“So,” I said as I came into Grak’s room. “I’m giving out hugs today.”
Grak stared at me, looking me over.
“Why?” he asked.
“I thought that you would like one,” I said, switching over to Groglir. “When I left you were upset that Magor wasn’t coming. I can be your krinrael instead.”
“Your command of the language hasn’t given you the understanding of culture you think it has,” replied Grak, scowling at me.
“You were the one who taught me,” I said. “I knew the term krinrael because you were the one to teach it to me, not because it got implanted into my head through unknown means. If I’m misusing it, it’s because I didn’t understand what you were trying to say, not because I was given the wrong understanding by a higher power. Does krinrael not denote physical affection?”
“It does,” said Grak. He was still scowling. “You could not be krinrael to me. I disgust you.”
“What?” I asked. That seemed like it had come from nowhere. “You don’t disgust me.”
“I’m not stupid,” said Grak. “I see the way that you look at them, and I see the way that you look at me.”
“Them?” I asked, still dumbfounded.
“Amaryllis, Fenn, Valencia, Bethel, even Solace, before she turned into a child,” said Grak. “You’re pleased with how they look. You barely meet my eyes.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry. I don’t think that means what you think it means though. It’s one half aesthetic preference, one half cultural artifacts from Earth. I know that you’re not actually male, but you look male, and on Earth, I wouldn’t look at a man like I look at Amaryllis, even if he were beautiful.”
“Am I beautiful?” asked Grak.
I had no idea how to answer that. Obviously from a ‘keep Grak happy’ standpoint, the answer should be yes, but … “The way dwarves were built, back on Earth, by people who came before me, was by appealing to a specific kind of fantasy about what humans were, or could be. Elves were the erudite upper class, effeminate and gracile, perceptive and aloof. For dwarves, it’s about strength and brute power, hard work and stubbornness. They weren’t the farmer-miners they are on Aerb, they were just miners, usually with no clear source of food.”
“That wasn’t the question,” said Grak.
I stifled a sigh. “No,” I said. “I don’t think that you’re beautiful. You’re appealing in a way that’s sort of separate from what I would consider to be beauty. That’s different from what I would call disgust. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth, and I assume you prefer that.” I was getting exasperated, mostly because this conversation felt like I’d walked into an ambush. “Forget the krinrael thing, I just thought that you would like a hug.”
Grak frowned at me. “Yes,” he finally said.
I gave Grak his hug, trying to put as much love and warmth into it as I could, because I did care about him, and I did want him around. The idea of him being sequestered off from the others in the doomed timeline, or killing himself in the crypt that his hometown had become was heartbreaking. I could see his unhappiness as having mirrored my own, when I was in the depths of depression, that kind of rabid animal wounded that wanted to lash out at everything and everyone around me. Would I have wanted a hug? Yes. I probably wouldn’t have accepted it though. I probably wouldn’t have thought that I deserved it, or I would have seen it as a betrayal of the pain that I should be feeling. At my worst, maybe it wouldn’t have done anything for me, but there had been bad nights when all I wanted was to be held.
“I’m sorry,” said Grak.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I understand.”
Loyalty increased: Grak lvl 17!
I sat there in silence for a moment as I held him. I still needed to read the books, which would hopefully say more about his ultimate fate. I didn’t actually believe that pairing him off with some random dwarf and writing him out of the story was the best that we could do for him though, not by a long shot.
“Is this about what you read in the Library?” asked Grak. He still hadn’t let go of me.
“A bit,” I replied.
“That’s why you want to go to Darili Irid?” asked Grak.
“No,” I said. “I wanted to go there before, because it was important to you, and something you need to do. If you don’t go, it will linger and consume your thoughts. I knew that before I left.”
“Hurmph,” said Grak. He pulled away from me and looked me in the eyes. “I think I am done.” (This was a mildly unusual construction in Groglir, because all statements were inherently considered to be subjective expressions. To say that you thought you were done required bending a word that was normally used for other agents, not yourself, and placed extra emphasis on the act of thinking.)
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t ask if it had helped, because I didn’t want him to feel compelled to answer. “We could do movie night tonight?”
“Yes,” replied Grak, switching back to Anglish, which was usually his cue that he was done talking.
When I left the room, Bethel was waiting for me. “An interesting day for Juniper Smith, it seems.”
I made the necessary alteration to my spirit, the one that would hopefully lock away the ‘evil’ Juniper forever. It took a fair bit of work, most of which involved peering at my soul and tracing threads back into the spirit, and it was hellishly difficult to see where anything was, because the ‘Level Up’ value was suppressed so low that the relevant threads were hard to feel and harder to see. I did eventually find them though, and after I had leveled Spirit a few times, got a perk that made the whole thing easier.
Skill increased: Spirit lvl 10!
New Virtue: Threadbare
Threadbare: When analyzing a thread, you gain information on which threads it has historically had some connection with, which aspects of the soul it has connected with, and a sense of historic thread size.
The language there settled on a metaphor, at least, that of ‘threads’, but I didn’t particularly like the terminology, because ‘thread’ meant something in computer science, and these didn’t really seem to fit, especially because so many of the threads were dormant. I liked ‘functions’ better, especially since it seemed like they could ‘call’ each other, but whatever, it was close enough, and ‘thread’ was what I would stick with.
Once I could see more of the threads, it was easy enough to trace back and see which one needed to be restricted. I squeezed it down, as I’d done with the meme that still laced through my spirit, until there was practically nothing left. The ‘Level Up’ value was still increasing, but some more debugging of my soul/spirit let me fix that too; it was ticking up because I had the memory of ecstasy. That was easy enough to change, once I had found it, though I opted to strangle the spiritual connection between the memory cluster and the spirit, rather than at the endpoint where the spirit touched back into the soul.
I hoped it would all be enough. After a day, ‘Level Up’ still hadn’t moved from the position I’d left it at, right between ‘Belly button lint’ and ‘Anise’. I was tempted to do another big sacrifice, pushing skill points into Spirit and bumping it up to absurd levels so that I could get all of the Virtues for it and be as good as I could be to within the limits of what the game would allow, but I had done two of those sacrifices now, and it was legitimately difficult to raise the skills that had been traded in, especially those that had been traded in twice.
The day before we were set for our expedition to Darili Irid, Amaryllis and I spent a week in the chamber together, mostly so that I could read through the books her other self had written, and she could read through the other books (notably, the locus materials and Fel Seed manifests) and practice her newfound skill in Spirit.
In the evenings, we usually spent an hour or two together, sometimes playing games and other times watching movies using the projector (the television had been shelved). She would lean into me sometimes, resting her head on my shoulder, and I would put my arm around her. She decoded the messages from herself, but never told me what was in them, and I never asked.
She had the capacity to make more permanent changes now that she had half my skill in Spirit. We didn’t talk about the implications of that either, or at least not the implications it had for what she felt for me. She would have to decide, as someone who wasn’t at all in love with me, whether the ancillary benefits of letting herself be in love would be worth the change in personality.
Other than that, it was good to be back together, and to have someone to talk to about the things that were weighing on me.
“I keep thinking about him,” I said. “The other Juniper. I have to think about him like that, like he’s not me, because if I think about him as though we’re the same person, then I have to accept that I was responsible for killing a number of innocent people. Not just innocent people, but innocent people that I knew and liked.”
“I do have some experience with the feeling,” said Amaryllis. “After what Fallatehr did to me.”
“Yeah,” I said. “She was more competent though.”
“From what you described, you weren’t incompetent, just optimizing for the very near future,” said Amaryllis. “Like a drug addict who just wants the next hit, rather than making plans to have as many hits as consistently as possible over the rest of his life.”
“Right,” I said. “It just seems more alien to me, I guess. More horrifying. More … stupid.”
“Surely you’re glad that you didn’t succeed?” asked Amaryllis.
“I am,” I replied. “It’s just weird and upsetting to have had all those thoughts. Especially that last one.”
“When he ended himself?” asked Amaryllis.
“Yeah,” I said. “I keep thinking about — well, about Fenn. I keep thinking about what I would do if someone offered to bring Fenn back, except I would have to carve out the part of myself that cared about her. And I think … yeah, maybe?”
“You used Fenn in that example, not Arthur,” Amaryllis remarked.
“More immediate, more visceral to me,” I said. I felt my stomach churn. I had been spending a fair amount of time in my soul; I knew where the values stood. “Sorry.”
“It doesn’t warrant apology,” said Amaryllis. “I was just pointing it out. It’s not a mark against you, just something that you might think about, the next time you’re considering going to have a chat with Fel Seed for Arthur’s sake.”
I waved away the argument that would start, which we’d already had more than once. “I think that the obvious parallel is to a drug addict, right? So if you put a drug addict into withdrawal, and you tell them that they’ll get more of the drug, and they’ll get that rush, but they’ll no longer be addicted … I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” asked Amaryllis.
“I mean, yes, obviously my model of a drug addict would take that deal, and that’s what happened, but I suppose I just want it to have been me that made the choice, rather than him,” I said. I thought that got to the crux of it. “I wanted it to be homicide, not suicide.”
“That’s not how he was thinking of it,” said Amaryllis, shaking her head. “At least, when I was soulfucked by Fallatehr, — you suddenly don’t like that expression?” She was watching my face.
“I wouldn’t want the act in euphemism to make it more palatable, I guess,” I replied. “So it’s fine.”
“For me,” said Amaryllis, “The important thing was Fallatehr, only Fallatehr, that he survive, that he stay coherent. I would have killed myself, if I had thought that it was necessary. I would have defiled myself in whatever way I thought would work. I’d have consigned myself to the hells for eternity. Personal identity wasn’t really a factor in it. It was different, for the ‘other’ Juniper, because he needed to be alive to get the feeling, but in the face of such overwhelming desire, especially short-term, things like personal identity and continuity of consciousness go out the window. He was just doing whatever he could to get to the next level up as quickly as possible and probably not being philosophical about it.”
“I guess,” I said.
“You wish that you’d have overcome him, somehow, through sheer willpower?” asked Amaryllis. “Even though ‘you’ weren’t a coherent entity at the time?”
“Yes,” I replied with a smile. “Yes, that’s exactly what I wish had happened. It’s one of the reasons so many stories have heroes win through the power of grit and determination, or the power of love and friendship, rather than because they were smart and planned things out.”
“Of course, you weren’t smart, and you didn’t plan things out,” said Amaryllis. “Raven should have tied you to a chair while you learned Spirit.”
“I didn’t think the game would fuck me like that,” I said, but even as the words were out of my mouth, I knew how foolish that sounded. People had died because I didn’t take the threat seriously. More people would have died, if I had been capable of (or amenable to) long-term planning. And there were a lot of scenarios in which I would have died.
“Lesson learned, I suppose?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow.
“Lesson learned,” I agreed. “All the more reason to power up before Fel Seed.”
Amaryllis nodded, but I was sure that there was a part of her that wanted to launch into an argument about going for Fel Seed at all.
I fell in love with the doomed timeline, I have to admit. I wanted to live there, in the same way that I had wanted to live in Hogwarts when I was a little boy (or really, the way I wanted to live anywhere that wasn’t home). There were so many little details that I wanted to explore, but couldn’t. They weren’t just locked away and visible only through books, but locked away and only visible through these books, because the Library had reset, and it had all been wiped away except for those particular books we’d copied.
Computers were, apparently, a problem, because too much computation in one place led to a specific type of magic to crop up, one which was difficult to control and could prove deadly to anyone who practiced it. Computational magic could go rampant in an instant, leading to runaway processes that would eventually destroy all of Aerb if they weren’t stopped. Amaryllis had known that it was dangerous though, and done almost all of the initial research and development in what she called SCRIs, Secure Compartmented Research Institutes, all of which were wrapped in heavy wards and with strict protocols regarding screening and quarantine.
And as for actually using the computers? Well, once the principles were understood, computing magic could be warded against, allowing engineers and programmers a relative measure of safety. That still made computers too unsafe, if they were going to be used like we used them on Earth, but Amaryllis had settled on a workaround by inventing cloud computing right from the get-go (following an evolutionary path that had died out on Earth fairly early on). Instead of a global internet of connected computers, there were enormous mainframes with ‘dumb’ terminals that communicated with a heavily warded central hub that was rigged up with fail-deadly traps to destroy the mainframes and kill everyone inside the perimeter if anyone attempted to tamper with any of it. That also gave Amaryllis a fairly effective stranglehold on the technology and dystopic surveillance of anyone using it.
She put up a network of ‘satellites’, hung in place above Aerb using rotating shifts of still mages and other magics, and allowed by a complicated agreement with the Draconic Confederacy. It was a huge investment of capital, but it made the ground repeaters for radio obsolete, allowed for the construction of ‘dumb’ geolocation devices, served as a centralization point for distribution of television and radio programming, and acted as both a stationary weapons platform and eye-in-the-sky. Much of this had government funding as a way of keeping people ‘safe’.
The Imperial Defense Force had been brought into existence as a means of having a ‘cooperative’ armed forces that could deal with Empire-scale threats, which in principle meant border-crossing threats and exclusion zones, but in practice meant whatever the people in charge wanted to aim their guns at. ‘People in charge’ mostly meant Amaryllis, a handful of tuung that she had known since their birth, Valencia’s adoptive children, and to a lesser extent, the rest of the Council of Arches. Their chief weapons were fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency, but beyond those, they also had the recovered entads that were Amaryllis’ by claim-in-fact, the systems and technology that Amaryllis had set in place, and a secret weapon; plastic mages.
Aerb didn’t have much in the way of fossil fuels, which made sense given that it was (supposedly) thirty thousand years old. They had rubbers, mostly harvested from trees, and some crude hard plastics that reminded me of something like Bakelite, but not much else. If Amaryllis had been a quitter, maybe she would have seen this as a branch of chemistry and industry that wasn’t worth trying to crack. Instead, she had purchased, at great expense, an open portal to the elemental plane of wood, from which she imported vast quantities of wood which went through a number of esoteric processes in order to turn those delicious hydrocarbons into usable solids, liquids, and gases. There were a huge number of useless (or largely useless) byproducts, especially given that the fuel they produced couldn’t out-compete what soul energy could produce in very many areas. None of that mattered so much though, because it opened up the world of plastics, and plastic had its own brand of magic to it.
The first half of it was easy enough; it was Reed Richards’ superpower, flexibility and stretchiness, which came with an ability to tank hits like there was no tomorrow, mediated by the plastic plates that were attached, fused, or integrated into their skin. At the magus level, with ten years of training, they could reshape themselves nearly at will, altering most aspects of their appearance. The second half of that was a bit scarier, with plasticity applied to their minds, allowing them to think and adapt faster than they could before. The old lady version of Amaryllis joked that she’d accidentally reinvented dopplegangers, but it wasn’t too far from the truth, especially given how often they were given infiltration and assassination missions.
(Two or more sufficiently skilled plastic mages could merge with one another, and that was where you started getting problems, insofar as things that might be exclusion worthy. That research was permanently banned after an incident that came close to destroying the world and was only stopped through heavy use of void weapons. After that, the members of the Plasticlique were rarely given assignments together, for fear that they would try something inadvisable.)
There were elements of fantasypunk dystopia, certainly, but I still marveled at it. Was this why people liked fascists?
“Problem,” said Amaryllis. She was knee-deep in the Second Empire’s locus research, while I sat at the other end of the ‘living room’, making notes on the future that I thought I could actually give to her without terminally fucking things up for the Library. It was hard work, and I was ready for a break.
“Problem?” I asked, coming over to her.
“The Second Empire did locus recovery studies,” she said. She slipped a piece of paper out of its binding and slid it over to me. “Apparently, when they were in the course of their study and extermination campaign, someone thought to ask to what extent a locus could spring back from having their druids murdered, their lands salted, and their corporeal form injured. Look there, on that chart. For any with less than three druids, growth is completely stagnant. For any with less than ten square miles, growth is stagnant. Our locus has a single druid and a single square mile, beyond just the fact that it’s in an extradimensional space.”
“Ah,” I said. “Maybe the fact that they were measuring affected the results?” I asked.
“I’m still reading through their procedures,” sighed Amaryllis. “I just thought that you should know.”
“It’s pretty grim,” I said.
“Yes,” replied Amaryllis. “I don’t suppose there’s any sort of hint from the future-that-never-was?”
“You outlived the locus,” I replied.
“Fuck,” said Amaryllis, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment. “Okay, we have these books now, maybe there’s something of use in them. And you’re here, which means maybe there’s something we can try that’s outside context.”
“Maybe,” I replied.
As far as research went, it was a pretty frustrating week. The Fel Seed problem seemed more intractable than it had before, and we got almost nothing but bad news so far as the locus went. The books from Amaryllis were more helpful, especially in pointing out some strategies that she’d used in order to deal with existing threats. In particular, it seemed like the work of a week, at most, for us to find Thargox and seal up the Gates of Leron, especially if we enlisted Uniquities. I was pretty sure that was an idea that we’d have come up with on our own, and was thus okay to deploy. Similarly, the future Amaryllis had a working relationship with Doris Finch, along with specific advice on how to deal with her.
I was of the opinion that we should spend a few weeks of our time mopping up old quests for the (presumed) XP, especially those that seemed like they would be trivial given our deeper roster and expanded resources. Amaryllis felt the opposite: the oldest quests were the ones that made her the most leery, largely because our trip to Speculation and Scrutiny had turned into such a clusterfuck.
At the top of my personal list, there was Grak.
It took some time for us to gather together the gold, largely because we needed to do some currency exchange. It was a considerable sum, all told, more money than we could actually afford, but I had promised Grak, and if this was what it was going to take, this was what I was going to do.
“What’s he going to do with it though?” asked Pallida, who had contributed a fair share of the money. Our pink-skinned companion had come to my room to speak with me in confidence. She was out of her inky black armor and wearing a dress, which made the muscles of her legs and arms much more noticeable.
“I read through the dwarven myth that Grak’s been basing his penance on,” I said. “If he follows that, which I assume he will, because he’s a clan traditionalist, or at least acting like one, then he’ll probably leave it there with a handful of wards around it. Maybe he won’t put up the wards, I’m not sure.”
“And you plan to actually leave it all there?” asked Pallida. “That’s insane.”
“Ideally we don’t have to,” I said. I was comfortable enough admitting that. “But if that’s what it takes, then yeah, we’ll leave twenty million obols worth of gold there.”
“That’s insane,” Pallida repeated. She raised an eyebrow. “Amaryllis will never go for it.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “She already agreed to it.”
“Then there’s some kind of trick,” said Pallida. “Lead coated with gold, maybe. Or fool’s gold, maybe. Something like that.”
“Maybe,” I said with a shrug. “Remember that he’s got warder’s sight, and will be directly looking at the gold. I’ll be pretty fucking pissed off if Grak finds out that we were duping him, because I explicitly said that it had to be the real thing, not just pretend. It’s not symbolic. Or it is, but for the symbol to have any weight, it has to be actual gold. So yes, we’re doing this.”
“I’m going to talk to her,” said Pallida. She got up and turned to me. “And I’d like to come with.”
“I was going to ask you,” I said. “Your armor helps you breathe fouled air, right? I think we might have enough magic between us to suit a team of five or six, which would mean we could use the key.”
“It is absolutely bizarre that you have one of those,” said Pallida. “If I hadn’t pledged my life to you, I would steal the key in a heartbeat.”
“Well, I’m glad to have you with us,” I said. “I’d prefer if you not mention the idea of fake gold to Grak? He’s pretty slow to trust, and I don’t want him to think there’s reason to doubt.”
“Aye aye, captain,” said Pallida with a lazy salute.