Worth the Candle, Ch 126: Ever Onward

“I don’t really understand the distinction,” said Tiff. “The DM controls all of the characters.”

“DMPC is Dungeon Master Player Character ,” said Arthur, putting emphasis on the last two words. “It’s true that the DM controls all the characters, but the DMPC occupies a role as a player character in a way that NPCs typically don’t. A DMPC is a full-fledged member of the party, rather than being a patron, someone we need to escort, an enemy, mentor, side character, et cetera. It’s a little bit hard to define.”

“Is it?” asked Craig. “It’s when the DM is a player in their own game, boom, sorted.”

“The DM plays all the characters,” said Reimer. “I think more formally you would say that it’s when an NPC gets a share of the experience and loot.”

“No,” said Arthur. “The end-run around that would be leveling them up without experience and having them gain treasure through some alternate stream, which would circumvent the definition but still be,” he glanced at Tiff for a fraction of a second, “problematic.”

“Problematic because the DMPC knows everything there is to know?” asked Tiff.

“Well, no,” I said. “If you think of it like that, then all NPCs know everything there is to know, and you would be able to coerce a confession from any NPC about things that happened to the others. Which, spoilers, you can’t. No, it’s more about bias, or the implication of bias.”

“It’s like trying to tickle yourself,” said Reimer.

“That too,” I said. “But sometimes it’s necessary, when the party decides that they’re going to go completely without healing, or some other vital role isn’t going to be filled. Doctrine is for the DMPC to not have a decision-making role in the group or otherwise have actual agency of their own.”

“Doctrine,” said Craig, rolling his eyes.

“It’s important,” I said, feeling defensive. “It’s too easy to pollute the game otherwise.”

I tried to think through the implications of what Heshnel had said. Vervain was a DMPC. No, Uther thought that Vervain was a DMPC, and that’s almost certainly why he killed him. It fit with what I knew about Vervain eerily well. The very first thing that I’d thought, when I’d learned about Vervain from Solace, was that his powers sounded suspiciously like Powers as the Plot Demands. But for him to be a literal avatar for the Dungeon Master had implications about the Dungeon Master’s role in all of this. And, naturally, it was possible that Uther was wrong, driven to suspect Vervain because of the insane cycles of narrative. I wasn’t even sure what it would mean for Vervain to be a DMPC, but I had a vague idea of Mr. Dice Guy stepping in and puppeting Vervain’s body, bending the rules of the simulation and working to steer the narrative from the inside. He’d implied that he took avatars before, that would simply be another step in that direction.

That aside, there was the question of what to tell Raven and Heshnel about it. I’d been trying my best to tell people the truth, not just because the truth was easier, and not just because it could help them to reveal things that I wanted to know, but because honesty was how I preferred things these days, and had been since coming to Aerb. This, though … I wasn’t so sure.

“It’s a game term,” I said. “If I had loaned you the Dungeon Master’s Guide rather than the Monster Manual, you might even have run across it, or figured it out yourself. Dungeon Master Player Character. I don’t know enough about Vervain, beyond what’s in the history books, to know why Uther would have put that on Vervain’s grave, but a DMPC is a character that the controlling entity wears like a skin, if I had to guess. It’s impossible to say what Uther was thinking, or what evidence he had, but … that’s what the letters mean.”

“Does that help connect any dots?” Amaryllis asked Raven. “Does it help illuminate anything about how Uther was behaving or why he did what he did?”

“I — I don’t know,” said Raven. “Sorry, what’s The Dungeon Master’s Guide ?”

“It’s one of the three core rulebooks for the game that Arthur and I used to play, back on Earth,” I said, leaving aside that Dungeons & Dragons was only one of dozens of systems we’d used. I turned to Bethel. “Can you give them copies?”

Bethel waved a hand and the books appeared in front of our guests. I didn’t miss the fact that Raven had gotten a used copy, which brought a faint smile to my face, mostly because it was so petty at a time when things were increasingly serious.

Loyalty Increased: Bethel lvl 5!

Loyalty increases for her had been few and far between, and I didn’t know what it said that seeing a small smile from me was enough to trigger one. It didn’t make me feel particularly good, not about myself, and not about her.

“We have a lot of reading for you to do,” I said. “The situation we’re in isn’t like one of those games, obviously, but there are some surface similarities. It’s one of the reasons that I want to go after Fel Seed as soon as feasible.”

“It’s never going to be feasible,” said Amaryllis, frowning at me. “The Second Empire sent hundreds to their deaths trying to kill him and reclaim the zone. Motivated individuals have tried their hand. We don’t even know the scope of what it would take to kill him, and from the information you shared with me, he’s literally unkillable, and any weakness he appears to have will only be a false weakness he was using to put someone in a compromising position, which is entirely in line with historic attempts at killing him.”

She was airing a lot in front of our guests. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to think about that. Obviously I didn’t mean that we were going to go in half-cocked, we would have some kind of plan, and I knew Fel Seed better than most people did, so the challenges inherent were obvious to me … but it was still a thing that I wanted to do, that I had to do, if it meant being able to get to Arthur, if only to confront him, or get some kind of closure.

“Okay,” I said. “Obviously there are substantive reasons that we shouldn’t go. He’s got hundreds of thousands of flesh-beasts, he’s got toxic spores that would let him kill us with a thought, blah blah blah,” he’s blink-fast, murderously strong, capable of regenerating from the smallest scrap of himself, completely immune to any attempts at poisoning, mind control, soul alteration — if he even has a soul — and just about a dozen other immunities, plus his physical body is just a focal point for command and control, because the car-wide flesh tunnels and nearly-invisible spiderweb veins that thread his territory still count as him for the purposes of his regeneration and for his ability to instantly manipulate the biology of those he touches, and … yeah. “But the thing is, I have a quest, and quests have been completable. So if, in our current state, we’re not capable of beating Fel Seed, then there has to be a way, either manipulation of exclusion zones so that we can bring a nuclear weapon to bear against him, a unique quirk of how my Knack works, or … or maybe I’m a part of some plan that someone else has already made, the key that fits into a lock that was decades in the making?”

My eyes had drifted to Raven as I was talking. I saw her pale as I said the idea that had just come to me.

“Wait,” I said. “Does someone actually have a plan like that?”

Raven cleared her throat. “I’ve said before that exclusions sometimes appear to break, though it’s never been seen in the real world. One of our internal departments is devoted to extinguishing or controlling the exclusions, where possible. There are partial plans in place, some that we don’t have the manpower to pull off, others that lack specific entads or pieces of magic. Some … some were waiting for Uther’s return. I’m not up-to-date on all of their plans, but — it’s possible they have something relevant.”

Amaryllis swore.

We talked for a long time after that. Some of it was just infodumping one way or the other.

I had to bring them up to speed on what tabletop gaming was like. I sort of felt like I owed it to them, since their lives had been jerked around by the Dungeon Master and maybe, to a lesser extent, Uther. The more I’d thought about it, the more sympathetic I was to Masters, given that we seemed to (and probably did) have some answers to the enduring mysteries of the world. I had little doubt that we were going to talk to him again at some point, especially if Raven was going to be an ally. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, but I was a believer in making amends and rebuilding crumbled relationships, maybe because that had been my plan back on Earth, in the weeks leading up to my transfer to Aerb.

We got a bit of after action with regards to what had happened with the attack, which Raven had a keen interest in. Apparently the poison had been airborne, and Everett had made some efforts to protect the others from it, which might actually have been the thing to save our lives. Gemma had been given a bracelet the night before the attack, and he’d used (barely) non-lethal spells on Heshnel and Gemma.

“If he’d hit me with that aging spell, I would almost certainly have died,” I said.

“He tried,” said Valencia. “I got in the way. I don’t think the spell knew what to make of me.” I think she must have seen the skepticism in my eyes. “You had just gotten hit in the head.”

“I can confirm,” said Amaryllis, watching me closely.

“So you’re saying that they would have won if they’d been bloodlusted?” asked Raven.

“Probably,” I said.

“I think that’s probably why I lived,” said Amaryllis. “I was trapped in Gur Dehla’s fluid and being choked. Perhaps it meant to have the poison finish me.”

“Mercy wouldn’t have been out of the question,” said Pallida. “O’kald was always the hardest among us. For Gur Dehla, I believe the attack was a matter of perceived necessity. And Everett …”

“Fatalism,” said Raven. “He was still old, when you met him?”

“Yes,” I said. “Old and withered.” My eyes went to Gemma, very briefly and despite some effort on my part not to look at her.

“He wanted to die,” said Raven. “He’d wanted to die for centuries, but he kept hopping and skipping forward through time, hoping that he would find some answers, or at least some purpose. Maybe he was just looking for an excuse to finally end it.” She paused, swallowing, and wiped at a tear that was forming. “I suppose he found it.”

I tried my best not to bring up the fact that their friends had, you know, tried to murder me, but it was awkward and a bit painful. If I hadn’t had a week and a half in the chamber, I probably would have had an outburst, but as it was, I mostly just shifted around and felt uncomfortable. I understood, to some extent, why they had believed that killing me was the right thing to do, and to be honest, I really wasn’t sure what would happen to Aerb if I was gone. There was a long list of questions that needed answering, like what had actually happened to Uther, why five hundred years had passed between his disappearance and my arrival, and what kind of plans, if any, the Dungeon Master actually had.

We broke for lunch, since no one wanted to power straight through with the meeting in perpetuity. Lunch consisted of adjourning to the next room, which Bethel had transformed into an eating space, complete with a buffet of food, most of it from Earth.

“You can’t keep pulling from Earth,” Amaryllis said to Bethel, doing her best to pull the illusory woman aside. “There are more threats in that single entad than maybe any other entad in the entire history of Aerb. Even seemingly innocuous things can’t be presumed safe. It’s a time bomb waiting to go off in our faces.”

“I’m willing to take my chances with food, for now,” said Bethel.

“I wouldn’t,” said Raven, coming over to us with a plate. The room was on the larger side, with different places for people to sit and congregate, but even if Bethel weren’t in play, you’d naturally assume that no conversation were private. Solace and Grak were having their own conversation at a small table, while Heshnel and Gemma had lowered themselves down into another of the small tables. Pallida was standing next to them, plate in hand, but she kept glancing toward Amaryllis. “Biocontainment was a considerable problem during the First Empire, and to a lesser extent, the Second Empire as well. If the entad you’ve obtained is laced with traps, then seeds, bacteria, and insects would all be problems you would want to look out for. The Isle of Poran is contained, but –”

“No one asked you,” said Bethel, staring Raven down.

Raven nodded. “Of course.” She took a piece of fried chicken from her plate and bit into it without saying another word. The foods on offer were all Midwestern comfort foods, with a dash of Southern cuisine thrown in there. I’d spotted barbeque, fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread, and coleslaw. I had no idea why Bethel had chosen those, but my guess was that she was attempting to put our guests off-balance.

“No more foods from Earth, please, ” said Amaryllis. “It’s too much of a risk. We have a kitchen and a stockpile of food, we should be using that.”

“Juniper?” asked Bethel, turning to me.

“I reluctantly agree,” I said. “You make great food, but I don’t want to die because there’s a rogue culinary element that becomes deadly when transitioned to Aerb. I think you’d be a good cook, if you took some time to learn how.”

“Very well,” said Bethel. She looked at Amaryllis and clucked her tongue. “Uther’s spawn and his lackey, brought together. I can’t say that I approve.” She wandered off to collect a plate of her own, though I was watching carefully, and saw that she was just making an illusory plate with illusory food on it. She was still limited enough in her telekinesis that she couldn’t easily carry a plate full of food around.

I turned to say something to Amaryllis, but Pallida had found her opportunity, and it was fairly clear that I wasn’t meant to be a part of that conversation, which was, from what I could hear, mostly about Dahlia.

That left me with Raven.

“Care to sit?” asked Raven, gesturing to a table.

“Sure,” I said. “Let me get some food.” I went off to where the food was and grabbed a plate of my own, piling it up with a little bit of everything. As I was making my way to the small, two person table that Raven was sitting at, I was hit by a wave of unpleasant memory. It was too close to high school and carrying a tray of food to a table with friends. It was possible that Raven had triggered the memory; she looked almost exactly like Maddie had.

“I do like the concept here,” said Raven, once I’d returned. “The informality is nice, and people have some time to mingle with each other. Whose idea was it?”

“Mine,” I said. “We were talking it over early this morning, and I really didn’t want to be eating while we talked formally, especially since I would be the one doing a lot of the talking. There was a bit there where I wasn’t sure that we would make it to lunch. It was getting tense.”

“Not the most tense meeting I’ve ever had,” said Raven.

“Ah,” I said. I ate my chicken, feeling awkward and not knowing what to say. “You’ll have to tell me what he was like. Especially his early years, when he would have been more like he was as a teenager.”

“Oh, I didn’t come on until a long time after,” said Raven. “But I agree, we both have memories of him, and even if it’s not very important, we should probably share them.” She looked up from her food. “You’ve read my biography?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Which one?” asked Raven, tilting her head slightly.

“I didn’t even know there was more than one,” I said. “It was The Archivist’s Hand . There’s not a lot of information on you. I sort of think that the publisher just wanted to be able to have a full set of the Knights.”

“I never did much,” said Raven. “I was the runt of the litter. Uther called me his ‘exposition fairy’, but that didn’t particularly boost my spirits. He also called me the moral center of the group, but I was twelve years old, and I knew it, so it always sounded false. I decided, centuries later, that what he really meant was that it was hard for him to do bad things when he had to look me in the eyes and tell me about them.” She saw the look of confusion on my face. “Half of my job as archivist was tracking down information for him from every book I could get my hands on. The other half was to keep track of what we did, when he didn’t have the time or stamina for it.”

“That’s also something not mentioned in the biography,” I said with a frown. I ate a bit more as I thought about that. “But he didn’t tell you everything.”

“No,” said Raven. “Not nearly. Some of it simply couldn’t be written down, for all the usual reasons, but he was also a man with secrets. He was very candid with me, but not as much as he could have been.”

“So why would he have you track it all?” I asked. “Why devote the time and effort to it if he was just going to leave out important stuff?”

“He would consult my notes,” said Raven. “They would help if he needed to be briefed on some foreign king’s court he’d visited ten years prior. Sometimes those notes would help the pieces come together and make a connection that spanned the years. We ran into old enemies with alarming frequency.” She shrugged. “I was happy to do it. I idolized him, all the way to the end. Less, now. When I was younger I had this romantic notion that when he died, I would write the true story of Uther Penndraig, as I had known him, the biography to end all biographies.” She picked at her food. “That never ended up happening, obviously.”

There was a palpable sense of loss.

“Did he ever tell you about the early years?” I asked. “Not Earth stuff, obviously, but … when he joined up with a theater troupe? I’ve always wondered about that. It was one of the things I planned to ask him.”

“He told me,” said Raven, nodding as she swallowed her food. “He always called it the Refusal of the Call. You might have read the term in one of his books, though he was never clear that he was speaking of himself.” I nodded at that and made the snap decision to leave Joseph Campbell out of it. “After his family was killed, he took what he could from their farmstead, then made his way down the road without really knowing what he was doing. The theater troupe was happenstance. They had been putting on a play in the nearest village, and he had pleaded with them for a job. Most of the biographies of him emphasize that he was raised as a farmer, but he actually started even lower than that.” Raven shrugged.

“Eventually he started to prove his worth. The Knack made itself apparent a number of times, but to hear him tell it, he was still too much of a coward to do anything with it. He was training for a minor part and his sword-fighting skill improved by leaps and bounds within the course of a day. He’d always had an active imagination, but he found himself able to put those things he’d imagined into words more easily. Everything came naturally to him.” She paused, looking at me. “You’ve been much more active than he was in the beginning.”

“Not all of that was by choice, as I’ve said,” I replied. I had told most of our story, leaving out almost nothing, not even the Fallatehr stuff.

“Still, it’s a difference,” said Raven. “The differences are what I’m paying the most attention to right now.”

I was watching her closely. The similarities are most of what I see, I wanted to say. I was probably going to tell her about Maddie, in the non-creepiest way that I could, but that was something that I would save for another time. They really were, in spite of all reason, very similar in their mannerisms.

“There was a girl,” said Raven, continuing on as she watched me eat. “She was part of the theater troupe, an actress, his age or perhaps a little younger. He told me that he was a coward about her too, not able to express his feelings toward her, always wanting to, and never quite getting there.”

I frowned at that. I couldn’t tell whether this was a warped story of him and Tiff, told as though he’d been on Aerb when it happened, or whether it was simply history repeating itself. Either seemed plausible to me. Arthur had ambitions in high school, he was in every vaguely intellectual club or group that would have him, but all of that was within the structure of what the high school offered. It made me indescribably sad to think that he would come to another world, one brimming with possibility and ripe to be leveraged even without gifts piled on top of his knowledge from Earth, and end up just trying to live a normal life.

“And then he wrote a play that upset the Dark Lord,” I said. “And it all came crashing down.”

“Dark King,” said Raven. “But yes. There was something he said that stuck with me though. He said that he had a chance to save the girl, and he chose to leave instead. It was certain death for her weighed against his own survival. He always regretted it. I used to think that one act was at the core of him, the reason that he kept pressing on so hard, inserting himself into so many places where he wasn’t entirely wanted. Now, I’m less sure.”

“What happened after?” I asked.

“He stumbled into Vervain,” said Raven, furrowing her brow. “He was taken under the old man’s wing. In the context of what you said earlier, I don’t know how well it fits. Vervain had been tracking the Dark King’s forces, so it wasn’t entirely coincidence that they ran into each other, but I’ve always thought that it smacked of the unnatural, the right two people meeting at just the right time. Sometimes history is like that though.”

“Do you think that he was right?” I asked. “Do you think that Vervain was controlled by something greater?”

Raven shook her head. “You’re talking about an entity whose powers are greater than any of the things I’ve spent the last hundred years saving the world from, greater than anything Uther ever fought off. If Vervain was what you say — what Uther says — then I don’t know how we could tell. I don’t know how Uther would ever have made the leap. How could he have gathered enough evidence to kill the man who taught him so much?”

I left that question hang in the air, because I had more food to shovel down, and I didn’t have a good answer. If one of my party members were a DMPC —

Is one of my party members a DMPC? Could they be? Yes, obviously they could be, but were they?

“Everything okay?” asked Raven. “You stopped.”

Before I could answer, Amaryllis came over. “I think we’re wrapping up here,” she said. Her face was slightly flushed, and Pallida, behind her, had a faint smile. Amaryllis could control the flow of her blood, just like I could, and I had to wonder how much intention was behind the color of Amaryllis’ cheeks. “The plan, such as it is, is that we’ll be going back to the other room for phase two of the meeting, where we talk about next steps.”

“Sure,” I said. “Fine by me.”

Solace was the most likely candidate, of course. She was a flower mage, just like Vervain had been, and her powerset could be (somewhat inaccurately) summed up as ‘whatever the DM says’. As points against, she was one of our later acquisitions, fourth to join the party, and not only was she not a close confidant, she’d been dead for quite a bit of our adventuring. She was, maybe, a mentor, in the sense that I had been taught the basics of flower magic by her, and she was certainly the oldest of us, but that was nothing concrete.

I didn’t actually think that Solace was a DMPC, but it was on my mind as I sat and listened to Amaryllis speak. She was making her pitch.

“… the obvious security concerns we have with regards to anyone coming to join us. You would have housing, inside Bethel, so long as she’s willing to have you as a guest. If Aerb needs to be defended, we’ll act, as one, sharing information and resources to ensure the continued survival of civilization, and failing that, life.”

“I’ve already pledged this life to Juniper,” said Pallida. She seemed like she was in a better mood than she had been when lunch had begun. “That gives me first dibs on a room.”

The others were a bit more hesitant. “My loyalty is to the Foxguard,” said Gemma. Her voice was hoarse. “I will need to consult with the elder council.”

“We can come with, to make our case,” said Amaryllis.

“That won’t be possible,” said Gemma. “Humans aren’t allowed to step upon our sacred ground these days.”

Amaryllis nodded. “We can offer transport, if –”

“The Egress will suffice,” said Gemma. She was being curt, and I didn’t have high hopes that she would be a proper ally when all was said and done.

“Very well,” said Amaryllis. She looked to Heshnel.

“Uther had a saying,” Heshnel replied to the implied question. The good half of his face looked pensive, while the other half was still a horrifying mishmash of alien design. “‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’”

“Actually, that was George Santayana,” I said. “Uther cribbed it from Earth. And on Earth, we also have another saying. ‘History is bunk.’” I could feel everyone staring at me, like a weight settling onto me. Amaryllis was better at this sort of thing than I was, not just in the sense of what skills she had on the game-mechanical level, but also on a higher level, something that didn’t seem touched by the soul. “Uther thought that he was constrained by the narrative. Maybe that was even true, for him. For me, the rules are different. Narrative isn’t a guide. History isn’t a guide. I travel through this world guided only by the facts of reality as I see them. You can help me, or not, but I’m trying my best to protect this world from harm.”

Heshnel’s mouth twitched. “We shall see,” he said. “For the time being, I would be content with a place here, to observe if not always to lend aid.”

I turned to look at Raven. “What do you say?” I asked.

“I don’t think I have a choice but to say yes,” replied Raven.

“If it’s Bethel –” I began.

“No,” said Raven. “I meant — there are certain things that you’re forced to do because that’s the only option you realistically have. I made my way to the Library because I thought it was where I could do the most good. Now, that place is probably with you.” She swallowed. “I’ll take you to the Library. You, and only you. I don’t have the power to act unilaterally, and if I’m going to be taking a leave from the Library, then it’s best that we stay on good terms with them.”

“Okay,” I said, letting out a breath. “Sooner is probably better than later.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 126: Ever Onward

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