia. “Opinion?” she asked.
Valencia nodded once. And what the fuck do you know? The thought came and went in an instant. I went back to staring at Fenn. I could feel Solace’s hand squeeze my shoulder.
Amaryllis tossed the spike to Pallida, who let the armor flow back around her as she turned and ran back inside.
“Heal Solace,” said Amaryllis, turning to me. She was still wearing the body of the dark-skinned man.
“I think it was airborne,” said Grak. “I put a ward for clean air around Solace and myself. It was as much as I could do before I blacked out.”
“Juniper, we all breathed it in, the crown purged it, but Solace needs her soul healed so her body can heal too,” said Amaryllis. She was gritting her teeth. “She’s my fucking daughter, heal her, now.”
“We don’t have a backup of her body,” said Grak.
“So fucking what,” said Amaryllis.
“When you’re ready, Juniper,” said Solace. Her voice was still soft and understanding, but hoarse, as though speaking took effort. The poison had been purged from her system by the crown, but it had done its damage, both to her physical self and her soul.
I looked away from Fenn, and knew that I wouldn’t be able to look back.
I placed my hand on Solace’s shoulder, with my thumb resting on her artery. Blood and skin were connections to the soul, pathways that you could use. I thought about checking Fenn for a pulse and finding nothing, touching her skin and finding it dead to my senses. I opened my eyes and looked at Solace. I was crying, and not doing anything to help her, but she just looked at me with pity and understanding.
I closed my eyes and tried again. This time I slipped into her soul with little effort on my part.
I replaced her body with the one I was using, the same dark-skinned human that had randomly been handed to me from our collection of souls. I was about to leave, the work having been done, when something caught my eye. Solace wasn’t a companion, she was just a person along for the ride, which meant that her soul didn’t have the helpful text and numerical markers that the others had. Instead, there was something that stuck out like a sore thumb: images. In places there were scenes of verdant green where abstract, hard-to-read blobs of raw information should have been. I’d only seen anything remotely similar in the locus’ own soul. I’d been in Solace’s soul before, and it hadn’t had these aberrations. They didn’t cover the whole of her soul, just bits and pieces.
I was distantly aware that I was in a soul trance as I looked things over and tried to work out what it all meant. My emotions were muted, and I could think a little bit more clearly, without the pressure of the real. I wondered, briefly, how many soul mages had died because they couldn’t pull themselves out of a soul. Then a picture caught my eye, and I looked at it more closely, curious.
The image was taking the place of a memory. You could go inside a memory and get the experience of it, I’d done that before, but this was something else entirely. The image was surrealist, stitched in with the surrounding network of nodes, a crantek woman giving birth by squatting, naked, in a wide field. Her feet melded with the grass, and her green hair stood up on end, reaching to the sky like branches. I couldn’t tell whether it was supposed to be a memory, a memory-equivalent, or something else, but it was clearly a piece of the locus.
What, exactly, had happened to Solace when she’d been aged up was a mystery, but it was the sort of mystery that I’d thought was just druidic weirdness, not actually anything to worry too much about.
I went looking for more of these images, not thinking that I would get much insight into who Solace was or what had happened to her, but not wanting to go back to the real world where I’d be faced with Fenn’s corpse.
I had been thinking about the soul of the locus the night before, and what it might actually mean. My assumption, from the moment I had seen it, was that the soul of the locus was like all the others I had seen, a barely disguised database of information. The difference with the locus was that there was interpretative art overlaid on top of it, either cloaking what was beneath, or interpreting it.
The more I looked at Solace’s soul, the more I thought that I might have been wrong. To say that the locus must necessarily be, at its root level, reducible to raw data seemed like it was a very Juniper way of looking at things, and perhaps the lesson that was intended to be drawn from the locus was —
I was yanked out of Solace’s soul as we broke contact. I had to look at the armor to confirm that it was Amaryllis, since we were all wearing the same face now.
The feeling of loss hit me a moment later, and my eyes went to the place where Fenn was laying, only to find her gone. The grass was flattened, and there was a small spot of blood where her head had been, but there was nothing else. I sank down slightly. Amaryllis would have put the body into the glove then.
“Juniper,” said Amaryllis. “Are you okay?” Her voice had lost its edge. I wasn’t sure how long I had been in, but it had been long enough for her to cool down.
“No,” I said. I looked around, trying to find — something. Some idiot part of my brain was probably still playing catch-up, and thought that Fenn should be standing next to me.
Pallida was standing next to Heshnel. The left side of his face was a Cronenberg horror of pulsating flesh. The eye was the size of an apple, misshapen and with a pupil that was split, like a goat’s. Around the eye were fleshy ridges and bits that hung down, nearly resembling tentacles, wet with something viscous. That aside, he looked no worse for the wear.
Beside them, Gemma was back on her feet, her fur still white. That wasn’t the only change to her. She had sagging skin, and her paws, which held her swords, had that skeletal look of the elderly. She looked like she had aged a hundred years.
“You have Essentialism boosted,” Amaryllis said to me. “We’d like our bodies back.”
“Yeah,” I said. I was still feeling too shocked to do much of anything. Thinking seemed like it would take a Herculean effort. I had tears in my eyes and a tightness in my throat. “The bottles –”
Amaryllis held a bottle forward, labeled with her name. I took it from her. I felt like I wasn’t really there, moving my body like a puppet, or maybe underwater. I uncorked the bottle and let the soul fall into my hand.
Fenn was dead.
I let out a choking sob as my breath caught, then dived down into my soul.
It was better in there, easier to think, if harder to think about the real world. Fenn’s line was absent, the connection we shared completely gone, but I picked out the one belonging to Amaryllis without breaking down into tears. I followed the line to her soul, until I was staring at the body I’d given her. It took some time and effort to link in to the soul in my hand, but I managed it all the same, and from there, the swap was easy enough.
I distantly felt someone manipulating my hand, touching me firmly enough that I could feel it through the soul trance, and manipulated the new soul that had been pressed into my hand. It was Grak’s, fast enough to replace, his soul’s version of his body replaced a second time in the span of minutes, this time with his body as it had been months ago. I stared at him for a moment, tempted to go looking deeper into his soul, but backed away and into my own instead.
I was waiting there, looking at the skills I’d decimated, when the third soul of our batch was placed into my hand. I swapped my own body back in. That was all I was really there to accomplish. It was time for me to leave.
One of the interesting things about the soul was that attributes stayed static even when the body changed. If I’d given myself the body of a child, I’d have still had the same attributes, at least according to my soul. The differences in how I would actually move through the world were handled by other game systems, either Afflictions or some other, less game-like mechanism. It seemed as though there was probably some way to break the system, given what I knew about it. Logically, if stats were independent from physical reality, or only loosely connected, then there were probably some benefits to minmaxing. When Reimer played gnomes, he almost always made them as short and light as the rules would allow for, on the thinking that he was going to be small no matter what, and optimizing for situations where being small was helpful made the most sense. Contrarily, whenever he played an orc, he made them heavy and muscular, and usually tall to boot, though there were obvious concerns about being too tall to move through doorways or fight in confined quarters.
I stared at my body. I was taller than I’d been on Earth, more handsome, and far more muscular. I’d worried that increasing PHY might be a path toward eventually looking cartoonish, but the game apparently cared about personal aesthetics, and had stopped me from becoming grotesque. I looked like I had always imagined myself to look, in a world where I had been motivated enough to go to the gym. My friend Colin was our high school’s star wrestler, and he’d kept encouraging me to join, mostly because he was the only real geek on the wrestling team. I sometimes thought about what I might have looked like if I’d taken him up on the offer and seen it through, and never in my wildest dreams had I thought that I would have the body that I did.
There were interesting wrinkles in how things worked for me, compared to how they seemed to work for everyone else, but as I let my mind drift to those things, safe from thinking about the real world, I could feel my mouth being forced open. Reluctantly, I drew away from my soul.
“Oh,” said Amaryllis. She was staring at me. She was back to her old body, almost a full year younger, the body she’d had before having a child. She held a fairy in her hand, which she was in the process of forcing into my mouth. “We need you to stay out.”
“Mental afflictions,” said Grak. “They’re the price of purging the poison.”
“Okay,” I said. My eyes went to the spot where Fenn had been laying. I hated feeling like this. I wanted to retreat back into my soul, where emotion was muted and I could focus on something other than what had happened.
“I think mine is aggression or possibly impulse control,” said Amaryllis. “I’m dealing with it. They should burn out, given time. They’re supposed to.” Her voice was firm and calm, forcibly so, tight and controlled. “We need to know what it is you got.”
“Uh,” I said. The soul trance was like getting thrust forward into the future, minutes passing like seconds. Things had changed around me. Solace, now the dark-skinned man, was standing with her cape behind her, watching the three surviving members of Heshnel’s group. The tip of her staff was dug into the ground, and the top of it had been changed so the wood interlocked with her hand. Useless druidic bullshit, no doubt. “I don’t know.”
“Dissociation?” asked Amaryllis. “We should have gotten a list of possibilities from Bethel.”
“She’s dead,” I said. Fenn. “I … I don’t know how we’re going to bring her back.”
The ritual of Yaxukasu Axud we’d used to bring Solace back wasn’t going to work. The person performing the ritual had to be a druid, and the soul to be reborn needed a druidic connection as well. We had faked the first half of the requirements for Solace’s rebirth, but for Fenn … I didn’t know how I would stitch a druidic connection into her soul. If I could have done that, I could have made more druids. It seemed hopeless even before taking into account the quest message I’d gotten when Solace had been born. If another of your party members dies, don’t expect it to be so easy.
I found my hands curled into tight fists, squeezing my thumbs so hard it was painful. The Dungeon Master had let this happen. He had probably known it would when he gave me that message. He had nudged things into place so that Fenn would die.
“Breathe,” said Solace, placing a hand on my arm.
I let out a shaky breath and tried to refocus myself. I found myself burning WIS in order to get some semblance of balance, but while it helped, I still felt like a piece of me had been ripped out.
Skill increased: Bone Magic lvl 30!
I ignored the message. New levels, new powers, more game bullshit that did nothing good for me. Amaryllis had already made her predictions about what all my skills would give me at their higher levels, cross-referenced with historical notes. Level 30 was either social attributes, luck, or special powers like the one I could already sense was lodged in the unicorn bones. It all seemed like meaningless faff to me.
“Juniper?” asked Amaryllis. Her voice was too controlled to sound comforting. “Does the game tell you that you have a new affliction?”
“Don’t know,” I said. “There wasn’t a pop up.” I’d gotten a small handful of notifications during the battle, but the only ones I’d paid any attention to were the ‘defeated’ messages that let me know who was out of the picture.
“It would have come from the crown,” said Amaryllis. “It would have been a handful of minutes ago.”
“No,” I said. “Nothing.”
“Check the list?” asked Amaryllis.
“I — yeah,” I said. I barely ever looked at the screen behind my eyes anymore, in the same way that I almost never looked at the HUD. It was so easy to fall into patterns, to ignore the things in front of you because they’d fallen into the background of your existence. My mind turned to Fenn without any conscious effort on my part. I had thought, after our disastrous therapy session, that we might find our way back together, because I really did love her, I had just done a poor job of paying attention to her and a worse job of understanding her. I let myself become accustomed to things far too easily, and taken them for granted.
“Juniper?” asked Amaryllis.
I closed my eyes and counted out three seconds, then flipped through the screens. I stopped when I got to the Companions section. Fenn was missing from it, her name, biography, and perks all completely gone, as though she’d never been there. My breath caught on seeing that, and I continued on to quests, to find that her companion quest had been silently scrubbed too, without so much as a greying out. It was like Fenn had never existed, so far as the game was concerned.
My teeth were clenched as I moved on to Afflictions. There, at the bottom, were not one, but two new entries.
Griefstricken (MEN -1, SOC -2)
The afflictions had always been light on words, and these were no exceptions.
“Bad dreams,” I said as I opened my eyes. I was feeling ill. My heart was beating too fast and I’d broken out in a cold sweat. “I need to lay down.”
“Bad dreams?” asked Amaryllis. “That’s it?”
“That was all it said,” I replied. I sat down in the grass, hunched over slightly. “We’re going to have to bring her back to life.”
“Are we meant to?” asked Grak.
“No,” I replied. “I don’t know. No quest.” That didn’t mean anything. It might have been a test. I hadn’t been fond of tests like that, as a DM, saying that something was impossible as a way of issuing a challenge, but the Dungeon Master wasn’t literally me, he was just borrowing my sensibilities. “I don’t know,” I repeated. “Maybe.”
“We should go,” said Amaryllis.
“Wait,” said Pallida. The three of them had been standing off to the side, giving us space but not so far away that they couldn’t make out our conversation. “We need to talk.”
“Fuck off,” I said. I wasn’t angry with her, I just wanted her to go away. I needed time, time to think, time to plan, time to grieve, or maybe just figure things out. My heart was beating too fast.
Pallida knelt down, laying her spear across her knee. “Juniper Smith, I pledge my life to you, from now until the moment I die, by the sacred power of my eternal soul.”
“Fine,” I said.
“Can you pilot that thing to the Isle of Poran?” asked Amaryllis. “Meet us there tomorrow, at the big house. You’ll know it when you see it. We’re leaving. Bring all the entads and material wealth you can.”
“Okay,” said Pallida. “For what it’s worth –”
“If you’re about to say that you’re sorry,” I began. “If you’re about to say that you lost people too. Whatever it was, I don’t want to hear it.” After Arthur had died, there were so many things people said to me that I hadn’t wanted to hear. I had been too much of a cynic to hear the kindness in their words. Now, I was right back where I had been, not able to deal with whatever trite condolences or explanation Pallida might offer.
“Yeah,” said Pallida. “Okay. We’ll meet you.”
We came down into the teleportation room with a flash of pain that was almost welcome, given how it crowded out my other thoughts.
“A pleasant trip?” asked Bethel as she looked us over.
“Fenn is dead,” said Valencia. Her voice had taken on some of the same hollowness that I was sure my own had, and I couldn’t stop myself from wondering whether it was faked or genuine. Val would know what I was thinking and feeling toward her, I was certain of that, especially since I didn’t have the wherewithal to hide it.
“A shame,” said Bethel with a raised eyebrow. “I had liked her.”
“She would have lived if you had been there,” said Amaryllis, gritting her teeth.
“I would need to hear the specifics to know for certain whether that’s true,” said Bethel.
“Evil triumphs when good men do nothing,” said Amaryllis.
“Do you think to sway me with Utherian platitudes?” asked Bethel.
“She died and if you had been there, she would have lived,” said Amaryllis. She was clenching her fists. I had no idea what she expected she could actually do against Bethel.
“I am not a weapon for you to wield, Penndraig,” said Bethel.
“Would it be too much to ask for you to be a fucking friend then?” asked Amaryllis.
“Stop,” said Valencia. “Mary, you’re compromised right now, it’s better that you don’t say anything. Bethel, do you know how long the mental affliction of the crown lasts?”
“What happened, precisely?” asked Bethel. Her eyes moved to Solace. “Ah, is that Solace?”
“We were poisoned,” said Valencia. “Everyone used the crown. We need to know how long the affliction lasts.”
“A week or two, perhaps more,” said Bethel. “In my experiments, the afflictions faded with time. May I inquire as to the poison?”
“Devil’s tansy,” said Valencia.
“Ah,” said Bethel. “Particularly offensive, that one. Did it affect you?”
“I had the crown on,” said Valencia. “I think the purely physical side of it would have gotten me if I hadn’t.” She looked over at me. “I was willing to give my life for you. You shouldn’t have handed it back.”
I couldn’t formulate a response. The whole fight had been a confusing blur, too many people doing too many things for me to track them all at once, too many unknown magics, or effects that I could only guess at, unclear loyalties and independent strategies. It had ended with Fenn dead. Or, no, it had ended with Fenn down on the ground, but not dead then, only dead because I had pulled her out last. It had seemed sensible at the time, prioritize the healer so she could cure the poison, grab Grak because they were next to each other, grab Amaryllis because Valencia was struggling with her and she was already halfway out, and then Fenn … well, she was last, and she died for it.
“I need time,” I said. “A few days, a week, I won’t be useful until then.” I glanced at Amaryllis. “I know there’s work to be done, I know that, but I need to get my head back on, and –”
“Use the chamber,” said Amaryllis. “We probably all should, to purge the afflictions.”
I didn’t want to spend time in the cramped time chamber with Amaryllis again, even if it could be made larger. It seemed like it would take an overwhelming amount of effort to explain or articulate that. Amaryllis wasn’t to blame for Fenn being dead, but I still didn’t want to be around her. She would be talking about plots and plans, pushing herself past whatever emotions she was feeling, maybe even editing her soul to wipe away the traces of Fenn … and I couldn’t spend a week with her, not if she was going to be Amaryllis.
“Juniper and I will take the first shift,” said Grak.
“We shouldn’t do shifts,” said Amaryllis. “The four of us should go together to conserve our remaining time.”
“No,” said Valencia. “It’s better that the two of them go together.”
Amaryllis frowned, but nodded fractionally.
“Before they do, Juniper, I’m sorry, I fucked up,” said Valencia. Her voice was small. “I shouldn’t have pushed on O’kald, I should have seen it coming sooner, I shouldn’t have even tried to be something that I couldn’t for you and Fenn, I’ve been pushed up to the frontlines because of what I can do and I keep failing at things that I shouldn’t be failing at, and there’s no excuse for it, but –”
“Take the devil out,” I said. I could hear the lack of affect in my voice. I’d been drained of emotion, wrung out beyond simply the urge to sit and cry.
“I can’t,” said Valencia. Her voice was nearly a whimper. “If I did we would fight, and I wouldn’t be able to defend myself. I know you’re angry with me, that you don’t trust or believe me, but –”
“Fine,” I said. “Whatever.”
“Talk to me when you get out,” said Valencia. Her voice was desperate, pleading. “Write me a letter if that’s easier.”
I wasn’t sure how calculated that was, and didn’t feel like taking the time to think about it. Writing letters just left me thinking about Fenn again.
Bethel’s incorporation of the Anyblade meant that she could designate any room in the house as the time chamber. Because the accrual of time was linked to the size of the chamber, she typically alternated between designating an enormous ballroom as the time chamber when it wasn’t in use, or vesting it in any one of a set of smaller, purpose-built rooms.
The room that Grak and I had was small, but it had been purpose-built for a two person confinement. We had a small common room with little nooks for each of us off to the side, and with the glove, we could rearrange it to our liking. The bedrooms had bunks, with wards Bethel had put up to block out light and sound, Grak on the top, and myself on the bottom. Unlike the original time chamber, we had a working bathroom with actual plumbing. It was all still entirely self-contained, but the septic system was an actual septic system, with swappable tanks hidden beneath the floorboards, rather than a glorified bucket that we took in and out of the glove.
I climbed into the top bunk and laid there for a bit, crying.
When Arthur had died, it had come in waves. I’d feel empty and lost, which would spiral into this tight feeling in my chest, and that would always lead to tears. It was only rarely wracking sobs. Usually I just sat there with tears rolling down my cheeks while I stared at the wall. I would think about how much I missed him, or how unfair his death was, or all the ways that I’d been a shitty friend to him. My mind kept going back to the fact that the world would probably have been better off if I had died in his place. Once I was done with the self-flagellation, I would go back to feeling hollow, and the cycle would repeat itself.
Fenn had been the best part of my time on Aerb, and for all the wrong reasons. She’d been funny in a way that the others weren’t, always ready to add levity to the proceedings, easy-going and down to earth, chipper and fun. I’d taken it all for granted. I’d kept her in that mold even when she’d been trying to grow beyond it. I’d failed her, and it had all been laid bare for me the day before, in her own words, and now she was gone.
I had enough experience with grief that I could see the cycles. Self-loathing, longing, despair, purposelessness, a circling through vast terrain with familiar landmarks, the cycles were plain to see, but I felt powerless to stop myself.
I wondered if, in a few years, my conception of Fenn would be as white-washed as much as my conception of Arthur had been. Fenn had her hard edges and imperfections. I hadn’t paid it much attention at the time, but when we’d been on the Down and Out, she’d called the owner a weirdo birdfucker because his wife was Animalia. We’d had more important things to deal with, but it had stuck with me. I’d never asked her about it. With Arthur, maybe I had smoothed away his rough edges some because it was painful to think of him as being less than perfect, or because I had felt like garbage because I was a terrible friend to him. The revisionist history was motivated. Uther was a completely different person from Arthur, put under incredible stresses and through extraordinary events, but it had taken seeing Uther’s dark side for me to start on a reconstruction who Arthur had actually been. He was just a person, mostly, however much he’d changed on Aerb.
I didn’t want to do that with Fenn. Thinking of her as a perfect person would have diminished her and turned her into something false. She had — my breath caught at the past tense, even after hours sitting in my bunk thinking about her and the fact that she was dead — she had spent a large portion of her life as a scavenger, breaking imperial law to steal from the dead. She’d gone to prison for it, and the only reason we’d met was that she had been roped into it by Anglecynn’s dysfunctional government. She was quick to violence and had a callous disregard for people she didn’t know.
I had loved her.
And it wasn’t even that I had been blind to her faults. I had, for the most part, loved those too. She was a reflection of me, in a few ways, including some of my worst impulses, and seeing those in her was affirming. She had a “shoot first and ask questions later” policy that was grounded more in not wanting to deal with assholes than anything pragmatic. I was sure that her time as a scavenger and outlaw, not to mention in prison, had given her some of that callousness, but it appealed to me, even though I knew it shouldn’t. There were times when she said exactly what I was thinking, even if it was nothing that I would actually have said out loud.
Even the weirdo birdfucker line was something that had been at the back of my head. People were free to consort with whoever they wanted, I did believe that, but a bog standard human deciding to have sex with something that looked way too much like a bird still tripped my weirdness sensors. I wouldn’t have said anything about it, and I didn’t think that Fenn should have, but it was true to my experience.
There was probably something to be said about the way the oppressed took on the views of the oppressors, which probably shaped Fenn’s own view of deviancy. She didn’t have half-elf friends, and part of that must have been that she looked at other half-elves the same way she looked at herself, which was, in turn, the same way that the fucked up society of Anglecynn had looked at her. She was half-caste, essentially, but that didn’t give her solidarity with other half-caste, it made her dislike them in the same ways that she disliked herself.
I realized, slowly, that I was doing more thinking about Fenn than I’d done through most of our time together, and began crying again, because I loved her and missed her, and wanted her back so I could say all the things that I should have said to her when she was alive. Why hadn’t we had some long, intellectual conversation about racism? The obvious answers were that I didn’t take her seriously and I didn’t value her in that way, at least not enough. Too much of our conversations with each other had been me giving exposition, because that was something I liked to do, and while I listened to her, I didn’t listen nearly well enough.
I might have stayed in bed for days if my bladder hadn’t gotten the best of me. I climbed down from my bunk, took off the armor I hadn’t bothered to remove, and made my way into the cramped, multi-functional room that served all the primary functions of a bathroom. I pulled a glass down from the medicine cabinet and drank long gulps from it, then a second one after the first was done. My head wasn’t in the right place if I was forgetting about basic biological function. One of the things my therapist had said after Arthur died was that ignoring physical need would only make things worse. I had ignored her, but she had been right. When I closed the cabinet, I stared into the mirror Bethel had placed. I looked haggard, and my eyes were puffy. I needed to shave, too. I wiped at my face, then splashed it with some cold water. That didn’t do much to help.
When I came out of the bathroom, Grak was waiting for me.
“Come,” he said. “I’ve made dinner.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said. That was an understatement. I felt like I was never going to eat again. “Sorry.”
“Eat,” said Grak. “It’s stew. You will feel better.”
“I won’t,” I said. “I’ll force it down and not feel anything.”
“You won’t feel worse then,” said Grak.
“Okay,” I nodded. I went with him into the common room, where a table with chairs was waiting for us. Two bowls of stew were sitting on a table that had been fully set. A small pot of flowers sat in the center of the table for ambiance. The common room had a lot of plants under grow lights, partly to help with our oxygen needs, partly for food, and partly for decoration. It made me feel a little better. Bethel had done as much with the constrained design as she could, and the place felt naturalistic in a way the previous time chamber had felt utilitarian.
“After dinner I will teach you the game of Ranks,” said Grak as he began eating.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m … not really sure I’m up for that.” I still had that hollow feeling, and it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. Television I could probably handle, so long as it was something that didn’t take too much attention.
“We will play,” said Grak.
“Is this your idea of helping?” I asked. I tried to keep the bitterness from my voice. I’d had a lot of people try to help me with my grief.
“Not helping you,” said Grak. “Helping me.”
“Ah,” I said. I took my first mouthful of stew. It was mostly vegetables, with a few chunks of some gamey meat that tasted like venison. Grak hardly ever cooked. I was surprised that he’d made something good.
“There is no pleasure in Ranks,” said Grak. “There is thought. It turns the mind from sorrow.”
“I’m not sure that I can give you what you want,” I said. “I’m going to be terrible at it.”
“I know,” said Grak. He ate another bite of stew, chewing it down with quick motions of his flat teeth. “The distraction will be in teaching you.”
I stared down at my stew. After Arthur had died, I’d fucked things up. One of the ways I’d fucked things up had been by pushing people away, and laying claim to grief at the expense of everyone else. Tiff had tried to tell me that she was in pain, and I had brushed her aside, telling her that it was nothing compared to what I felt. That was a dick move, no matter what I’d been feeling, or how much I needed to say it so I could not hate myself.
“Tell me about her,” I said.
“Fenn?” asked Grak. I looked up from my stew and actually took stock of him. It was less obvious than it had been on my own face in the mirror, but he’d been crying too.
“We should have a funeral,” I said. “Trade stories. Talk about her. Remember her.” I frowned and held back tears. “Temporary, of course, I mean we’ll figure out a way to bring her back, obviously. But before that, yeah, tell me about her. About Fenn.”
“Hrm,” said Grak. “We talked, sometimes, about our species.”
I furrowed my brow slightly at that. Fenn had never mentioned it. “About … their relationship with each other? Or?”
“No,” said Grak. “Our species have little relationship. The dwarves live underground and keep to themselves. The elves have small populations. They never hunted us for sport or ate us alive.” He grunted slightly. “No, we talked about not being human. There are small things. You would not understand.”
I ate more of the stew. He was probably right. “Can you try to explain?” I asked.
“She told me that it was hard to find clothes,” said Grak. “Most didn’t fit her. She was too slender, too tall, unless she wore men’s clothing. She wore bespoke, when she could, but bespoke clothing cost money she didn’t always have. She was a terrible seamstress. I don’t know if you knew that.”
“I didn’t,” I said. I tried to slot that into what I knew about Fenn. Aside from the time she’d worn her black dress on our single actual date together, I had barely taken any notice of her clothes. “She made changes to her clothes?”
“She tried,” said Grak. “I did some of them for her.”
“You … sewed some of her clothes?” I asked. How did I not know that?
“I helped with alterations,” said Grak, nodding. “She was a very long woman. When we met in Barren Jewel, she had three outfits to her name. One was issued by her captors. The other two were stolen. None were flattering.”
“I … don’t think I agree,” I said. “I liked the way she looked.”
“She said you had bad taste,” said Grak.
“Oh,” I said. I felt crestfallen. Not that I thought I had a good eye for clothes, because I surely didn’t, but Fenn thinking less of me hurt.
“She made jokes,” said Grak. He put down his fork. “She said that you liked anything that suggested nudity. It did not matter to you that her clothes didn’t fit right if you could see her legs.”
I set down my fork and closed my eyes, breathing through my nose and trying to find my balance.
“She loved you,” said Grak. I opened my eyes to look at him. “She liked the unvarnished way you saw her.”
“She liked that I didn’t see her as a half-elf,” I said. “Or that I didn’t only see her as that. There was all this stuff that I was ignorant about, and even when I wasn’t ignorant anymore, I didn’t care about any of it, because it was dumb social stuff that obviously didn’t apply to her.”
“I didn’t feel the same way when we met,” said Grak. He pursed his lips. “It took some time for her to win me over.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “You had some … prejudices?”
Grak ate more of his stew. “Amaryllis and I do not see eye to eye,” he finally said.
“Sorry,” I said. “Can we switch to Groglir?”
“Certainly,” said Grak, making the switch effortlessly. “Will you be able to keep up if I speak at a normal pace?”
“Maybe,” I said. “No big words.” I was feeling better, despite myself, a combination of food and conversation helping to keep the waiting grief at bay, at least for the time being. I had a stack of old letters from Fenn, and I was going to read through them again someday, but I thought they would give me the same feeling that I was getting from this conversation, not just the inevitable sadness over her death, which was naturally there, but an appreciation for who she had been.
“Half-breeds lie between worlds,” said Grak. “It is their nature. There are good cases and bad for that, but overwhelmingly, we see more of the bad cases than the good. When I saw Fenn, it was as a woman drifting from place to place. She had no proper home to call her own. My father … he used to say that our cultures were time-tested. All the old species had their places in the world, and woe betide any who tried something new. There were times I believed it. When I met her …” He was picking his words with care, slowing down in a language that was usually much faster for him. “I didn’t think highly of her, at first. She was antagonistic. I knew few elves, but of course there are stories, and she fit the mold too well. Arrogant, flippant, unconcerned with others, consumed by her own perfection. It was partly misreading, partly not. Her better qualities didn’t shine through for some time. When they finally did, she became one of the few people I ever called friend.”
“She was easy to be around,” I said. That was part of what our fight had been about. It gave me a feeling like a punch to the gut. The blow was softened somewhat by saying it in Groglir.
“She was megi,” said Grak.
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t know that one.”
“Hard to explain,” said Grak, switching back to Anglish. “Honest.”
“Fenn?” I asked. She had been a lot of things, but honest wasn’t anywhere near the top of the list.
“Forthright,” said Grak. “Blunt, at times. She spoke her mind often, without … hrm.”
“Filters?” I asked.
“Yes,” nodded Grak. He raised his hand and made a so-so gesture. “I think you understand.”
Skill unlocked: Language!
There was always something primal about the skill ups, a raw hit of dopamine that came with a sudden, concrete change in my ability. I didn’t think that was anything the game had done, not directly; I’d had the same experience playing videogames when I got achievements or leveled up. The earlier feeling I’d gotten from the Bone Magic skill up had been more muted, but this was a whole new skill unlocking, and one that I had spent enough time on that I was passably bad at speaking Groglir even without it.
I felt shame at the small spike of pleasure slipping through my grief.
“I finally unlocked Language,” I said, tapping my temple. My Groglir was perfect. Whatever had happened, the entire language had been laid bare for me. I knew words like ‘didil’ and ‘rekohon’, words that Grak had never taught me. The knowledge seemed like it had always been there. “One moment.” I closed my eyes for a moment and paged to the skill. It was at 2, which I assumed was meant to represent Anglish and Groglir. Ideally the next few languages would come faster now that I had the skill unlocked. If not, the jump from barely fluent to full fluency seemed like a very minor perk.
“Auspicious timing,” said Grak.
“Yes,” I said with a nod. “The washater is trying to cheer me up. Not really helping.”
“It is appropriate to take joy in a gift, even in foul times,” said Grak. He was still speaking in Groglir. It was weird: I could hear that he was speaking the language, and that I was responding in kind, but there was practically no resistance in switching between the two. “It’s difficult, sometimes,” he added. “Impossible, even.”
“Do you know me that well?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Grak. “We are alike.”
I nodded as I chewed on that thought. Grak bore the weight of a burden that he couldn’t discharge, not until he’d paid his penance. He’d devoted himself to a task that no one had asked of him, as single-mindedly as could be expected, and I wasn’t entirely sure that I really understood, not when there were cultural, social, and maybe even racial differences in play. But if I did understand, then the impossible task was a way of living with himself, a way of keeping the memory of his dwarfhold alive and devoting himself to them. Under a certain kind of lens, I had maybe done the same when Arthur had died. I’d been depressed and angry and a complete dick to a lot of people, but at least some of that was because I felt like it was required of me. The term Arthur would have used was ‘performative’, or maybe ‘virtue signaling’.
“I don’t want to do that with her,” I said. “With Fenn. I don’t want to wrap myself in the dark feelings.” I found myself crying. For whatever reason, I wished that Grak couldn’t see me, even though it was probably obvious from the way that crying warped my voice. “I don’t want to break down, she wouldn’t want me to, but it’s just so … so hard to think about being happy.”
“I know,” said Grak. “It feels like betrayal.” He wiped away a tear of his own. “Think about what she would have wanted.”
That line of thinking had never helped me with Arthur. Whenever I tried to imagine what he would want, all I could think about was how sad he would be about being dead for a dumb reason at the age of seventeen. And with Fenn …
“She would want to be alive,” I said. It was almost a joke. “She would put her hands on her hips and say … something witty. Or maybe not even witty, but a joke, because that was how she dealt with things.” My mind went back to the therapy session. “She was more than that.” I wasn’t sure if I was saying that for Grak’s benefit or for my own.
“She would order you to wait a week before getting another girlfriend,” said Grak.
I looked at him, wanting to object, but when I thought about something like that coming out of Fenn’s mouth … yeah, it seemed to fit. I let out a perfunctory laugh. “She would threaten to haunt me. She would say …” but I trailed off, because all the things I could think of Fenn saying were serious things, pieces of unfinished business she would want me to finish, or desperate pleas for me to somehow save her. She had a son out there, somewhere, and I didn’t know what, if anything, she’d want me to do about that. She had a whole community of elves on the Isle of Eversummer that she wanted dead, but I didn’t know what to do about that either.
“She would give you instructions,” said Grak. “Flippant ones. ‘Put your shoe on your head every third morning, so I know that you’re remembering me.’” It might have been because he was speaking in his native tongue, but Grak’s impression wasn’t actually that bad. He at least caught some of the intonation.
“I would do it,” I said. “It would be stupid, but I would do it.” I was silent for a bit. “I miss her. I miss her so much already and it’s hardly been any time at all, and I feel like there’s nothing that could ever replace the gap she left in my heart.”
Grak nodded. “It’s possible that your heart will always have a gap,” he said. He clenched his teeth for a moment. “I’m a bad person to be speaking with. I can’t give you good advice.”
“Thank you,” I said. “For coming in. For dinner, for being here, for … trying, at least.”
Grak shrugged. “We’re friends,” he said.
The game of Ranks was played on grids of various sizes, but the most common was sixteen by sixteen. The pieces were usually rounded stones, different minerals or colors to mark the different pieces, or sometimes different shapes.
The game, such as it was, consisted of a gamesmaster setting up a set of rules, and the players attempting to find the best solution given both the rules the gamesmaster had selected and the criteria that the gamesmaster had set. Every player had their own board; it wasn’t a cooperative game, and the aspects of competition seemed like they were there mostly because all the players were playing the game at the same time. There were scores, since that was the whole point, but it was at least partly a test of self rather than a test against others.
Grak held no illusions that I would be able to compete against him. Instead, he acted as gamesmaster, putting forward some example games for me.
I didn’t really want to play.
Back when Arthur had died, —
(I wished that I had some other frame of reference. Things had been complicated with Arthur, and they were more complicated now on Aerb. There was too much history of him, and he’d had too much of an impact as Uther, all added to the fact that he had either lived a second life and then died a second time, or had never fully died at all. I didn’t like the feeling of conflating the two, of thinking about Fenn in the same few inches of thought as the man who had, apparently, violated our house when she was younger and then killed his own mentor. Still, as far as loss went, that was what there was. My grandfather had died when I was ten years old, and while that had been a deeply unpleasant experience for me, it was more because I’d watched him wither away in hospice rather than because we’d been particularly close. Arthur was the point of comparison, as much as that made me uncomfortable.)
— I’d gotten really into clicker games. If you’ve never played one, they’re basically just games where you click things repeatedly in order to make the numbers go higher. They were mindless, simple things that were designed as simple Skinner boxes, tapping into the animal portion of the brain to induce addiction-like behavior. For the most part, they weren’t fun, but they did occupy my mind in a way that helped block out other thoughts. An hour or two of stimulus and response could pass, and that acted as a numbing agent on my brain.
“I kind of hate myself,” I said.
Grak paused in the middle of setting up the board. “Oh?” he asked.
“Sorry, just,” I paused. “I don’t feel like a normal human sometimes. I’m not one, here, but even before, on Earth, it felt like I didn’t know how to do the things I was supposed to do. I felt like I was fumbling through the world trying to just make it to the next day. Even before Arthur died it felt like that sometimes.” I was crying again. “It’s not just thinking about her that’s getting to me, it’s thinking about the thinking, and thinking about thinking about thinking. I want to just bury myself in something so I don’t have to feel anything, and I feel guilty for wanting that, and I feel embarrassed for feeling guilty, and I have no idea whether that’s what other people would feel.”
“It’s normal,” said Grak. He continued laying out the pieces. “We can play later.”
“No,” I said. “We’ve come this far. You just … left me alone with my thoughts too long.”
Grak nodded. “I have enjoyed being part of this party,” he said. “There is not much time to myself.”
I didn’t like that answer, even though I empathized with it. It didn’t seem particularly healthy, but it was familiar. I wasn’t equipped to help Grak with his issues though — I was barely capable of dealing with my own in the best of circumstances, and these weren’t them. I almost let it go to ask more about the game.
“We want you to stick around,” I said. “Even after you’ve got your gold. It’s what Fenn wanted too, for what that’s worth to you.”
“I know,” said Grak.
“After you’ve paid your penance … what happens?” I asked. “What are you going to do, where are you going to go?”
Grak stayed silent.
“You’ll still let me come with you?” I asked.
Grak held his silence for a moment, then nodded.
“I guess that’s as much as I have a right to ask,” I said. “And if you ever want to talk … I’m probably not the best person. We’re probably not the best people for each other.” I had gone to group therapy a few times, at my mother’s insistence, and always come out of it feeling more depressed. “I didn’t mean it like that. But, I’ll be here, and I’ll listen. I’ll try to be megi.” I was speaking in Groglir, as easily as breathing, but I put some emphasis on that last word.
“Thank you,” said Grak. His voice was low.
“Now,” I said, looking down at the board. “When two fox tokens are next to each other, what happens?”
We spent a week in the chamber. A lot of that time was with each other, either playing Ranks or talking. Grak’s loyalty increased three times, mostly from the two of us idly speaking with each other, usually for no clear reason. I was afraid that it was because I was feeding his depression.
I spent a lot of my time in bed, thinking about Fenn and sometimes crying.
Naturally, I also spent some time playing the blame game.
O’kald, Dehla, and Everett were at the top of the list, because they were literally responsible. The rest of Heshnel’s crew were responsible as well, since they had let vipers into their midst and not done enough to curb those murderous impulses. I considered all of that fairly boring though; I didn’t really know those people, and most of them were dead. Masters too, since we would never have gone with them if he hadn’t been a dick about trying to keep us in his clinic.
The Dungeon Master came next, and was arguably first among evils, but I was only mad when I was thinking about him, and I didn’t do it all that much. I blamed him more for the way he’d removed Fenn from the game so silently and entirely, without so much as an acknowledgement that he’d done it. The entire confrontation with Heshnel’s people had been one that he’d likely orchestrated, or maybe nudged, and any possibility that someone could have done something different could have been negated by him. So, fuck him, it was all his fault, everything was, but I had spent enough of my young life raging against gods, and I couldn’t sustain the anger. I got desperate one night and called for a time out, putting my hands up to make a T, like we’d done in my group when we wanted an out-of-character discussion, but I got no response. I also said a small prayer that Fenn was, if not alive and watching us somewhere, then at least recoverable by some means, at some point in time.
And the blame on our side? I could (and did) blame myself in half a hundred different ways. I should have pulled Fenn out first. Or, maybe I shouldn’t have, but if I had loved her more, I would have, and damn the consequences. Fenn would have done it for me. It wouldn’t have been right, but she’d have done it, even after the break-up. And if I hadn’t pulled her out, then I should have triaged her first, or checked the soul strands before doing anything else, or a dozen other things that might have made the difference. I didn’t know when she’d died, exactly, and knowing precisely would have helped me pin down the errors a bit better, so that I could figure out precisely how best to blame myself.
Naturally, there was only so much blame I could heap upon myself, and my eyes turned to the other members of my team. Grak hadn’t seen the poison in the air, and while he couldn’t do anything about the fact that he couldn’t see it, he might have prepared better for that sort of vector of attack. Threat analysis was part of his job as a warder, and given what had happened, he’d failed. I found it hard to blame him though; his entire dwarfhold had been poisoned, albeit unintentionally, and I knew Grak well enough to think that he was probably beating himself up for having not done more.
Solace took some blame too, though it was mostly in the form of me internally complaining about the limits and peculiarities of druidic magic. Solace was our healer, and hadn’t been able to stop the poison or properly heal us, but it was hard to say whether she’d made any mistakes. That was hardly surprising, given that I didn’t really have much of an idea about what Solace’s limits actually were, or how her magic worked in practice. I resented her for not doing more, at least a little bit, but I couldn’t properly say that she hadn’t done everything she could. There was nothing more than a gnawing suspicion that she could have done more, if she’d actually wanted to.
I could easily blame Bethel for not being there for us when we needed her. I wasn’t quite sure how her bag of tricks might have handled the unique poison, but it was probable that she could have done something, rather than the nothing that she actually did.
Amaryllis was blameless. She’d argued for more caution, she’d been laid out early on in the fight, and so far as I could see, everything would have gone fine if we’d done what she suggested. I’d owe her an apology, perhaps, when I felt like I could deliver it without bitterness.
That left Valencia.
There were times I just thought, ‘fuck Valencia’. Fuck her for her terrible therapy, fuck her for pushing O’kald, fuck her for not seeing the trap until it was too late, just … absolutely fuck her, even if she was an emotionally and intellectually undeveloped kid with social superweapons. There weren’t all that many things that I could have done differently, given what I knew and that a rock monster was trying to kill me, but Val? She was supposed to be more competent than me. She should have been able to save us all. And, sure, that was a little bit unfair, but there were all these little things nagging me, and I was in full-on obsession mode.
I had taken Solace out first because she was our healer and the easiest to move. I had taken Grak out at the same time because he’d been right next to her. Then I’d gone back in, but Valencia had been struggling with carrying Amaryllis, and it had seemed sensible to take her out quickly. That was what had left Fenn for last. Valencia had the strength and stamina of a weak teenage girl who was gradually bulking up under a training regime, so I wasn’t suspicious that she could have done more … but she’d been the one to pick Amaryllis, not me.
Then, when we were going through triage, she had put the crown on Fenn last. That had been her decision, not anyone else’s.
I had liked Valencia, but now there was this alternate world in my head, one consistent with the facts as I knew them, where maybe this wasn’t all just horrible happenstance. It was possible that Valencia had been acting of her own accord, manipulating her companions. ‘Possible’ wasn’t synonymous with ‘probable’, but it was hard to keep these two images of her in my head at the same time. One version of her was a young girl who’d had too much power and responsibility pushed on her plate, and found herself not up to the tasks in front of her, or at least not enough to have done everything as right as her powers might have allowed. In the other … at the very worst, she had intentionally worked toward killing Fenn.
The problem was that her social powers were too strong. She could lie with the best of them, she could read microexpressions, and with a devil’s powers, she had all the inborn powers of manipulation that Aerb could offer. If I talked to her about it, she would surely have some logically consistent explanation for her actions that painted her in a favorable light, maybe with enough bumps that I would find it believable. The only way that I could distinguish whether or not she had a devil in her was by ensuring that she had something else instead, either a human soul that Grak could confirm, or a demon whose combat prowess a devil couldn’t fake. That would naturally assume that Valencia was telling the truth about how her power actually worked; it wasn’t inconceivable that if she was the sort of person who had been willing to kill Fenn, she might have been the sort of person to leave herself a way out.
Frustratingly, it was nothing that could be resolved until I got out of the chamber.
I spent a fair amount of time thinking about all the ways we might be able to bring Fenn back. The ritual of Yaxukasu Axud was a non-starter for a few reasons, but we might potentially discover ways around all the reasons that it didn’t work, especially if we found entads that touched the raw soul in various ways.
Speaking of, I had Fenn’s soul, which opened up possibilities. Chief among those was the possibility that I could pin down someone sufficiently evil, scrape out all their memories and values, and replace them, wholesale, with Fenn’s. I’d replace the body too, naturally. There were a lot of things that couldn’t be transferred, like skills, attributes, race, and a handful of others, but either I could find a death-row inmate equivalent who matched her closely in along the parameters I cared about, or I could just live with the discrepancies.
That kind of FrankenFenn wouldn’t really be her though. There were things that weren’t included in the soul. We weren’t automatons, strictly defined by our values, skills, and attributes. This wasn’t a purely philosophical stance, it was a matter of practical, testable reality (though we hadn’t actually tested it). The soul didn’t actually define a person’s psychology, only pieces of it. I wasn’t at all ruling out the possibility that the soul had hidden parts to it that continued the definition to the level I would expect to have a complete person … but even if that were the case, it didn’t help me, because for the purposes of the FrankenFenn, I couldn’t touch or see those pieces.
(I already knew that I would do it at the first opportunity, however unwise that might have been. The chance to speak with her again was too tempting, even if it was just her shade.)
The last major pathway to getting Fenn back was sending her to the hells. Her soul was bottled, which meant three years until it would fade away into nothingness. Until that time, we could unbottle her, which would send her to the hells, where she would live on forever. Given that we had Valencia, at least for the time being, we could deal with the majority of the threats that the hells had to offer … but that was another stopgap measure, and the inevitable counterattack from the infernals wasn’t something I thought the others would want to weather.
I was willing to do it, naturally, but it was far in the future. Until there was some actual risk of her soul decaying to nothing, I could keep her bottled. I would build up my powers and capabilities, figure out a way to either extract someone from the hells or turn the hells into a paradise, and then work on a plan that could be enacted the moment she showed up in the hells.
So Fenn was still around, in some sense, but that wasn’t much of a comfort, because for now, and far into the foreseeable future, she was gone.