Worth the Candle, Ch 144: Skewered

“Did this ever happen to Uther?” I asked Raven. “Did he ever meet people from Earth? Not the dream-skewered, but, um –”

“No one matching the names on the list my father was holding at Speculation and Scrutiny,” said Raven. We were still standing around on campus, having not moved too much, even after Reimer had left. “As for appearances … ?” She gestured at her own face.

“Right,” I said. “Right.”

“Juniper, it’s going to be okay,” said Amaryllis. She reached up and placed a hand on my shoulder, and weirdly, it did make me feel better.

I took a breath. “If Reimer is here, and thinks that he knows me, that means that the person whose body this is, is me, or an Aerb-equivalent, and the quest text –”

“Quest text?” asked Amaryllis.

“Sorry,” I said. I closed my eyes and repeated it back for them, fast as I could. “That implies there are Aerb equivalents for everyone that I knew on Earth. Different, because they’d have to be, given how different our cultures are, but … probably all there just to fuck with me.”

“He didn’t recognize me,” said Raven.

“No,” I said. “I noticed that.”

“If you didn’t want to interact with this quest, you shouldn’t have given him your address,” said Amaryllis. “This campus is big enough that you would never have had to meet him again.”

“I shouldn’t have met him this time,” I said. “It’s coincidence, which means that it’s really the Dungeon Master.” I screwed my eyes shut. “Urgh, all I want to do is just complete the quests, how hard is that? How hard is it to just go take a week of classes and then meditate for a bit without stupid doppelgangers showing up all the time?” I opened my eyes and looked at Raven. “No offense.”

“What’s a doppelganger?” asked Raven.

“Oh,” I said. “Changeling?”

“That’s not what I am,” said Raven with a frown. “You mean people who look like those you knew on Earth?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m sorry. It’s just, with you, Bethel taking on Tiff’s form, and now Reimer showing up, I just wanted a normal college adventure. I didn’t think that was asking too much.”

“Who is Tiff?” asked Raven.

“It’s a long story,” I said.

“It’s not,” said Amaryllis. “She was Juniper’s girlfriend on Earth. They dated. You’ve seen her, incidentally. She’s the form that Bethel first took, when she went by Kuum Doona. That appearance was taken from drawings by Uther, and honed by his instruction.” A lesser person might have paused, to let the gravity of ‘instruction’ sink in.

“I see,” replied Raven. “And some version of her, and all your other friends, are here on Aerb? Simulacra of the players who played in your games?”

“Maybe,” I said. “I don’t know.”

“It was the most likely scenario for that quest,” said Amaryllis. She turned to Raven. “I have long lists of guesses for each of them.”

“You predicted this?” I asked.

“No, I wracked my brain thinking about all the things that it could be, ordered them from least likely to most likely, and this one, counterparts from Earth, was the most likely,” said Amaryllis. “I did think that it was more likely to be your mother and father though, rather than your friends.”

“Shit,” I said. “They’re probably there too.” I groaned. “I know I’m being a big baby about this, but I really don’t want to talk to my mom and dad if I can at all help it.”

“Even if there’s easy experience in it for you?” asked Amaryllis.

“We don’t even know if there is experience,” I said. “Though …”

“What?” asked Amaryllis.

I sighed. “Though, if I think about it, our Aerb equivalents didn’t play D&D, because it doesn’t exist on Aerb, which means that they had their own ruleset.”

Amaryllis paused. “Meaning?” she finally asked. “Meaning what, that they might have been playing a, a game that maps to the system?” She didn’t have to say which system. It was the system that we’d spent a fair chunk of our time together looking over and trying to infer the rules of.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “Stranger things have happened.”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “No, they have not. That would literally be the strangest thing to have ever happened. It would require truly obscene levels of manipulation by the Dungeon Master, beyond anything that he’s done before, and … and there are things on your character sheet that aren’t public knowledge, aren’t there? Things that your alternate wouldn’t possibly have been able to know or deduce?”

“It’s just a theory,” I said. “Not even a theory, just … what came to mind. If they’re Aerb equivalents, then what did they play? Aerb doesn’t have tabletop gaming, at least so far as I’ve been told. If you wanted to translate those people, my friends, then you would have to give them something else to do, and different things to talk about.”

“Meaning that we might finally get a manual,” said Amaryllis. There was a gleam in her eyes.

When we returned to Bethel, Pallida was waiting by the door, leaned up against it and in a different outfit than she’d been wearing when we’d initially seen her. I wondered whether she had stolen those clothes. There would be no reason for her to, given how rich she was, and how much it might jeopardize what we were doing here, but she’d spoken fondly of thievery in the past, and seemed to have no compunctions about stealing.

“You’re down some members,” she said as we approached.

“Grak and Solace went their own way,” I said. “You haven’t seen them?”

Pallida shook her head. “You’re a student now, I take it?”

“Yes,” I said. “It will take more time than planned. You’re settling in?”

“I am,” nodded Pallida. “Just wanted to hold off on going in until the rest of you were back. There are a lot of strange and dangerous things in that house, no offense.”

“At this range, she can hear you,” I said with a raised eyebrow.

“Can she?” asked Pallida. She glanced back at the door to Bethel. “I thought you said that she extended some kind of thing beneath us, back on Poran?”

“Well, you’re a fool if you think she hasn’t spread herself as far and wide as she can,” I replied. “My guess would be that she’s got tendrils laced through the block as far as she possibly can, allowing her to monitor everyone around us.” I looked around, hoping that we weren’t drawing attention. “We should go inside.”

When we went through the door, Bethel was waiting for us. “It’s a fifth of a mile, actually,” she said with a grin. “Or a tenth of a mile in any direction, if I want to go all ways, but I thought it most prudent to spread myself along the street, as that’s the avenue of most likely approach. It’s all my domain, and I’m graciously allowing the houses and shops around us to continue existing.”

“Good,” I said. “You should talk with Grak about security. That’s his forte.”

“You really think that this house needs more security?” asked Pallida as she flopped down into a chair. The room we were in was a decoy of sorts, a bog standard living room of the kind that you would expect from a magical house that had sprung up on an empty lot. Somewhat quaintly, it fit within the confines of the exterior spatial reality.

Bethel had made it grudgingly, as it eschewed her normal aesthetic, and it was obvious to me that she had deliberately gone over-the-top to make a parody of a coziness, with overstuffed chairs, tassels on the furniture and rugs, useless knick-knacks taking up too much shelf space, pictures covering one wall, and a crackling fireplace that screamed ‘home’ almost as loudly as the knit afghans did. It was clearly meant to be twee and oozing saccharine sentimentality, but I kind of loved it.

“I don’t want laziness or complacency to undercut us,” I said. “Grak’s a better warder than Bethel, and if he hasn’t given his input yet, then he should as soon as possible.” I turned to Bethel. “No offense, obviously.”

“None taken,” she shrugged.

“One other thing,” I said, sitting down in one of the big, comfy chairs. “We might have a guest in the next day or two. Reimer.”

“Your friend?” asked Bethel, arching an eyebrow.

“Yes,” I said. “Or something that goes by the same name. Presumed non-hostile, so don’t get any ideas. I’m sure that you read the description in Amaryllis’ files, but –”

Bethel held out her hand, palm up, and showed me a miniature illusion of Reimer. She reached up with delicate hands and pulled on his arms, like she was going to rip him apart, but instead, more bodies accordioned out, maybe a dozen in all, holding hands and hanging down in a chain. It was almost everyone from Earth who held any importance to me.

“How?” I asked.

“She has the Dagger of Dreamspeech,” said Amaryllis. “She can look into our dreams.” She said it like it was obvious. I’d seen that item in the manifest, but I hadn’t realized the implication that she would be pulling information out of our dreams with it. “It’s good,” said Amaryllis. “If you can show these to the others, it will help us to make positive identification and prevent miscommunication.”

“Is she out there too?” asked Bethel. “Tiff?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Hrm,” said Bethel. “Then I suppose I’d like a chat with her, when she’s available.”

Solace and Grak were slow to come back, but when they did, they had information.

“There was a death at Sound and Silence,” said Grak. “It happened in the temple during meditation three months ago. Many meditate there at once, but the circumstances are shrouded in mystery.”

“You would assume deaths,” said Amaryllis. “Five hundred people each week, that’s twenty-six thousand over the course of a year. Sure, they’re likely to be healthier than average, and they’re probably screened, with medical staff on standby, but embolisms happen.”

“You wouldn’t expect it to be shrouded in mystery,” I said. I frowned at Grak, thinking it through. “You also wouldn’t expect that if a single death were notable, it would happen so close to me arriving. And … it was around the time that I came to Aerb, so maybe it was setup for that.”

“Maybe,” nodded Amaryllis. “Or maybe it’s meaningless noise.” She gave a hollow little laugh. “There’s a trap in trying to see the narrative in everything, because there are red herrings, and even beyond red herrings, there are some things that are just scenery. ‘Not everything is a clue’.”

“I don’t really care about narrative,” I said. “What happens, happens. I do want to know what’s happening in Li’o though, so that we’re not blind-sided and having to play catch-up with all of the things we could have read up on in our free time.”

“There’s something else,” said Grak.

“Lots of somethings, actually,” said Solace.

“Something important,” said Grak, glancing at Solace for a moment with a frown. “The Demonblooded Festival, a week from now.”

“They throw a festival for the Demonblooded?” I asked, momentarily confused.

“Public effigies,” said Grak. “Then a public execution.”

“Really?” I asked. I was taken aback. “Here?”

“They’re not a protected class,” said Amaryllis with a frown. “It’s not uncommon for there to be some differences of agreement in how they should be treated.”

“But they’re not actually infernals,” I said. “You can’t just execute someone because of how they were born.”

“You can,” said Valencia.

“Well, you shouldn’t,” I replied.

“The demonblooded is a criminal,” said Grak. “Or so I was told.”

“Really?” I asked. “The demonblooded are rare, do they really have so many of them here that they regularly get charged with capital crimes? This small city-state we’re in just naturally executes that many demonblooded that they happen to have one on hand? Even without looking at them, I’m pretty sure that the demographics don’t work out.” I paused. “Or the demongraphics, if you prefer.”

“I do not prefer,” said Bethel.

“It has nothing to do with us,” said Amaryllis. “We can’t go around fixing every injustice we pass by.”

“Uther would have,” said Raven.

“Uther was insane,” said Pallida.

“He wasn’t insane,” I replied. “He believed that there was a narrative, and he was probably right.”

“That’s not why he wanted to help the downtrodden,” said Raven, folding her arms. “He wasn’t trying to do good just for, for points, because he thought there would be a reward at the end.”

“That would be the best interpretation of him,” said Pallida. “If there was actually a point to it, instead of just the universe rewarding him for what was sometimes objectively terrible decision making? If he was actually playing the game?” She snorted. “That might actually make me like the man.”

“We don’t know,” I said. I fucking hated playing peacemaker. It reminded me too much of when my parents would fight. “If we find him and can talk to him, then he can tell us what the reality of his situation was. I don’t want to judge him before then, not if it means making assumptions about what circumstances he was facing.”

“Yes,” said Bethel. She had set up a spike and was impaling the small figures of my Earth friends on it with a scowl on her face. They gave inaudible screams and writhed as she punctured their guts, one by one. “Yes, Uther might have had reasons for what he did, reasons which would make it all perfectly acceptable.” The last of the figures was Tiff, Bethel held her up by the wrist, pinching it between thumb and forefinger. Bethel looked at the illusion, for a moment, then looked past it, to me. “Speak like that inside me again, and I’ll kill you all.” She began ripping Tiff apart, limb by limb, moving with furious calm.

“I’m sorry,” I began.

Bethel disappeared, leaving the miniature corpses behind. She was using her illusion power to do it, just to send a message.

“Well,” said Pallida. She pursed her lips. “That was something.”

“She can hear everything you say,” said Raven.

“Like you would shed a tear if she killed me,” replied Pallida.

“You have valuable skills,” said Amaryllis. “No one wants you dead.”

Pallida put her hand to her chest in mock outrage. “You wound me, princess.” She looked over at the bodies, which were still slowly sliding down the spike that Bethel had made. “Is that just going to stay there then?”

“Yes,” I said. It made my stomach churn. “I probably deserve that.”

“Would she actually kill all of us?” asked Raven.

“Yes,” I replied. “I think so. She’s not in the habit of issuing idle threats.” I chewed my lip for a moment. “I agree with her though. There’s no conceivable reason that he should have done what he did to her. There’s nothing that logically paints him in a good light there.” There were things that weren’t logical, scenarios that were possible but so highly improbable that they had to be immediately discarded. Maybe the Dungeon Master had given Uther instructions of some kind, maybe there was a prophecy that had to be fulfilled … maybe. It was possible. I wasn’t about to say that out loud though.

Reimer arrived late at night, just when I’d started to think that he was going to wait for the next day. He was standing around in the cozy living room when I reached him, looking nervous.

“Hey man,” he said. “Do you just want to talk here?”

“Sure,” I said. I glanced at where the miniature version of him had taken a spike to the gut, making sure that it was all completely gone.

“You’ve dressed down,” he said, looking me over like he was trying to verify that I existed.

I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, my usual back on Earth, though it was all of Aerbian provenance, plus the vambrace that would let me move into combat mode at a moment’s notice. Reimer was wearing practically the same thing as back on Earth, though he had the Aerb equivalent of sneakers, with hard rubber on the soles. He even had a baseball cap on, the kind that he’d always worn back on Earth. Setting aside the minor differences, it was like we were sitting down together back in Bumblefuck.

“Tell me about home,” I said.

“Nah,” replied Reimer, sitting back. “How about you tell me about whatever crazy shit you’ve been up to in the last five months, and then maybe I’ll tell you.”

I sighed, and mentally tucked away ‘five months’ for later. “I went to jail,” I said.

“Prison,” replied Reimer. “Jail is for the shire, prison is for the kingdom.”

“Right,” I said. “Prison. I spent some time there, tried to keep my head down, and then got put up for trial by adversity. We were dropped over the Risen Lands.”

“Shit,” said Riemer. “How the fuck did you make it out of that?”

“I made a friend,” I said. “She helped me to fix up a soulcycle and we rode to the wall. From there …” I paused. Whoever he really was, however much the differences between him and the real Reimer, I hated lying to him.

“That’s a bunch of bullshit,” said Reimer. “No way you made a friend.”

“Har,” I said. Fucking Reimer. “Anyway. The rest of it is classified.” Classified by the Republic of Miunun.

“And the girl?” asked Reimer. “Because I’m not going to outright say that’s Amaryllis Penndraig, but I know for a fact that she was dropped around the same time you were, and she looks almost exactly like she did on the poster.”

(The poster, according to Amaryllis, had been for a group called the Future Leaders of Anglecynn. While there were a whole host of princes and princesses in Anglecynn, occupying the top level of decision-making for almost everything in their kingdom, there was a distinct and perpetual shortage of subordinate managers, maybe because of the lack of upward mobility. The FLA was a sponsored school club with chapters all over Anglecynn. It had a bunch of benefits for the kids who could qualify to join, including a yearly trip to Caledwich to see the seat of government and talk to some of the princes and princesses. Amaryllis had been the face of the program, because she was the right combination of young, high-ranking, and pretty.)

“I think you have an inflated idea of what I’ve been up to,” I said. “She’s a high ranking government official. That’s all I’m going to say about her. Now, can you tell me about what’s been going on at home?”

“Not much,” said Reimer. “You know, you could have written a letter once you were safe.”

“Reimer, you’ve gotta give me more than that,” I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t write.”

“Yeah, well, tell that to Tiff,” he said. “She’s worried sick about you.”

“Is she,” I hesitated. “Here?”

“Here?” asked Reimer. “Fuck no.” He gave me a concerned look. “You know she had her heart set on Claw and Clocks.”

“Oh,” I said. “I just … I wanted to see her.”

“Yeah, sounds about right, you bumped into me, and you wanted to see Tiff,” said Reimer. “Send her a fucking letter, if you care so much. She knows about you and Maddie, by the way.”

Fuck you, alternate Juniper, why couldn’t you have been a better person? “How’s Maddie?” I asked.

“Dropped out of high school,” said Reimer. He said it with a casual air. “Not that you actually give a shit.”

I scowled at him. “Don’t talk to me like that.”

“Yeah?” asked Reimer. “Joon, I’m happy to see you, I’m glad you’re not dead, but everything that happened to you was your own fucking fault. If you didn’t want me to be mean, then you should have been a better person.”

“I’m trying,” I said. “I’m really, really, trying.”

“So send Tiff a fucking letter then, asshole!” asked Reimer. “Does it really take me bumping into you and telling you that to make you see that you should have done it ages ago? Bad enough you ghosted her, bad enough you fucked Maddie, but for you to just sit there like you’re totally oblivious to what she needs?” He shook his head. “Come on, man.”

“Sorry,” I said. “You’re right.”

“Of course I’m right,” said Reimer. “It’s what I do.” He paused. “Probably send a letter to Tom, too. He worried.”

“Okay,” I said. I closed my eyes and let out a breath. “You really piss me off, you know that?”

“That’s why we were such good friends,” said Reimer. He gave me a sardonic smile. “When you weren’t being such a whiny little shit about everything, or a backstabbing cunt.”

<Amaryllis would like you to ask about the games,> Bethel said into my head. It was the first thing I’d heard her say since she’d threatened to kill me. She could have just relayed the message in Mary’s own voice, but she’d chosen this as an olive branch.

“Did you bring any of your game stuff with to S&S?” I asked. It was an open-ended question, one that he would hopefully help me fill in the blanks on.

Reimer shook his head. “Your mom wouldn’t let me have any of it,” he said. “I’m not sure what she did with it. I was tempted to break in, but Tom talked me out of it.” He laughed. “You always argued that you could and should rewrite the system from the ground up. I guess we’re going to see how accurate that is, unless you’re planning on going home anytime soon.”

“No,” I said.

<I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to get away with telling him nothing,> I thought.

<Was that for me or her?> asked Bethel’s voice.

<Either,> I replied. <Both.>

<Amaryllis says to give him a minimal version of the truth, but try other things first,> said Bethel. <She’s eager to hear what he knows.>

“I have a question,” I said.

“About Tom?” asked Reimer. “Or Craig?”

“Well,” I said. “I guess I want to know what they’re both up to.”

“Tom’s doing an apprenticeship, something to do with machine tools,” said Reimer. “Craig got himself recruited into the Host, just like he’d always talked about.” He shrugged. “It’s a cushy job, if you can get it, and assuming that a war doesn’t break out, and assuming you don’t end up doing wetwork for one of the princes. He probably won’t get court-martialed.”

“Thanks,” I said, and I meant it. I wondered how that compared to their post-graduation fates on Earth. “My question was … I don’t know if there’s a good way to ask this. How do you describe our games, to other people?”

Reimer frowned at me. “That’s your question?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Humor me.”

“Well, first off, I don’t,” said Reimer. “It’s never come up in conversation, because why would it? But if it did, I would probably talk about the minis, I guess. More tactile, easier to put into words. Otherwise you have to start talking about the character ledgers, and it makes it sound weird. Why?”

I grimaced. “I … I’ve been through some shit,” I said. “I don’t … I don’t remember it all.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, narrowing his eyes. “You forgot the rules?”

“Most of them, yeah,” I said. “It’s bits and pieces. And what’s left are just, I don’t know, jumbled. Even the campaigns, it doesn’t fit together like it should. I just know that it was important to me. It was such a big chunk of my life.” That was a guess. I was hoping that it was a good one.

“How can you just forget two hundred pages of rules?” asked Reimer. “You’re just going to go ‘blah, blah, blah, and then I was out of the Risen Lands with a secret job and a brain like Swiss cheese’?”

“Swiss?” I asked.

“You really forgot?” asked Reimer. “You really just … you don’t remember any of the jokes either?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “There’s an entad that eats memories, and I got hit pretty bad. I just … I want to know, mechanically, how the system functioned.”

Reimer stared at me. “Ten attributes,” he finally said. “Three physical, three mental, three social, and luck, based on, I think, something you read about bone mages. Does that ring a bell?”

“Yeah,” I said. “And … skills?”

Reimer was still staring at me. He nodded. “Two hundred and fifty-six,” he said. “Most of them worthless, mind you.”

“Woodworking?” I asked.

Reimer laughed. “What the fuck is up with you?” he asked. “What is this bullshit about not remembering any of it? Like, I knew you’d gone off your nut, but man, it’s not like you to screw with me. Not like this, anyway.”

“Can you just — can you tell me what you mean?” I asked.

“Woodworking 100,” he said. “It was … you fucked up the system, like you always fucked up the system — I, I don’t mean that as a dig, but you just added all this shit in because you were reading something, or you thought it was cool, and so the system had a lot of crap grafted onto it. You remember that much, right?”

“I guess,” I replied. “And … Woodworking 100?”

“It was … you remember virtues?” he asked.

“Benefits,” I said. “Bonuses.”

“Yeah,” replied Reimer. He kept looking at me like I was crazy, which would have been less crazy than the truth. “Yeah,” he repeated. “I always said we should just call them something else, because you had all this crazy shit lumped in under virtues, even if it was just mechanical garbage, not actual virtues.”

“Woodworking 100,” I repeated.

“So … there are skills, which have caps from the attributes, and skills have numerical levels of their own,” said Reimer. He had apparently switched gears, wanting to explain things to me rather than question what I did or didn’t know. “Skills get skill-specific virtues at either level 10 or 20, then every twenty levels beyond that, with the final one coming at level 100. They got better as they went, usually, except for a few times you misjudged what was good and what was objectively terrible. For Woodworking, they were all about being able to be a better woodworker, or carpenter, or whatever, and the capstone virtue was that you could make anything out of wood.” He raised an eyebrow. “Anything.

“Ah,” I said. “That … seems dumb of me.”

“Yes,” said Reimer, sitting back with a smile. “So we got in this huge fight about it, and I quit playing until … until Arthur came to talk to me about it.” His satisfaction faded away as he said that.

<Amaryllis wants more,> said Bethel.

“I have a lot of money,” I said. “Can I convince you to write down every single thing you can remember about the system?”

Reimer’s eyes widened. “Joon, I’m just starting at the Athenaeum, I have classes in two days, I can’t just –”

A pile of cash appeared in mid-air between us and fell to the ground in bundles. Reimer stared at it, then looked up at me.

<One quarter million obols,> said Bethel.

“That’s a quarter million obols,” I said.

“The fuck,” said Reimer, looking down at the cash. “How’d you do that?”

“Entad,” I said.

“You have entads?” he asked. He pointed at the vambrace. “More than just whatever that one is?”

“A few,” I replied.

Reimer looked down at the money. “That’s … yeah. Sure. I’ll write down what I know.” He looked back up at me. “You’re not going to tell me more?”

“It’s classified,” I replied.

“It’s classified, and you’re going to pay me the cost of a house to write down the rules of a game that you mostly invented?” asked Reimer. “That’s nuts. That’s insane. And I don’t know if you know this, but I never knew the full rules, because you split the system in two. There were rules you never shared with us.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “Whatever you can remember.”

Reimer kept staring at me. “So I could just write down whatever I wanted, and you’d have no way of knowing?”

Fucking Reimer. “Are you seriously trying to munchkin this?”

“Munchkin?” he asked.

“Look, it’s money in exchange for the ruleset,” I said. “I’m friends with some very powerful people these days, so just write down the fucking rules, and if I get a chance to compare them to what’s back home and it looks like you were just fucking with me, I’ll … I’ll be pretty pissed off.”

Reimer looked like he was about to laugh, then looked down at the money. “Send a letter to Tiff,” he said. He met my eyes. “Tom too. Then I’ll do it.”

I wanted to object that I was giving him a pile of cash for writing down a partial set of rules for the system that I had apparently created, but I held my tongue and nodded. When I did, a yellow legal pad and a mechanical pencil dropped into his lap, startling him.

“I need to take a breather,” I said. “If you want coffee or water or anything to eat, just say it loudly and clearly into the air.”

“A bar of gold,” Reimer said, in the direction of the ceiling.

A bar of gold dropped from the ceiling onto the ground between his feet, narrowly missing his feet and denting the hardwood floor. Reimer stared at it, then looked at me.

“I wasn’t actually expecting that to work,” he said. He looked back down at the gold bar.

“You can’t take it with you,” I said with a sigh. “Please don’t ask for anything dangerous, because you’re likely to get it.”

Reimer looked at me for a moment, then opened his mouth again. “A naked woman with –”

“Pretend it’s a genie,” I said. “Pretend that it’s a horribly malicious genie that will answer the letter of the request but not the spirit, if you try to ask it for anything besides, I don’t know, chocolate and tea. Actually, pretend that it doesn’t even care that much about the letter of the request and is perfectly capable, willing, and eager to cut off all your fingers if you’re being inconvenient. Okay?”

Reimer hesitated. “Why are you no fun?” he asked, but he had no conviction in his voice.

“I’m going to step into the other room,” I said. “Write, please, I’ll be back when you’re done.”

“How will you know?” asked Reimer.

“I’ll know,” I replied.

I went through the door to the next room, where everyone was waiting.

“There are a lot of implications,” said Amaryllis. “We have two days until the start of term. I’m of the opinion that we should go to the Sporsan, which is where Juniper’s body is if the worldline was interpreted right, and get the manual tonight.”

“You’d have to do it without me,” I said. “I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to have anything to do with any of it.”

“There’s a manual,” said Amaryllis. “Even if half of it is incorrect, it would still be invaluable. We would get to know how outcomes are determined within the system, what the virtues for higher levels of skills are, we’d –”

“It’s the Dungeon Master fucking with me again,” I said. “I don’t want to go back to Earth, and I really don’t want to go see a playhouse Aerb version of my hometown with all the familiar faces twisted and warped by being transplanted here. I’m not doing it. You can do it. Take Bethel, take the Egress, take the key, I don’t actually care, just leave me out of it.”

“He didn’t recognize me,” said Raven. “But he mentioned Maddie.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I meant to talk to you about that, before, but –”

“It’s fine,” said Raven.

“I’ll volunteer for the team that’s going to Juniper’s hometown,” said Solace.

“It’s not actually my hometown,” I replied. “It’s a mockery of it.”

“I’ll go too,” said Grak. “You’ll want a warder.”

Amaryllis nodded. “We can’t use the key without a worldline close by,” she said. “We’ll take the Egress. I plan to leave tonight.”

“Reimer recognized you,” I said.

“I’ll be in full plate,” Amaryllis replied. “Someone else can do the sweet talking.” She glanced at Valencia.

“I’ll come,” she said. She paused, then looked at me. “Though … with your parents, do you want me to refrain from seeing them?”

“Do whatever you want,” I said. “Accomplish the mission. Just please don’t tell me about it. I know too much about those people anyway.” I tried to get myself to calm down. I wasn’t particularly happy with this turn of events. “Sorry,” I said. “I’m just … a bit emotional right now, and if I don’t have to go back home, or whatever it is that’s standing in for home, then I’m not going to. End of story.”

“It’s a quest, Juniper,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t know if we can actually complete a quest without you.” She pursed her lips. “We’ll try. But if we get held captive by forces of unimaginable power, I’ll consider it within my rights to say that I told you so.”

I turned to Bethel, then realized that while we were standing inside her, she hadn’t given herself a material form.

“Bethel?” I asked the air. “Is he writing?”

<Yes,> she replied, into my mind.

“Okay,” I replied. I looked to Amaryllis. “Be careful, when you go.”

“We’d benefit from someone who knew the layout,” said Amaryllis. “Someone who was, if not a local, then something close to one.”

I sighed. “There’s nothing for me there,” I said. “You’ll be bringing an extreme amount of firepower into a town of ten thousand people, where the local weapons are likely incapable of hurting you.” We’d figured out the town from the teleportation key awhile ago, because there wasn’t a good reason not to. My internal name for it was Fumblebuck.

“We’ll be going into Anglecynn,” said Amaryllis.

“We’ve been in Anglecynn before,” I said. “It was a stopover when we were going to Sulid Isle.”

“I’m no longer asking you to come with,” said Amaryllis. “I just want to clarify that there’s a strong possibility that it is, in fact, dangerous. The Egress is extremely fast and hard to detect, but if we trip a rapid-response team, there might be trouble.”

“We should talk to Jorge and Finch,” said Valencia.

Amaryllis winced. “I’d rather that Uniquities doesn’t know where we’re going. If our existence becomes more public than it already is, then someone might try to use these people against Juniper.”

“We’re trying to stay in Finch’s good graces, right?” I asked. “I figure we can only count on him to bail us out of international incidents another five or six times.”

Amaryllis sighed. “Point taken,” she said. “We’ll land the Egress on the Isle of Poran and give him a talk, but so far as I’m concerned, these need to be spheres that overlap as little as possible, at least to anyone on the outside. Juniper, you would put Tiff in danger if you talked to her, do you understand that?”

“I don’t want to talk to her,” I said.

“Really?” asked Amaryllis. She raised an eyebrow.

“I want to talk to the real her, not the Aerb-equivalent version of her,” I said. “Right now, all I want to do is get through a week’s worth of classes, a week’s worth of meditation, and then plow through the next thing. Mixing quests together doesn’t appeal to me. The whole idea that there are almost-but-not-quite copies of everyone I cared about is … well, existentially terrifying, obviously, but I’m not going to have them be used as a tool against me, and I don’t care about them any more than I care about some randos off the street.”

There was an awkward silence after I’d said that.

“I think that was a lie,” said Valencia.

“Of course it was a lie,” said Grak.

“I assumed it was a lie, and I barely even know him,” said Pallida.

Valencia frowned. “Well I didn’t want anyone to think I was using –”

“Alright,” I said, throwing up my hands. “Fine. I care, a bit. But what does it even do for me to meet with any of them and tell them that their friend is effectively dead, replaced by a close-enough clone, and that I’m sorry for whatever it was he did, because I did something similar to their close-enough clones? How does that help anything?”

“It might make you feel better,” said Grak, grumbling slightly, as though he was taking pains to point out the obvious.

“Maybe later,” I said. “Mary, you can go off and do the quest on your own, or just grab the manual, or whatever you want.”

“That’s what I’ll do,” she said with a nod. “Anyone else?” she asked, looking around. “Heshnel, Pallida? There’s a strong chance that we’ll be back before the night is over.”

“I have a garden to tend,” said Heshnel.

“I’d love to,” said Pallida. “I’ve got plans tonight though.”

“Plans?” asked Raven.

“Yes, plans, young one,” Pallida stifled a sigh. “I’m an adult woman, and I have plans.”

“That’s fine,” said Amaryllis. She turned back to me. For a moment, it looked like she was going to ask me one last time whether I was sure that I didn’t want to go, but instead she only said, “Wish us luck. Keep an eye on Reimer.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding slowly. “Good luck.”

She filed out, with the others, and Heshnel left at the same time, leaving me alone with Pallida and Raven.

<Still writing?> I asked Bethel.

<He took a break to summon a variety of drinks and snacks,> replied Bethel. <Now he’s writing again.>

<Thank you,> I replied.

<You’re welcome,> she said. I was surprised by that. I hadn’t actually expected a response to basic politeness.

“Okay,” I said, turning to Pallida and Raven. “Can we hash this out, somehow? The two of you together are bordering on causing some actual problems within this team, and I’d like to address it now, while it’s convenient, rather than have it go on.”

“Nope,” said Pallida. She let her ink-black armor surround her, slipping over her skin and shaping to fit her. “I’ve got stuff to do. Besides, you seem like you would suck at this kind of thing, and Maddie’s not too happy with you right now.” She went out the door with a saunter, leaving me alone with Raven (and, obviously, Bethel, who was always assumed to be listening in).

“I meant to tell you about the Maddie thing,” I said.

“Did you?” she asked. She was sitting down in one of the conference room’s chairs, and was watching me impassively.

“I did,” I said. “Didn’t seem appropriate when we first met though.”

“How old was she?” asked Raven.

“Fifteen,” I replied. “I was seventeen.” I didn’t want to say anything that felt like a defense.

“Oh,” she said. “When I met Uther … I was twelve, in human terms. I thought, maybe, she was … I thought maybe that’s how old she was.”

“No,” I said. “I don’t know why there’s an age difference. Though he was how old when you met him, in his early twenties? If I had to guess at intent, then maybe it was for you to always be a child in his eyes.”

Raven held herself still. “I see.”

<That’s not what she wanted to hear,> said Bethel.

<You’re whispering advice now?> I asked.

<You need it,> said Bethel.

“Can I ask,” said Raven. “Can you, um, tell me about her?”

“Not much to tell,” I said. “She had an older brother, Craig, they were raised by their mother, absent father … there was a thing called the ‘internet’, which I’d have to get into the weeds on to really help you understand her. I think it was sort of like, uh, the Republic of Letters, if you ever had an equivalent? A group of people writing letters back and forth?”

(The Republic of Letters was a 17th and 18th century international clique that almost all of the greatest thinkers of the time were in. They talked to each other by letter, and when they were co-located, met in salons, creating an intellectual movement that in theory transcended their borders and cross-pollinated ideas and theories far and wide. In practice, there were some bitter feuds and rivalries, which made good fodder for D&D adventures. I assumed that they either existed on Aerb, or had in the past.)

“The Society of Letters?” asked Raven. “I was a member.”

“At twelve?” I asked. “Or, twelve equivalent?”

“I was precocious,” said Raven, without a trace of humor in her voice. “I used a pseudonym. When you’re as old as I am, people just see you as a fixture.”

“Okay,” I said. “Well, the internet is like the Society of Letters, but there’s no barrier to entry, communication is instant, and it’s completely anonymous if you want it to be,” I said. “There are very few checks and balances. So, that was the Society of Letters that Maddie was a part of, and a lot of it was just … insane, by Aerb’s standards. And she was in the thick of it, spent most of her time neck-deep in it, and it sometimes made her a bit hard to understand, or to deal with, because it was like she was from this other culture, and it was one that we didn’t share with her.”

Raven looked away from me. “I can relate,” she said, staring at the wall. She finally looked back. “The Society of Letters was one of my assets,” she said. “It was one of the things that made me valuable to Uther. And it was one of the reasons that I wanted to go with him, to see the world. There were so many people that I talked with only through written words, people that I felt like I knew, but had never seen in the flesh.”

“Must have been a shock to them,” I said. “To see that you were, to all appearances, a child.”

“Yes,” said Raven. “I thought it would be fun. It wasn’t always pleasant. Eventually word got out.”

“And then what?” I asked.

“And then … Uther was in the middle of making his mark. He knew things that no one else did. He had ideas that didn’t occur to anyone else. He was, it’s obvious in retrospect, from the future, or something like it, from a society that had already done all the hard work of figuring things out.” She sighed. “I was his go-between with the Society of Letters. I was valuable, because I knew people, and I knew what they knew, and I could help to connect him. I was valuable because I was the person that they had to talk to in order to get Uther’s ear.”

“Sorry,” I said. “None of this stuff is mentioned in your biographies.”

“No,” said Raven. “It was a sad, personal struggle, trying to be taken seriously, wanting to fit in, and finally getting it, only for it to all be about Uther. Eventually I came to accept it, to accept that he was this titan, and I was … not.”

“You kicked my ass,” I said. “So you have that going for you, which is nice.”

“You’re weak,” Raven replied. “You were also impaired, but beyond that, you were weak. I’m not at the peak of my power anymore, and even then, the fight we had, it was like you were one of the enemies I sometimes had to deal with on my own, not trivial, but not strong. The kind that Uther could kill by the handful as a prelude to the real battle. The kind of enemy that I would fight one-on-one while the real battle was happening elsewhere.”

“I’m trying,” I said. “He had thirty years to get that strong. I’ve had low single digit months.”

“I know,” said Raven. “I’m just trying to help you understand what’s coming. I spent a century reading the signs and seeing the end of the world. What I’ve seen, since you’ve been here? It seems like we don’t have much time.”

“I’m trying,” I said again. “It’s the reason that we’re here. I’ve just … I’ve had this level up thing hanging over my head, and now that’s maybe, hopefully dealt with, and I’ve had to use time in the chamber just to help me deal with it all. I — I’m sorry, for how it went with Maddie. I wish that I could take it back, or do things differently, but –”

“It’s okay,” said Raven. “Uther wasn’t perfect either.”

“He had women,” I said. “At least, everyone says so. I’d wanted to ask about that.”

“None until after his wife, Zona, made it very clear that was what she wanted,” said Raven.

“That’s how it happened?” I asked. “I thought that was … farce, I guess. A cover for him.”

“No,” she replied. “He loved her. I think it’s important that you know that. After the Wandering Blight took half her body, physical affection wasn’t much of an option. Even if … if they could have managed something, she was weak and frail, intellectually capable, but physically …” Raven trailed off, then looked at me. “Most of what you’ve heard was true. She only wanted him to be happy. She was Queen of the Zorish Isles before they married, a noble’s noble, and she’d always expected that whoever her husband might end up being, he would be a philanderer. It was expected.”

“But he didn’t?” I asked. “Not until later?”

“Their marriage was a political one,” said Raven. “But he wasn’t a noble. He wasn’t even from Aerb. He had different ideas about what a husband should be to his wife.” She pursed her lips. “A lot of it was shielded from me, in those days.”

“Shielded how?” I asked.

“Some of it appeals to prurient interest,” said Raven. “The marriage wasn’t for love, it was for politics. Zona expected him to consummate it on their wedding night. Uther didn’t want to.”

I raised an eyebrow at that.

“He was conflicted,” said Raven. “She was beautiful, but for her it would have been duty, not an act of love, and he found the idea of that unwelcome, because he was enamored with her from the start. He stayed chaste, which she found irritating. Eventually, she started to really see him, not as the upstart king who vanquished the evil and took their reins of the kingdom, but as he really was, thoughtful and intelligent, with a meditative calm that gave way to decisive action. He was the Poet King, by that point, and eventually, she realized that it wasn’t just a moniker. And then they were in love,” she said, her breath catching a bit, “perfect for each other.”

“Until the blight got to her,” I replied.

Raven hesitated, then nodded. “Maybe. I still think –” she let out a sigh. “A part of me still wants him to have resisted. To have stood stoic and declared that she was the only one for him, the physical be damned. Maybe he would have, if she hadn’t tried so hard to force women on him.”

“Maybe,” I said. I was a bit skeptical.

“You don’t believe me?” she asked.

“It sounds noble,” I replied. “I just … I’m having trouble mapping that to the Arthur that I knew.” I wasn’t actually sure that it was noble, but it sure sounded noble. Arthur playing that aspect up for the purposes of his self-imposed character? Or the legitimate moral stance of someone who felt strongly about monogamy? I couldn’t actually say.

Raven shrugged. “It was who he was. When he believed in something, it was hard to shake him of it. He would adapt to new information, but he thought faster and harder than anyone else, both sides of the argument. He would answer objections before anyone had even thought to raise them.”

“But not that time?” I asked. “Not with his wife?”

“I don’t know,” said Raven. “I wasn’t privy to their discussions. There was so much that I didn’t know about him, even after thirty years together. You’ve heard that they died?”

“The women?” I asked. “Yeah.”

“That was exaggerated, with time,” said Raven. “Some of those women had no relationship with him. And there were others, who he took as lovers, that no one ever knew about. But it did happen, with regularity.” She hesitated again. “He insisted that it didn’t, that they were women in dangerous situations, that danger followed him, or that he went where the danger was, but … it was like there was something protecting him, and us, a magical effect that couldn’t be quantified or measured which allowed us to escape by the skin of our teeth, and that effect simply didn’t extend to them.”

“But why did he keep doing it then?” I asked.

“Carrying on the relationships?” she asked. I nodded. “It didn’t seem to matter, or that was what he said. If he rebuffed their advances, if he tried to manipulate things to push them out of the picture, it only seemed to end up worse. There was a woman who was smitten with him the moment we showed up, shortly after the theory was first being floated, five years after Zona had been brought back from the brink. She was bright and sunny, almost irresistibly so, and Uther pushed her away, worried that there was some curse, something placed by an ineffable power of the kind we had only just begun dealing with. He paid for her way out of town, and watched her leave on horseback.” Raven swallowed. “We found her body three days later. There was something off about the wine we were drinking, and when we opened the keg … I still have trouble with wine sometimes.”

“Shit,” I said.

“Yes,” replied Raven. “Your friend, or whoever he is to you, Reimer, I would be careful about sending him away. I’ve been trying to put our adventures in the context of this Dungeon Master, and the games you played, and it might have been that a woman soaked in wine was a warning not to deviate from what was planned.”

She turned and walked from the room, without another word.

I sat down at the conference table and rested my head against the tall chair, cursing silently to myself. I closed my eyes and dismissed the character sheet that popped up, so that I could have some time to think. It wasn’t that late, but it felt late, maybe because I hadn’t synced up chamber use with Aerb’s day-night cycle, or maybe because too much shit had been going on lately. I didn’t blame Amaryllis for going off to Fumblebuck, not when a manual would be useful, but I really didn’t want to deal with any of it. I just wanted to go to college and have adventures, was that so wrong? If there was a narrative, why did it have to be this narrative?

“Can we talk?” asked Bethel. I opened my eyes and looked at her. It was the first time she’d made an appearance since driving the dolls through their spikes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was trying to make peace between Raven and Pallida, and I didn’t think about how the words would sound to you. I was tunnel-visioned on the one problem and not thinking about you. I hope talking with Raven about Uther, how she viewed him, wasn’t too bad for you.”

“She’s blinded,” said Bethel. She paused, measuring what she wanted to say to me, changing tracks. She took a seat beside me, more tentative than she’d ever moved before. “I’ve killed a lot of people.”

“I know,” I replied.

“I didn’t always want to,” said Bethel, and only then did I recognize a sort of hollowness in her voice. “I was forced to, naturally, first by Narcissus, who would have hurt me otherwise, later by others who wanted me for a weapon. But some of those people I killed, I killed of my own volition, and even then, I didn’t always want to.”

She leaned forward slightly. “There was a couple who came to raid me, back before the tuung had such heavy restrictions on travel. They walked my halls, looking for magic, or at least something that they could sell. When they split up, I appeared before the woman, and told her to be quiet, or I would slit her throat. I had questions I wanted answered about the outside world. She started screaming, almost at once, and I thought to myself, well, I gave her an ultimatum, hadn’t I? And if she defies me, what choice do I have but to end her and keep true to my word?”

“But you didn’t want to,” I said with a nod.

“I didn’t,” said Bethel. “I did it anyway. It did nothing to help me accomplish my goals, it was just … without any true purpose. It didn’t set a precedent for anyone else, it didn’t get me the information I needed, I just killed her because I had said that I would, and I felt it important to follow through.”

“Yeah,” I said. “For me, I always had this period of trying to reconcile it afterward, of saying to myself that somehow following through on the threat was more important than anything else, that I had a code, or whatever.”

“Yes,” said Bethel. She sat there at the table next to me and drummed her fingers on the table for a moment. “I’m not going to kill you,” she said. “I’m not going to hurt the people that you love. I was only saying that to lash out at you.”

“Okay,” I said. “For the record though, I am sorry. And I do think that Uther needs to answer for what he’s done. I don’t think that there’s any answer that he could possibly give that would satisfy either of us. But … I don’t know. I still don’t want him to die. I still have this fantasy that somehow it’s going to be okay. It’s childish.”

“It is,” said Bethel. “I understand being a child.”

“Can I say again that I’m sorry?” I asked. “About earlier?”

“You can say it,” replied Bethel. “I already heard it the first time.” She cocked her head to the side. “He’s done, incidentally.”

I took me a moment to realize that she was talking about Reimer, who had been toiling away in the other room. I got up, took one last look at Bethel’s impassive face, then went to go join him.

Reimer was sitting in the same chair that I’d left him in, but his immediate surroundings had changed. He had a table beside him with eleven different drinks on it, some of them steaming and others frozen. A second table held six different plates with a variety of snacks on them, a few half-eaten.

“Hey Joon,” he said when he came in. He glanced at the drinks and snacks. “Genie’s pretty friendly, seems to me.”

“Yeah?” I asked. “Well, when we first met she poisoned me.”

Reimer laughed that off, then saw the set of my face. “Seriously?” he asked.

“Yup,” I said. “You’re done writing?”

“Yeah,” he said. He shook his hand. “I tried to go fast. There’s still some orientation stuff tonight I didn’t want to miss.” He stood up and passed the legal pad to me.

Written in big, bold, capital letters were the words “SUCK A DICK”.

Reimer smiled at me.

On the next page were his actual notes, and I could tell just from the way the paper had crinkled that it went on for several pages in the hasty writing that I’d once known so well (I’d looked over his character sheets trying to make heads or tails of them more than once).

Skills have primary and secondary attributes and are capped at three times primary or five times secondary, whichever is lower. There were a few ways to raise skills above that, whether by virtues/afflictions, entads, spells, or special circumstances. When a skill is checked, roll two ten sided dice, one for ones and one for tens, and add your skill, multiplied by either the average of the primary and secondary attributes, the primary attribute, or the secondary attribute, depending on what the GM feels like, then add in special circumstances or multipliers depending on virtues/afflictions, conditions, GM whims, and other factors. Check that against another, target number.

Usually we’d have all three numbers written down on the sheet for each of our skills, and any in-the-moment multiplication followed the “first digit” rule, where you only multiply the first digit of the number, which made things a little less gross to work with. There were just a fuckton of corner cases for everything we wanted to do, part of it crap from before I joined, and part of it shit you made in response to me. The section on grappling was four pages. I hope you remember that.

Rolls were always against the GM, who set arbitrary but “realistic” numbers, sometimes with some principled backing for opposing characters. Some of the time this was just bullshit, but it was hard to tell exactly when. You slapped write-ups down on the table more than once, so I don’t know. Rolling against players mostly didn’t happen, and the rules for it were constantly in flux, more than other pieces.

Should probably mention that a lot of this system wasn’t unique, it was descended from a game called Fullplate that focused more on wargaming instead of adventures/theater. Your innovation was hacking on a whole bunch of garbage and including some talky bits, though at least some of the work was done by Arthur’s brother, not sure how much.

I kept reading for a bit. Some of it was new information (yes, attributes actually did affect skills), but a lot of it was confirmation of things that I already knew from the game, or which had been hinted at by the virtues. A d100 system was fairly standard, as systems went, but I wasn’t sure that was actually accurate to my situation. Critical hits were apparently level-dependent, on the theory that luck played more of a role than skill at lower levels. The system was big on categories of effect, levels of success, and results tables, which probably accounted for the sheer length of it (though I didn’t know whether “two hundred pages” was hyperbole or not).

The biggest get was probably the skill synergies, which were explicitly listed, though it was just a sketch of the groups, not what virtues you actually got from them. That one I asked Reimer about.

“There are either five or six virtues per skill,” said Reimer. “Five point five, call it. There were two hundred and fifty-six skills. That’s what, one thousand four hundred and eight before getting into all the combo virtues? Not to mention that you never told us them unless we got there, which we mostly didn’t. So if you don’t know, then I don’t know what to tell you, they’re either in the big book, or you never wrote them down because you didn’t think that anyone was actually going to take Accounting.”

“Okay,” I said. “You didn’t write any virtues down though. You don’t remember any?”

“Do you remember any?” asked Reimer.

“Thaumic Dodger,” I said. “Eliminates the penalty for dodging magic.”

“No, it was more than that,” said Reimer. “Magic, magical effect, entads, entad effects, and then the Layman clause.”

According to the notes that Reimer had given, the Layman was more of a concept than a person, one which could be ‘instantiated’ in different ways, either through DM fiat, through agreement by the players, or by asking a third party who had no or little stake in the outcome. What that would mean on a system implemented in full with more rules, on what was probably a simulation was anyone’s guess.

“I want more,” I said. “Everything that you can remember. Everything.”

“I’d be here all night,” Reimer complained.

I gestured at the pile of cash on the floor.

Reimer narrowed his eyes. “Point taken. Not sure on the wording though. I used to use a notes system, but all that got burned.”

“Burned?” I asked.

“I was pissed off,” said Reimer with a shrug. “Sort of a, I don’t know. Effigy, I guess.”

“Of me?” I asked.

Reimer nodded, then shrugged again. “You’re a dick. You’re a garbage dump of a person. You’re obscenely rich and hobnobbing with your high school crush, with some kind of military deal worked out, if any of that was true, but … fuck if you didn’t do your best to piss everyone off, and that always made it easier to be pissed off at you.” He looked down at the cash. “I don’t really want to rehash any of this right now.” He looked back up at me. “I’ll mail you whatever else I can remember, but it’s hard to reconstruct from memory, given how long it’s been since we played. I cursed the game more than once, after you were gone. Said I would never play it again, not like there was any threat of that.”

“For what it’s worth,” I said, “I’ve been trying to not be a dick.” I struggled to put it into words. “I’ve been trying my best not to hurt people, to be honest with them, to make up for mistakes, or if not make up, then at least live my life better than I did back in Anglecynn.”

“How’s that going?” asked Reimer.

“It’s complicated,” I said. “Depends on who you ask. I’d give myself a C-.”

“A what?” asked Reimer.

“Oh,” I said. “Letter grades. It’s a new thing, A is highest, F is lowest.”

“Why is Z not the lowest?” he asked.

“The point is,” I said, “I’m trying. It’s going okay. I think I catch a fair number of mistakes before I make them, and I’m getting better at recognizing and acknowledging mistakes after they’ve been made. But I am trying.”

“Okay,” shrugged Reimer. “You have anyone to call you out on your bullshit?”

“A couple people, yeah,” I said. “I don’t need you to believe me. I don’t need you to forgive me either. I just … I’m trying, that’s all, and I’d hoped that maybe it would help you to know that.”

“You owe Tiff and Tom a letter each,” said Reimer. “I’ll check up on that. Maybe I’ll actually believe you, if you follow through.”

That’s going to be pretty fucking hard when I’m not the person that they remember.

“Okay,” I said. “The money is yours. Leave the bar of gold. You can send the virtues by mail, as best you can remember. Maybe mark down how confident you are in each of them?”

“Fine,” said Reimer. He seemed unsure of himself. “What’s the deal with all this?” he asked. “I don’t actually believe that you’re paying me all this money for something so trivial.”

“It’s complicated,” I said. “Need to know. Classified.”

“Infohazard protocols?” asked Reimer with a roll of his eyes.

“Yeah,” I said. I hesitated. I hadn’t thought that the existence of infohazards was well-known. Unless … “Which campaign was that?”

“Long Stairs,” answered Reimer. He looked me over. “Shit, what happened to you?”

“There’s an entad,” I said. “The Memory Blade. It’s a use-in-emergency-only sort of thing, since it gets sharper the more memories it takes from you, and, well, I was in an emergency. I lost a fair bit.”

“Since when do you know how to use a sword?” asked Reimer.

“Since I was forced to learn,” I replied. I tapped the legal pad with a finger. “I’d like a list of campaigns too, as many as you can remember, with as many events, entads, magic, worlds, et cetera as possible.”

“I’ll mail it,” said Reimer. “I’m not going to stay here all night.” He shifted his stance. “I should actually probably get going.” He shook his head. “It’s been weird seeing you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I don’t want to keep you, if you have things to do, but do send me more. Virtues, campaigns, anything else you can remember.”

“Because your memory has been shot through?” asked Reimer.

“Yeah,” I said. “And … it was important to me.”

Reimer shrugged. “You know that there’s not a lot I wouldn’t do for money. I’m serious about you writing to Tiff and Tom though.”

“I will,” I said.

“Okay,” replied Reimer. “Good.” He stood there awkwardly for a moment, then began gathering up the money from the floor and sticking it in a bag that materialized beside him. When he was finished, he slung it over his back. “Alright,” he said. He glanced at the door. “If you’re in some shit, don’t involve me.”

“I’ll try not to,” I said.

I was pretty sure that it was entirely out of my control.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 144: Skewered

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