Worth the Candle, Ch 148: Sing For Your Supper

We sat around the big table together, with everyone assembled. Dinner was coming, and I was stressing about that, but we had a few hours to kill until Lisi and Reimer showed up, and that meant that it was time to debrief. Hopefully, I would get some information out of our elders.

“I have nothing,” said Raven. “I have a lot of guesses, but none of them are good.”

“Let’s hear them,” I said.

“All of them?” asked Raven.

“In descending order of how stupid they are,” I replied.

“Should be ascending order,” said Amaryllis with a frown.

“No?” I asked. “I want the smartest first. So as we go, it would be … wait, shit, I think you’re right.” Amaryllis gave me a nod. “Fine, in ascending order of stupidity.”

“First, and just to get it out of the way, it could be an entad,” said Raven. “The powers of entads vary wildly, and they can sometimes be used in combination, so whatever it was you saw when the flaming man was invited into your meditation … it’s possible that was accomplished partly or mostly through entads. It’s hard to say how likely that is, but it’s possible.”

“It explains nothing,” said Heshnel, frowning at her.

“Yes,” replied Raven. “Uther always hated entads as an explanation, but it was always one that had to be considered.” Heshnel waved a hand. “It was never entads, incidentally.”

“Never?” I asked.

“Not once,” said Raven. “Unless something was kept from me.”

“What a fascinating historical detail,” said Pallida with a roll of her eyes.

“It has relevance,” replied Amaryllis. “It changes the probabilities.”

“We must assume it’s not an entad,” said Grak.

“Yes, agreed,” replied Raven. “I just wanted to put that forward first, along with the obvious note about unknown unknowns like an entirely new variety of magic, because every other explanation I can think of has significant problems.” She cleared her throat. “To start with, the Lord of Dreams. He shut down the usual pathways five hundred years ago, and it’s possible that he’s chosen now to open them back up. Obviously meditation is distinct from dreaming, but at least one of his Aspects was able to enter into the twilight realm of daydreaming, and maybe that would be close enough. The second issue is that Juniper’s description of what he saw doesn’t match with the Lord of Dreams, nor any of his Aspects known to me, and it really doesn’t seem like their modus operandi either. It’s possible that the Lord of Dreams was usurped, or got new Aspects, in the five hundred years since our misadventure there, but it’s very difficult to say. As a precaution, it would be good for Bethel to watch over us in our sleep.”

“Done,” replied Bethel.

“Does anyone have more to add on that?” I asked. No one said anything. I was pretty sure that Raven was the only one of us with any experience in the realm of dreams.

“Okay,” Raven said, taking a breath. “Well, the third thing I was thinking was expansion of some currently known magic. It would be helpful if that was the case, because it would give us clues as to who or what is behind it, but there aren’t any likely candidates. We also don’t know what specifically caused the aberration, whether it’s constrained to instruction from a practicing cultist, or a memetic effect caused by that specific imagery, prompting, or intonation. There might be geographic constraints, a practitioner on the other end … there’s no real place to start research.”

“I could do it again,” I said. “See if I could get another visit.” I got some skeptical looks from around the table. “And yeah, that might be feeding information to the presumed enemy. Alternately, we could convince one of the other students to get in a position where I can examine their soul or spirit, which might give us something useable.”

Amaryllis gave a polite cough, so perfectly poised and respectful about it that I assumed she’d been tutored on it at some point in her life. “I want to state, for the record, that attempting the meditation in class was a bad idea. It ended up helping us, but it was unreasonably dangerous.”

“Is there a record?” asked Pallida, raising an eyebrow.

“I keep transcriptions, yes,” replied Bethel with a serene smile. I was happy that she was sitting at the table with us like a normal person, instead of leaving an empty seat like she sometimes did. “Along with some notes on body language.”

“Make sure there are never copies,” said Raven. “I don’t believe the Infinite Library would –”

“Assume that I’m not a moron,” said Bethel, cutting her off (figuratively, not literally).

“Well,” said Raven. “Okay.” She turned to me. “Do you want to hear the other theories?”

“There are more?” I asked.

“Eighteen,” replied Raven.

“Jesus,” I said. “Alright, go on.”

This consumed almost all of our time, with a heavy amount of crosstalk. I decided that I was going to have to pull Grak aside later that night and thank him for being circumspect in what he contributed, because there were too many fucking people in our house, and too many of them had disagreements with each other for too many different reasons. Grak spoke up when he had something productive to contribute to the conversation, and otherwise kept his own feelings on matters silent, which I wished everyone else would do too.

Raven tried her best to go through the list quickly, and some of them were real dumb, so dumb that I would almost have faulted her for including them, except that we really did have to be looking at outside possibilities, and it helped me to learn something about the thirty years she’d spent with Uther.

Uther and his Knights once had to deal with a cult whose members would meditate in order to devote their brainpower to an eldritch creature, who, in turn, operated primarily by possessing a single cult member as his avatar. All that would probably have been weird but fine, but this creature, the High Onism, had both a strong desire to subsume the world, and some unsavory appetites of the flesh. The High Onism played Moriarty to Uther’s Sherlock for three years or so until Uthur pinned it down so it couldn’t flee for another host, then fed it a deadly meme. It had the meditation link, and the puppetry link, but aside from being as confirmed dead as it could be, all the people that meditated to give it power did so willingly, and there was nothing about a man on fire.

Uther had tangled with the he’lesh, who smoked their emotions. More specifically, the he’lesh kingdom had been overtaken by a novel herb that induced an altered state, one where they would see things that they would later forget. It was a shared delusion, a link between the smokers, which might not have been so bad, except that there were things within that shared delusion that had gone feral and could make some impact on the lives of the smokers. Uther had gone in and killed the hallucinatory beasts, then exterminated trade in the herb with extreme prejudice. It was notable in part because the bursar was he’lesh, but other than that, there weren’t many similarities.

Late during Uther’s time on Aerb, there started to be disappearances. Raven became one of the missing: she was having a daydream of a shining palace on top of a cliff, and ended up there, leaving the prime material plane behind. As it turned out, one of the other planes, Xoltle, had been brought into collision with the material plane. Anyone who daydreamed about the place on Xoltle that was co-located with the dreamer’s physical location on Aerb would wind up on Xoltle, where they would be picked up by the insane hierarch who had set his sights on conquest. Uther had defeated the hierarch (naturally), then untangled the planes with star magic beyond anything anyone had seen before or since.

Raven had eighteen of these. She wasn’t trying to tell us stories, just give us facts, but it was astonishing to me, even knowing what I did, that she could be given a prompt like, ‘I saw a guy on fire in the woods while I was meditating’ and she could spit back so many possibilities related to flames, dreams, meditation, altered states, subverted will, memory erasure, and dissonance of effects. There were enemies that might come out of the woodwork, enemies whose defeat had been less than total, and it seemed like Raven was slowly coming to grips with the fact that some of these plots could have sequels to them.

(I was thankful that I didn’t get a barrage of quest prompts, though it would have been helpful to be pointed in some particular direction, or get guidance from on high.)

“Some of those are real dumb,” said Pallida, once Raven finished.

“I did say that going in,” replied Raven with a frown.

“As much fun as you two are,” interjected Bethel. “Our guests are walking down the street as we speak. I’ve begun preparing a traditional Anglish dinner.”

“And what are you going to tell them?” Raven asked me.

“Amaryllis and I were talking on the way back from the athenaeum,” I said. She’d wanted to stop by the lawyers, which gave us more time to talk. “The plan is to tell them both that Amaryllis is Amaryllis, and then deal with whatever complications come from that. The game system stuff … it might potentially be helpful to have Reimer in the loop, but he doesn’t seem to have much loyalty to me, and the truth is, well, absurd. We’ll see how some of the rest of it goes. We’d both rather not have Lisi and Reimer have all the same information, but it’s not clear how avoidable that will be in practice.” I didn’t really want to tell Reimer everything, for a whole host of reasons.

“They’re at the door,” said Bethel.

“There’s the matter of who’s going to be present for this dinner,” I said. “Me and Amaryllis, naturally, but … well, some of you have physical appearances that raise questions.”

“The young are ever persecuted,” said Solace with a sigh. She was still holding onto her little green girl form, which I still found just a bit irritating, as much as she protested that she was still undergoing development and there were some benefits to it.

“How much are we bringing them in?” asked Grak.

“Honestly, I’m partial to just laying it all out at once, for the fun of it,” I began.

“They’re here,” said Bethel, “And their argument appears to have reached its conclusion. I’m going to answer the door.” She disappeared with a pop.

“Alright,” I said. “I’m going to go meet with them. Executive decision, it’ll be me, Amaryllis, Grak, Valencia, and Bethel.”

Bethel had shrunk down to a reasonable size, enough that she could pass for being a person, and when I came to meet them, she was standing next to Lisi and Reimer with a smile on her face. Bethel had changed her clothes too, to something resembling a serving outfit: it was a far cry from a French maid’s uniform, instead being more about functionality and layers, blues and whites with rolled up sleeves and thick boots on her feet.

“Hey Joon,” said Reimer with a wave. He was dressed up a bit, with slacks instead of jeans, and a button-down shirt. He must have gone back to his room to change. I wondered whether the change in clothes was for Amaryllis or Lisi, though it was possible it was for both.

“Juniper,” said Lisi with a nod. She looked around the place. “You asked for no comments on the house?”

“You did?” asked Bethel with one raised eyebrow. “Why, whatever for?”

“Reimer, Lisi, this is Bethel,” I said. “She’s my companion.” I almost said that she was my house and caught myself in mid-stream. There had been a time when I would have stumbled and flubbed it, but those moments of sheer awkwardness were behind me, and whatever idiotic thoughts my brain was churning through, I managed to keep my composure.

“Lisianthus Penndraig,” said Lisi, holding out her hand. “Fourth of my name, Second Under-Princess of Defense.”

“Charmed,” said Bethel, taking her hand lightly. “It’s just Bethel, only one name. Always a pleasure to meet a Penndraig.” Her smile was feral.

“Arthur Reimer,” said Reimer. He shook Bethel’s hand too. “Everyone just calls me Reimer though.”

“Pleasant to meet you,” said Bethel. “Now tell me, honestly, what do you think of the house?”

I didn’t think that Bethel was going to do anything to either of them. She was just fucking with them, and really, fucking with me by proxy. Despite myself, I felt my heart rate rise. There wasn’t a lot that I could do about Bethel going rogue, so I tried my best to keep calm.

“Is it special in some way?” asked Lisi, looking around. “Is there a trick?”

“Yes and yes,” I replied.

“Then what’s the trick?” asked Lisi.

“Here,” said Reimer with a smile. He held out his hand. “A glass of water.”

Nothing happened.

“Quite impressive,” said Bethel. “Can you do other drinks as well?”

“Juniper,” said Reimer, as he frowned at me. He lowered his hand, then turned to Lisi. “It was working last time I came here.” He looked back to me. “Did you tell the genie not to give me things anymore?”

“No,” I said. “And it’s not a genie, I just said it’s like a genie, in that you shouldn’t use it because maybe you would annoy it and wind up poisoned.”

“So the house is an entad?” asked Lisi. “Or it has an entad inside it?”

“Something like that,” said Bethel with a raised eyebrow. “Entads are common among the Penndraigs, aren’t they?”

“I have four,” said Lisi. She turned to me. “I’ll have more available to me as a combat mage, invested by members of the family.”

“What do they do?” asked Reimer.

“That’s an impolite question,” said Lisi, folding her arms. She looked at me. “I would like to meet with Amaryllis now.”

“Sure,” I said. “Last I heard, dinner was being prepared.”

“Still true,” said Bethel with a nod.

We went through the cozy little sitting room and into a dining room that was cramped by Bethel’s standards, not too much larger than it needed to be to hold the table, chairs, and an extra bit of walking space. It was done in the same style as the sitting room had been, with an overly done, kitschy aesthetic to it, dozens of small paintings on the walls, floral wallpaper, a chandelier of cut glass made to look like diamonds, doilies and flower arrangements, all kinds of visual clutter. It was less charming than the sitting room, but I still kind of liked it. It reminded me of my grandparents’ house, but without the smell.

Amaryllis was standing behind one of the chairs with a set look on her face. I went around to stand next to her.

“Reimer, this is Amaryllis Penndraig,” I said. “Lisi, I’m given to understand that you two know each other.”

“Yes,” said Lisi. She pursed her lips. “It’s good to see you again, cousin. You’ll have to tell me how you survived the trial by adversity.”

“Inconsequential,” said Amaryllis. “I need to say some random words. Give me a few minutes.”

“Words of what nature?” asked Lisi.

“To see what you know,” replied Amaryllis. “It’s part of our threat assessment. Reimer, you too.”

“Uh,” he said. “Sure.”

“Alright,” said Amaryllis with a nod. She took a breath. “Mome Rath. The Jub-jub bird. Arthur Isaac Blum. Valencia the Red. Grakhuil Leadbraids. Oorang Solace. Fallatehr Whiteshell. Heshnel Elec. Fenn Greenglass.”

The list went on like that for quite some time. Lisi sat there, stone-faced, while Reimer just looked bewildered. Running alongside the long list Amaryllis was going through, Bethel was thinking into our heads.

<Gray. Gray. Gray. Gray. Gray. Gray. Gray. Blue for her, gray for him. Gray. Gray,> she sent via thought-speech, each one a half-step behind Amaryllis.

This particular plan had been my idea, one made long ago. We’d stolen the change-colors-if-you-know ball from Masters, and Bethel’s virtue allowed her to temporarily take on the powers of any entad inside her. In the case of the memory ball, that meant the ability to sense which of the four (now notional) colors would be created when anyone anywhere in the house heard any noun phrase. Bethel opted not to use it most of the time, because the information it provided was virtually worthless and it was a strain on her sensorium, but for a short test like this, it could help us to magically note a couple of things.

The list had been Amaryllis’ work. It had the names of almost everyone we’d ever worked with or fought against, plus a handful of decoys. It had the names of future threats that might be connected to one or both of Lisi and Reimer, and a long list of names from Earth. Because the memory ball was capable of disambiguating between two identical noun phrases that referred to different things (‘Chinatown’ the place and ‘Chinatown’ the movie was the ur-example), there were some repeats.

“Project Garden Stake,” said Amaryllis. “Aubergine Stake, Snow Pea Stake, Cauliflower Stake.”

<Gray, gray, gray, gray,> replied Bethel.

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “That’s the list.”

“Those weren’t random,” said Reimer. “They were names.”

“Not all of them,” said Lisi, narrowing her eyes. “An entad?”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “One that, among other things, confirms that you’re both who you say you are.” As well as confirming that you know what we expect you to know … “With that, I think we can start.”

Amaryllis was wearing a purple dress, nothing terribly fancy. She was wearing makeup to match, light pink for the lips and a touch of eyeshadow, plus probably a bit more that was too subtle for me to notice. On her hand, though, was Sable, the pitch black glove. She tapped a finger against the table, and she must have practiced it, because a stack of papers instantly appeared there.

“This is a contract,” said Amaryllis. “It’s legally binding in Li’o, Anglecynn, and Miunun. It doesn’t have terribly much weight to it insofar as enforcement, but you signing it is a precondition of further conversation. I’ll allow you to read it, but it would suffice to say that there are stiff penalties for disclosing anything that we speak about here today, whether the nature of that disclosure is intentional or otherwise.” She slid the paper across to Lisi, then produced a second copy, and slid it across to Reimer.

Lisi began reading it with furrowed eyebrows. “I already know you’re here,” she said. “I know you’re connected to the Republic of Miunun in some capacity, that you’re connected to Juniper, and the location of this house. I could walk out this door and leverage that.”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis.

“What are you offering us?” asked Lisi. She glanced over at Reimer, who was already signing. “What are you offering me, then?”

“Power,” I said. “Influence, material support, connections, and resources. We have a lot. We’re planning to bring you in.” Part way, anyway. “But to hear the offer, to know more, you have to sign.”

Lisi finished reading through the document while Reimer sat idly next to her.

“Can I ask a question?” he asked.

“Sure,” I replied.

“What the hells does any of this have to do with me?” he asked.

“I’ll tell you when she’s either signed or left,” I said, nodding at Lisi.

Lisi looked up, glared at me, then looked back down and kept reading.

<Getting anything?> I asked Bethel.

<She has an entad dagger,> replied Bethel. <It allows crossing a distance of a few miles. She has two tattoos, both the Surface Sheath, containing survival or emergency equipment, from what I can tell. Heart rate, pupil dilation, and perspiration are all consistent with excitement and nervousness. I’m feeding information to Valencia. She thinks that Lisi is approximately what she says she is. She’d like your permission to use a devil while in the room with you.>

<Granted,> I replied. <Hard to avoid it.>

<Nothing you don’t want her seeing?> asked Bethel.

<Lots,> I said. <I’ve got an ugly soul.>

“Okay,” said Lisi, as she signed the paper with a flourish and slid the papers back across to Amaryllis. “Explain.”

“I did make dinner,” said Bethel.

“And there are others I’d like to introduce you to,” said Amaryllis.

“Fine,” said Lisi.

On what was presumably Bethel’s cue, Valencia and Grak came in. Grak gave a stiff bow, and Valencia a sweeping curtsey.

“This is Grakhuil Leadbraids and Valencia the Red,” I said. “They’re our warder and combat specialist, respectively.”

“‘The Red’?” asked Reimer.

“Yes,” replied Valencia, nodding once. “It’s a name to let my enemies know they should run away.”

“And now, food,” said Bethel.

Plates appeared in front of each of us, a small salad of bright greens with tiny, colorful flowers mixed in, and a miniature cruet on the side.

“I want to know how you escaped trial by adversity,” said Lisi.

Amaryllis took a slow, delicate bite of her salad, then used the cruet to distribute a thin vinaigrette onto the salad. “There was an entad in Silmar City,” said Amaryllis. “Rather than going for the walls, where the Host would be waiting for us, and where I would presumably have an attempt made on my life, we headed toward the center of the exclusion, found the entad, and escaped.”

“Together,” said Lisi, looking at me.

“Yes,” I said. “We met when we hit the ground. I’ve been by her side since then.”

“No,” said Reimer. “Bullshit.” He was looking back and forth between me and Amaryllis. “That’s … that doesn’t parse. You, Juniper Smith, went through a trial by adversity, met the girl you had a crush on for years, somehow got jacked as fuck while also growing a few inches, and now you’re here, at S&S, getting not one but two schools of magic, all without Anglecynn knowing about it? And you’re also part of some fish person island?” He sat back in his chair. “And that’s aside from you paying absurd amounts of money for the rules to a game system that you designed, and the oh-so-convenient way you claim to have lost your memory. No. Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying.”

I was eating my salad while he talked, and calmly put down my fork.

“You’re right,” I replied. “I’m not Juniper Smith. Are you familiar with the phenomena called the dream-skewered?”

Reimer frowned at me. “I guess you’re forgetting the group project we worked on?” I nodded once. “Well, that’s what it was, a presentation about the dream-skewered. It was a glorified book report of a not very great book.” He narrowed his eyes. “And that’s what you’re going with? The real Juniper Smith was dream-skewered shortly after or before what usually serves as an execution, and you’re just the poor, deluded fool that lives in his body? Except, somehow, you know enough to talk and act like him.”

“I’m from Earth,” I said. “But there was a Juniper Smith that lived on Earth, who was essentially the same person as the one you knew, just with all the details changed around.”

Reimer stared at me.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “It sounds far-fetched.”

“When presented with extraordinary claims,” said Lisi, “It’s always better to seek mundane explanations. To wit, it’s more likely that you’re lying about who or what you are for some unknown reason. An elaborate, pointless prank, for example.”

“Okay,” I said, spreading my hands. “I’m pretty sure that with some time together, Reimer would see that I was telling the truth about who I am, or at least, he would be able to figure out what I believe to be true. He has the capacity to test me. We can even lend some entads that might help with that, though I’ve been living on Aerb for quite some time now, and I know a lot of things that a native would know.”

“Your claim has no proof but your word,” said Lisi.

“Wait,” said Reimer. “Why were you paying so much for the game system?”

I sighed. “Because it’s real.”

Reimer thought about that for a moment. “No?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s real, and it, or something like it, is affecting me.”

“Prove it,” said Reimer.

“I can’t,” I replied. “All I can do is show you some of my abilities, but they’re nothing that you couldn’t replicate with either sufficient training or entads. You don’t have a trusted warder to make sure that I’m not using any magic anyway.”

“It wouldn’t be proof,” said Lisi. “But it would give some bounds to the problem.” She frowned. “For the record, I don’t think this is a particularly important point.”

“You’re wrong,” said Amaryllis. “It’s the most important part of all of this.”

“How about this,” I said. “I’m a blood mage, bone mage, and skin mage.” I moved my tattoos around to briefly cross my face and hands, then stabbed myself in the wrist with my fork and caused the blood to arc under my concentration, before burning a bone to heal it back up. I wiped the remaining blood away with a napkin.

“You’re a multimage,” said Lisi, staring at me. “If you were Juniper Smith, then you would be young enough that you went to Quills and Blood at the same time we did.”

“He didn’t have to,” said Amaryllis.

“Wait,” said Reimer. “The game doesn’t actually work, it’s held together with sticky tape and reliant on house rules half the time, with the other half just being fiat.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“But … who’s the arbiter?” he asked. “Who’s the Dungeon Master?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“You don’t know, but one exists?” asked Reimer.

“Yeah,” I said. “I met him, actually, he just wasn’t someone that I knew.”

“You’re talking about this wargame you played?” Lisi asked Reimer. Her face was set in a serious expression that was very close to a scowl.

“If he called it a wargame, he didn’t explain it right,” I said.

“It’s descended from a wargame,” said Reimer, folding his arms. “It’s not not a wargame.”

“There’s no war,” I said. “It’s small groups.”

“Fireteams are an element of war,” said Reimer.

“Semantics,” said Amaryllis with a wave of her hand, as though she didn’t love semantic debates.

“Right,” I said. “What I’m saying, essentially, is that I have a large amount of power, and our ultimate goal is to use that power to do the most good.”

“In what sense?” asked Lisi.

“I second that question,” said Reimer. “That could mean a lot of things, some of them evil.”

“In the short term, we’re solving whatever unambiguous problems we can,” I said. “In the medium term, we’re working on a technological revolution. In the long term …” I paused, because it was audacious. “The plan is to solve problems that exist on the planar scale.”

“How?” asked Lisi. “This power of yours is that good?”

“Wait,” said Reimer. “Are you … are you leveling up? You have skills? That’s why you wanted to know all the rules?”

“Yes,” I said.

“But who’s the Dungeon Master then?” he asked.

“I already said,” I replied.

“But that’s — it all depends on who the Dungeon Master is, that’s what it all hinges on, because the arbiter has all the power, and they can just say no if they don’t like whatever it is you’re doing. You can’t rely on a sensible interpretation of the rules.”

“Is that what you’d call it?” I asked. “Sensible?”

“What’s the mechanism this all works by?” asked Lisi. She turned to Grak. “How does it map?”

“It doesn’t,” Grak replied. “It’s invisible to warder’s sight. All his magics appear as they would for anyone else. There’s no trace of his unique ability.”

Lisi raised an eyebrow.

“Wait,” said Reimer. “Then why the hells did you come to S&S? Like, let’s say that I believe you became a skilled multimage in the space of five months courtesy of some magical not-magic bullshit that happened to you, why come here, where you’re going to have to wait two years anyhow? Unless you can learn without getting inducted? But that would raise all kinds of questions.”

“I’m fast-tracked,” I replied. “One week of classes, then I get to go down.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” asked Lisi, slamming her fist against the table.

“There’s a special procedure in place,” I replied.

“For someone with game powers?” asked Reimer, in his most smartass tone.

“No,” said Lisi. “For special circumstances, rhannu or renacim or something like that.” She stared at me. “But you’re human.”

“And that’s why the student council is a little displeased with me,” I said.

“You’re going to pick up two magics inside a week,” said Lisi, staring at me. “At what proficiency?”

“Probably four to eight years of study,” I replied.

“Intensive study or regular study?” asked Lisi.

“Uh,” I replied. “It varies, I think, but regular study?”

“Meaning with all of the normal classes that we’re forced to take for no reason other than desire by the athenaeums to make people take their time learning things?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Wait,” said Reimer. “What level are you? How high are your skills?”

“Level 14,” I said. “Most skills in the 30s.”

“What?” asked Reimer. “Hold on a sec.” He held out his hand. “Paper.”

Nothing happened.

“Joon, get it to do the thing,” said Reimer.

“Manners might help,” said Bethel with the kind of smile a person usually had before engaging in cannibalism.

“Papers, please,” said Reimer with a huff.

“Oh, I meant sincere manners, not the pretense of them,” said Bethel.

“Oh mighty magical thing, could I please have some paper?” asked Reimer.

A sheet of paper appeared in front of him, to the side of his neglected salad. He stared at it for a moment. “Pen too.”

A pen fell from the air above him and hit him in the head.

“Be more considerate next time,” said Bethel. “And eat your salad.”

Reimer picked up the pen and rubbed his head, then began scribbling on the paper.

“What are you doing?” asked Lisi.

“Math,” said Reimer. “Okay, level 14, per the rules we played under, you should have 31 points. By the discounting rules, that’s 17 total in the abilities, which would mean above 50 in all your skills.” He looked up at me. “Right?”

“Juniper’s points weren’t all put into a single category,” said Amaryllis.

Reimer looked at me in disbelief. “But … why?”

I really didn’t want to re-litigate this. “Is that really your question?” I asked. “Of all the things that you could be asking right now, that’s what you want to focus on?”

“I mean,” said Reimer, looking a little helpless. “Yeah?”

“Multiple ability dependence is bad,” I said. “I’m fully aware of that. But when I came to Aerb, it was in the Risen Lands, with undead all around me, and Physical was the only thing that was going to keep me intact. Even after we got our asses out of there, I had to deal with problems that really couldn’t be solved by Mental or Social.” I resisted the urge to glance at Amaryllis, because I knew that point was debatable. “So yes, I changed course, I multiclassed, sue me.”

“What does that mean, ‘multiclassed’?” asked Reimer.

“Nevermind,” I replied. “The build is suboptimal at present, yes, and it’s a generalist build in a system that doesn’t seem to give a lot of preference to those. I’m a multimage, and I’ll probably be one of the best in the world in another month or two, and we’re going to have to hope that’s enough.”

“I’m in,” said Lisi. She was staring at me. “Whatever you want from me, I’m fully committed.”

“You figured it out,” said Amaryllis.

Lisi nodded.

“Sorry,” said Reimer, looking between us. “Figured what out?”

“He’s Uther Penndraig,” said Lisi, gesturing at me. “Or something similar.”

“What?” asked Reimer, looking me over. “No, that’s insane.” He looked at Amaryllis, then back at me, and I suppose it must have dawned on him that we weren’t denying it. “That’s … of all the fucking people in the world?”

“Yes,” I said. And it’s worse, because I was the one to create a large portion of this world. “Sorry.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 148: Sing For Your Supper

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