After that whole mess was temporarily dealt with, we had other things to do. It seemed kind of crazy to finish talking to a dragon and then realize that I had a whole day ahead of me, but that’s how it was. There were things to do, people to meet, support to give, and plans to make. Before the whole Bethel thing had happened, we’d been discussing closing out a few simple and early quests, if it was at all possible.
They had to be approached carefully though, because we’d run into problems in the past, namely at Speculation and Scrutiny, which had led into a whole bunch of other shit that had ended up with Fenn dead. Some of that was, in retrospect, foreseeable, and I could also see all the ways that a clever DM could have arranged it to be an easier chain of events if it was gotten to sooner, assuming that the Dungeon Master wasn’t just shifting things around willy-nilly when they were “off-screen”. If we’d ended up going there earlier, maybe by having a different outcome with Larkspur, or risking the police by going back to Boastre Vino, then maybe Heshnel’s group wouldn’t have been on such high alert, ready to storm in at a moment’s notice. Or maybe Masters himself wouldn’t have gotten such terrible news from all his many sources, which would have put him more at ease about both my appearance and what might happen with his daughter. In that way, the encounter might have been designed to scale to my level, or at least to scale based on the amount of time that had passed.
In theory, the same could be true for a quest like Through the Lashing Glass, where it would be worse and worse the longer it was put off, but I wasn’t sure about whether that would be true in practice. For one thing, the rewards for that quest were, so far as we knew, static, the same as they had been when Amaryllis first proposed the idea to us. For another thing, there wasn’t any obvious mechanism for the quest to get any harder, since the exclusion zone was at a relative equilibrium, as most exclusion zones tended to be. It was a hellscape, sure, but it wasn’t a hellscape that was worsening, at least not on a human timescale. We were still going to be cautious though, because there was little reason not to be.
Before any of that though, I had a lingering bit of business that had been set up more than a month ago: learning water magic. It was a bloodline magic, the only one that I had access to, and none of my attempts to unlock it on my own had been successful. On the plus side, it wasn’t controlled by an athenaeum, and hiring a teacher had been as simple as writing a letter to the right person, then waiting for them to come to the Isle of Poran. Unfortunately, they’d been delayed, then I had gone off to Sound and Silence for three weeks, and it was only now that I was going to get the unlock, not that it was a particularly useful magic unless I found myself needing to change the weather or I was in a fight with a lot of water around me.
Thankfully the meeting with the water mage went off without a hitch, and I unlocked the magic with no further complications.
Hahahahah, can you imagine that? If something had actually gone right for once? If a magic had been simple and easy to acquire? No, instead, I was brought face to face with my mom.
The ‘auxiliary school’ had been created by a skilled steel mage a few weeks prior, with additional work done while we were at Speculation and Scrutiny to make sure that all the utilities were in place. The plan had always been to move the tuung into a permanent residence once their time in the chamber was finished. We were just moving a little bit ahead of schedule, with tuung that weren’t quite fully grown, and before everything had been finished. All of the normal business of Miunun was being conducted in the auxiliary school given Bethel’s sudden and unexpected departure, so I had been given a room off to the side for the meeting. I was reading through some information on water magic, trying to prep myself, when my mom walked in.
We stared at each other for a moment.
My mom was in her forties, though I never remembered how old she actually was, and instead I always worked backward from how old I was, if I had to. Her face was lined and her hair was halfway to grey. Her hair was the same as it had been on Earth, short bangs and a bob, which didn’t flatter her angular face. She was on the shorter side, which I was noticing in people a lot more given how tall I’d gotten, and she had a slight stoop, like she might need to reach over to something for support, though I’d seen her hike through the woods with that same stoop, so I had no idea why her posture was like that. Her outfit was a blue pantsuit, which were a rarity on Aerb, but it was the kind of thing that my mom wore to work most days, which completed the resemblance.
“Hi,” I said. I didn’t know whether or not she recognized me. She obviously wasn’t my actual mom from Earth, but —
“Juniper?” she asked, voice catching in her throat, hand raised halfway to her mouth.
“Yeah,” I replied.
She rushed forward and wrapped me in a hug. She had always been a bony woman, for about as long as I could remember, thin to the point of it being a little alarming. I hugged her back, though I didn’t find it warm or comforting. My mom had never really been the type.
“What happened to you?” she asked, pulling back but still holding tight to me, looking me up and down. “How are you here?”
“It’s complicated,” I replied. She was crying, and I felt awkward, because I didn’t know how to deal with her crying. I never did.
“You’re alive,” she said, still looking me over. I didn’t know if she’d missed the fact that I had grown a few inches, or if that hadn’t hit her yet. “You’re alive,” she repeated.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Your father said that you were going to face trial by adversity, I thought –” she stopped again, to wipe some tears away.
“I faced the trial by adversity,” I replied. “I came out the other end.”
“That’s,” she said. “I didn’t know you … that must have been awful, your father told me he filed an appeal, but it — how, Juniper?”
“It’s complicated,” I repeated. “At least some of it is a state secret.”
My mom finally seemed to connect who I was to where I was, and backed up to look around, finally releasing me. “Juniper, how are you here? And don’t tell me that it’s complicated, I’m not stupid.” I finally saw the sour look on her face that I most associated with her.
“Fine,” I said. “I met Amaryllis Penndraig in the Risen Lands, and we left without reporting to the Host like we were supposed to. Over time we’ve been slowly accumulating more people, and we eventually got into a position where we were able to help establish the Republic of Miunun. I’m on the Council of Arches, the Advisor on Culture.”
Her eyes were still wet, but she’d reverted to distrust, which I remembered well. My mom had never trusted me, maybe because I had lied to her one too many times, or maybe because that was just her nature. She never believed me when I said that I was out with friends, she never believed which friends I was with, she didn’t believe that I wasn’t smoking pot, that I wasn’t autistic, that I wasn’t gay, and maybe some of it was just the kind of paranoia that a lot of parents had, but it had been grating. Here, now, there was that same look.
“No,” she finally said, shaking her head.
“Yeah, Reimer didn’t believe me either,” I said. “And I haven’t given the whole story to Tom or Tiff either, but I doubt that they’ll believe even the parts that I did tell them.” I had dutifully written them letters, as I’d told Reimer I would, leaving out almost everything and simply reassuring them that I was alive and well. “Look, I could bring in Amaryllis if that would help you believe me, but the fact that I’m standing in this room with you should be proof enough.”
“You brought me here?” my mom asked, still wary. “That’s — how?”
I thought about that for a moment. “I don’t know,” I said. “Coincidence, probably.” I was pretty sure that if Amaryllis had known that I would be meeting with my mom, she would have told me. Amaryllis knew the names of pretty much everyone I had ever known, so either this was a deliberate setup on her part, or it had fallen through the cracks somehow.
“Coincidence,” my mom replied. “You’re lying to me.”
It wasn’t the first time that she had called me a liar. It was one of her go-tos when she wasn’t feeling like she trusted me, as though calling me out would get me to confess. Obviously it was a tactic that didn’t work when I was telling the truth, but she didn’t seem to care much about that. She’d done the same to dad, which was often the start of one of their big arguments. My mom would accuse my dad of cheating on her, and he would say that he would never, and she would call him a liar, and it would spiral out of control from there, which was the point where I would try pretending that I didn’t know English, and that these were just sounds that could wash over me without meaning.
Of course, this wasn’t actually my mom, it was the Aerbian facsimile, and there were marked differences between her and my real mom. This woman had been divorced for seven years, something that I had always wanted for my parents. She also didn’t work at a box factory like my mom did, she was a water mage, which wasn’t an extremely prestigious career, but I had to assume was wildly different from working in a managerial position.
“I am lying,” I said. “But the truth is classified, and it’s too strange for you to believe. I didn’t bring you here though, and I don’t think that anyone on my team did, at least not deliberately.”
“You’re taller,” my mom said, finally noticing. “And you have more muscles.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’ve been trying to take care of myself since getting out of the Risen Lands. I know that you and dad were always worried about whether I was going to make something of myself, but it looks like that’s going to happen. We can spend some time catching up, if you’d like.” I really didn’t want to, but I was putting effort into being the best Juniper that I could be, and it seemed like something that he would have said … though on second thought, there was a good chance that an extended conversation between us would allow something of substance to spill out, which would bring up the whole dream-skewered thing, which I should maybe inform her of anyway, given that it wasn’t exactly a secret. Bleh. Sorry mom, but I’m an alternate universe version of myself.
“But I don’t even understand what I’m doing here, Juniper,” my mom replied. “You say that it’s a coincidence, that it’s a state secret — then why was I called in to train someone in water magic?”
“Oh,” I said. “We needed someone trained in water magic. I was planning to learn as much as I could in as little time as possible. I just didn’t imagine that when we put in the request, the person that would end up here would be you.”
“None of this makes any sense,” my mom replied, shaking her head again.
“It does, from a certain point of view,” I said. “I think … I think maybe a higher power didn’t want you to think that you had lost your son, and wanted me to say goodbye to my mother.”
“A higher power?” my mom asked. “Goodbye?”
“It’s complicated,” I said. “Coincidence isn’t the half of it. But yeah, going forward, I think that it would probably be best for you to get as far from the Isle of Poran as you can. There are things happening that might not make this the safest place.”
“There were dragons, earlier today,” my mom said. “There was talk of evacuating the island. Did you have any part in that?”
“I talked to some dragons, yeah,” I said. “Like I said, it’s complicated.”
In my ideal world, maybe she would have declared that she was going to stay with me, to protect me, but that had never been my mom, and even if it had been, I didn’t really want to see much more of her, I just wanted her to … I don’t know. Be different. I wanted her to conform to some abstract ideal of motherhood that she’d never conformed to.
“Does your father know?” my mom asked. She said ‘father’ like it was a curse word.
“No,” I replied. “Not unless Tom told him, which I don’t think he did. Dad might know that something is up, because my friends went to talk to him a month ago, but they didn’t say anything about where I was or what I was doing.” I shrugged.
“Your father and I aren’t really on speaking terms anymore,” my mom replied. “I thought maybe he had hid things from me.” She had her arms folded across her chest.
“No, probably not,” I replied. “He probably thinks I died in the trial.”
“You could have called,” my mom said. “You could have called either of us. Or sent a letter. I’ve been traveling, like I always wanted to, but they have this service to check centrally forwarded mail, and –”
“I’m sorry,” I said, because I had sat through enough momsplaining for one lifetime. “I’ve had a lot on my plate.”
“You can always make time for family,” my mom replied.
“Mom, do you understand that your life might be in danger?” I asked. “We’re doing good work here, charitable work, but there are dragons, and the nobility of Anglecynn isn’t terribly happy with us, and — I want you to really grasp the fact that this is a life or death thing.”
“I do,” my mom replied. “Juniper, this is just so crazy, to have you go to jail and then be here of all places, and you want to be a water mage?” She threw up her hands. “You never wanted to be a water mage.”
“Well, I do now,” I said. “It might be important. It might be life or death. I don’t know how, but you got here by coincidence or something like it, and if I don’t have a good foundation in water magic –”
“We should take you to a doctor,” my mom said. “I think there’s a blood mage down in the village, a magus from what I’ve heard. I always check first thing when I get somewhere new. If there’s something wrong with your head –”
“Mom, I really appreciate it, but I’m completely fine,” I replied. Also, I’m a magus-tier blood mage myself.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” my mom shot back. She was fidgeting slightly. “You’re standing there speaking in riddles about important things that are happening while not actually telling me anything, and what am I supposed to think?”
“I know,” I said. “But I don’t think it’s safe to tell you more, not safe for me, for you, or for Miunun. That’s just how it is. If you need to be convinced, I can bring in Amaryllis, but –”
“Amaryllis?” asked my mom. “You’re talking about that girl you had a crush on? She’s involved in this somehow too?”
“I — yes, I already said, she was in the Risen Lands with me.” I was starting to lose my cool a little bit. All I really wanted from my mom was for us to part ways amicably, and it wouldn’t have hurt if she helped to unlock water magic on the way, but she was filled with questions, misunderstandings, and all the same mistrust and skepticism that had marked our relationship on Earth. “Look, things have been crazy for me since the Risen Lands, I’ve put my life on the line a few times, I’ve been in situations that no one in the history of Aerb had been in, and I know that this probably sounds like –”
“Escapism,” my mom replied. “Just like your games, only magnified.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I just … can you give me a moment?” I rolled up my sleeve and revealed Alvion’s Vambrace, which I turned to put me into my other set of gear, fully kitted with a bandolier of bones, two weapons at my hips, and full plate armor, along with various other things like my rings and the cloakshield. “I’m very serious,” I said. “Things have gotten strange very quickly for me, but I just … I want you to know that I’m doing okay.”
My mom looked me up and down. “Is this … what you are now?” she asked. “A soldier?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “More than that, but … yeah. I would have liked not to be. It’s just how things ended up.”
My mom’s lips drew into a thin line. “This is your father’s influence,” she said.
“It’s — are you even listening to yourself?” I asked. “Dad had nothing to do with this. He couldn’t have. I haven’t talked to him since I came back into civilization, and I don’t plan on it.”
“This was always what he wanted for you,” my mom replied, her face still set. “He was always trying to toughen you up, always trying to make you into a fighter, I remember you came back from sword practice with a bruise across your belly and he never seemed prouder.”
“Mom,” I said slowly. “This isn’t about you. It’s not about dad. It’s not about whatever bullshit arguments you had when I was a kid about how to raise me, or how you hated each other, or just — whatever, it’s not about any of that.” I took a breath and decided to go with a varnished version of the truth, with caveats elided. “Mom, I love you, I really do, and I love dad, and I’m glad that you were both there watching over me, but I’m on my own path now, and it doesn’t have that much to do with you, or with how I was raised. I’m just … my own person.” I took another breath. “If you want to help, you can teach me water magic. If you’re not going to do that, I think you should get as far away from here as possible, because I don’t want you to be hurt.”
The caveats would have been plentiful, of course, and I had stopped short of calling my mom, or this version of her, a good mother, because there were limits to how much I could stretch the truth. There had been times they were screaming at each other when I’d desperately wished I had a sibling, someone who could at least commiserate with me, but it was just me, all alone, with those two people who hated each other and didn’t seem to understand or respect me in any capacity. Some of that I chalked up to just normal teenage stuff, but I had friends whose parents seemed to like them, and I couldn’t even imagine what that would have been like.
“Okay,” said my mom. “I’ll teach you.”
“Really?” I asked.
“I always said that I would,” my mom replied. “Even if you’re acting like a different person, even if you’re trying to get yourself killed, even if — Juniper, there were dragons out there.”
“I know mom,” I said. “But you’ll teach me?”
“I will,” she nodded. “Gods help me, but I will.”
My mom was manic depressive. She was on lamotrigine for it, but every so often, she would go off her medication, or there would be a wild mood swing anyway. The depressive end of things was always easier for us to deal with, because she would shut herself in her room, and dad would order us pizzas, which we would eat at the dining room table without her. Sometimes, before I was old enough to just go where I wanted to, my dad would send me off to a friend’s house for a hastily arranged sleepover, one which usually lasted for long enough to put a strain on those friendships. My mom would just disappear from my life every so often, usually just a day or two at a time, and it was confusing and distressing when I was younger, which turned into just kind of a thing that I accepted when I was older. Picture Juniper at seven, trying to cheer his mom up, or just get her to go outside with him, and not really having the capacity to understand what was going on. Then picture Juniper at sixteen, staying in the library after school because his mom has been essentially absent. There wasn’t much to do for her, after she’d been talked into taking her medicine again.
My dad didn’t get it, and that led to a few fights between them. To his mind, those depressive episodes were her being lazy or melodramatic, and I think because they were so infrequent, he never really had to grapple with that being a part of her. She could go years without an episode, so I guess maybe it was like this totally different person walked into his life. He didn’t really like that other person she momentarily became. He would get pissed about her being out of sorts, and sometimes he would make snide comments about it even when she was better, chastising her for the fact that he had to miss a hunting trip, or thinking of the depression as something that was a character flaw on her part. Mom kind of enabled it, because she would apologize for her brain chemicals being out of whack (though she obviously wouldn’t have used those terms), always in terms that validated dad’s understanding of it as something she controlled. Sometimes I could see it, like when she went off her meds, but other times she would just have an episode, and I didn’t feel like she should be apologizing for that.
The manic episodes were a different story entirely. Mom always got these grand dreams, and she would take these enormous, decisive steps to pursue them. She quit her job twice (hired back later on), she opened up lines of credit and accrued enormous amounts of debt, she filed applications for college, for other jobs, for all kinds of insane things, and she would make major purchases without so much as thinking about them or consulting with dad. A few times she would just call up a friend and give them a piece of her mind, unloading years worth of built-up gossip or ill will. If it wasn’t something big like that, it was a bunch of small things, all at once, sometimes productively but usually not, like rapidly switching between doing the dishes, doing laundry, painting the ceiling, scrubbing away scuff marks, and inevitably leaving each job half done.
If dad didn’t have a handle on mom’s depressive episodes, then he really didn’t have a handle on her manias. They would get into screaming matches when he tried to stop her from doing the things she was convinced that she needed to do, in part because he was never terribly good at talking with much empathy, compassion, or understanding. There was that same framing of her mania as a personal failing, but it was a much worse personal failing, because it put us into debt, or caused her trouble at work, or otherwise materially fucked things up in a way that depression mostly didn’t (pizza dinners and that one hunting trip aside). Dad usually dealt with it by leaving her, after first taking her car keys, her phone, her computer, and everything else that would potentially get her into more serious trouble, lessons he’d learned the hard way. Sometimes dad would take me with, but usually he wouldn’t.
It didn’t happen often, but it always left strong memories. When I was seven, it was an adventure, a long road trip that my mom talked through almost non-stop, with lots of breaks to go look at whatever took her fancy. She sang along to the radio, and I sang too, because my mom had never been that fun before. We were two hours from home when she started to flag and called my dad, slightly confused about where we were or what we were doing. He was furious, naturally. Dad always did fury well. When I was eleven, I got left home alone with mom after dad had taken her keys from her. I tried to talk sense into her, but I didn’t do a good enough job, because it just riled her up. She didn’t like being told no. I tried to talk her out of buying things online, and her good mood turned sour enough that she told me she’d never wanted me in the first place. When I was thirteen, I had better luck with her, mostly through speaking calmly, even about random stupid bullshit that she thought was a good idea in the moment. I tried to divert her, to manage her, until she came crashing down. That was the year she had three episodes, and I thought about running away.
There was never any acknowledgement that I had helped, and barely an admission that she’d had a manic episode at all. She would brush off the things she’d done or said by telling me that everyone had their off days, and if I had helped her at all, she had either forgotten it right after it happened, or preferred not to give any recognition of it. She would always get more religious after an episode, once she was back on an even keel. She put her time and effort into the church rather than her family. I resolved to stop helping, because what was it getting me? Insults, yelling, resentment, and on one unfortunately memorable occasion, way more detail about my parents’ sex life than I had ever wanted. After that terrible year with three episodes, there were only two more before I left Earth entirely, and for both, I ducked out. The one when I was sixteen, I came home to find my room had been tossed, and my best guess was that my mom was trying to find something incriminating, which she didn’t find, because I was, all things considered, on the straight and narrow.
I had no idea what it was like for my Aerb mom. Chemistry on Aerb was unsophisticated enough that they almost certainly didn’t have lamotrigine. Was my Aerb mom still bipolar? Was there some Aerbian treatment that worked better, or worse, or just different? On Aerb, my parents divorced when I was relatively young, which seemed like a godsend for Aerb Juniper, but I had to wonder about what that was like. There were only so many things that you could change around, after all, before you ended up with a radically different person, one with different life experiences, different outlooks, and different values. She wasn’t my mom, because there were too many places that simply couldn’t match.
Then again, there were a lot bigger differences to worry about, like the fact that my mom was a water mage.
When I was in middle school, my mom had come in to give a talk about the box factory, since parents sometimes talking about their job was something that we did every once in a while. I don’t know whether she was asked, or whether she volunteered, but given the decided lack of vigor in her talk, I really had to assume the former.
People needed boxes for things, but most places that made things didn’t want to be making boxes, so that was where the box factory came in. It was a vital link in the global economy, it just happened to be an unexamined one. Maybe if my mom had any actual affection for her job, she would have explained to us how the work she did was a part of the vast web of dependencies that the world relied on, which I might have found interesting. Instead, she talked about boxes, how they were manufactured, and her job in talking to people about what kind of boxes they wanted from among the options that were available to them, and working with other people at the box company to make sure those boxes were made.
My Aerb mom was a water mage instead, but she brought pretty much the same level of excitement and enthusiasm to the job.
“This isn’t going to help if you don’t have the talent,” my mom said. I was standing in the water with my pants rolled up, feet on the hard rocks. “We had you tested when you were little, don’t you remember that?”
“There are false negatives sometimes, right?” I asked, hoping that was true.
“I also can’t train you in only a few hours,” my mom replied. “I’m not a teacher, for a start. Your uncle Kirk would have been the one to do it. Even then it would take months.”
“Okay,” I said. “I get that.”
“It’s not an easy job, Juniper,” my mom said. “I know you think it is, but it’s not, it’s hard work, and it’s not fun, so don’t go making that mistake.”
“Okay,” I said. “Can you just teach me?”
“I am teaching you,” my mom replied. She had set her jacket off to the side, and now rolled her sleeves up. “When my aunt was teaching me, these were the very first things that she said, she said it was hard work and it wasn’t fun.”’
I held my tongue, waiting for some actual advice. I had tried to unlock water magic a number of times after learning that it was on my character sheet, and skimmed through at least one book on the subject, but it seemed like what I needed was a teacher, and it seemed like the reason I needed a teacher was that the Dungeon Master wanted me to talk to my mother.
“Now,” my mom said, finally getting to the point. “Can you feel the water?”
“Yes,” I said. I was standing in the stuff, after all.
“Really feel it,” my mom said. “Not with your feet, with your other sense.”
“Uh,” I said, looking at her. “Sorry, I don’t really know what that actually means. I mean I know what it means to have other senses, but I don’t know what it means to feel the water with another sense.” I could sense my blood and my bones just fine, the vibrations of everything around me, and the changes that could be stopped at my whim. My sense of skin was conspicuously absent. No sense of water either.
“There,” said my mom, pointing to a section of the shore. “Do you feel where the elevation changes?”
“Uh,” I said. I tried to concentrate. “No.”
“Your father and I didn’t agree on much,” my mom said. “But we always agreed on trying to instill in you a desire to try hard at whatever it was you did. I don’t know how we got that wrong.”
That is such a fucking shitty thing to say to a person, let alone your son. “Mom, I am trying. I can’t just feel the water.”
“Then you don’t have the talent,” my mom replied. “And that’s that. So you can either try harder, or I’ve taught you everything there is to teach you, which is nothing.”
“That’s not helpful,” I said. “You said that you were going to teach me. So … what does water feel like, to you?”
“It’s –” my mom stopped and frowned for a moment, then held out one hand. “It’s a pressure,” she said. “Almost like it’s on the skin. Not a literal pressure, but the water has weight, at least when there’s enough of it, and you can feel clouds overhead like they were pressing down on you. If you’re by a lake, it’s like standing on a handful of blankets and feeling the rock underneath. When you’re out at sea, it’s firm ground beneath you.”
I closed my eyes and held out my hands, moving them slowly, trying to feel the water, or to feel anything changing. The air was humid, which was no surprise given that I was standing in the sea, and my feet were wet, but I got nothing from it. I had already read that water magic was felt externally, so none of this was actually new, I had spent a couple hours at one of our safehouses standing in a lake while alternately trying to clear my mind and thumbing through a book we’d picked up. There shouldn’t have been anything that my mom could say that I wouldn’t already know.
“Sometimes it’s oppressive,” my mom continued. “It’s not like other senses. You don’t get used to the water. You always know where the clouds are, where the nearest lake is, where the wells should be dug, where the rivers flow … some people have trouble falling asleep, because they can’t tune it out. There’s a sense of water all the time, in every circumstance.”
I opened my eyes and looked at her. “I hadn’t read that.”
My mom shrugged. “You get used to it.”
“You just said that you didn’t get used to it,” I replied.
“You learn to deal with it,” my mom said. “You cope with it. You surround yourself with people who understand what it means, or if they keep not understanding, you cut them out of your life.”
“That’s,” I said. “Is that … why you and dad fought?”
“Your father and I fought about many things,” my mom replied. She was matter-of-fact about it, and using the past tense. “He was selfish, and he added to that by not listening, especially not when it got in the way of him being selfish.”
I tried to mull that over. My real mom had never had a problem with too much of a sense of water. Which meant that either Aerb Juniper’s mom was very different, or there was some parallel that I was failing to see. If water was a metaphor —
“Oh,” I said. “Water is weight. Water is obligation. Water is the things that pin you to the Earth in ways that you can’t escape. It’s the bottomless ocean and the — the clouds hanging over your head. It’s depression.”
Skill unlocked: Water Magic!
Achievement unlocked: Watered-down
“What in the world are you talking about?” my mom asked.
“Just throwing some things out there,” I said. “Trying to make sense of it. Sometimes if you look at things in different ways, it can jar something loose.”
“That isn’t how it works, Juniper,” my mom replied.
I could feel the water. The extra sense was there, faint and in the background, but still there. I could feel the slope of the Isle of Poran as it went down into the sea, just as I could feel the seam between the sea and the air. My mom had allowed the clouds to cover the Isle once more, and I could feel them too, like a blanket overhead.
I raised a hand and tried to move the clouds. Water mages didn’t need to move, but it helped them to have a metaphor. I might have been imagining things, but I thought that I felt the clouds move at the motion of my hand, just a tiny bit.
Skill increased: Water Magic lvl 1!
My mom took a breath. “You did it,” she said. Her eyes went wider, and for a moment something like happiness crossed her face. I thought that it would fade away, but it stayed there as she approached me, stepping through the waves, until she finally reached me and wrapped me in a hug. It was a better hug than it had been before, still bony but warmer, and I hugged her back.
“Thanks mom,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She pulled away from me, regaining some composure. It was shocking how short she was compared to me, when we were so close together. “I shouldn’t have been so hard on you, it’s just that this has all been so strange, and we had you tested, I just … I thought that you were following one of your flights of fancy again.”
The words stung. ‘Flights of fancy’ had been a term she’d used back on Earth. She had sat me down one day, months after Arthur had died, to say that I really needed to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Would I go to college? A trade school? Would I work somewhere? And I had answered that I wanted to do something with games, writing modules or articles, or getting work with one of the big publishing companies, or failing that, doing a Kickstarter or something, going independent. She had only frowned, and said that I wasn’t taking her seriously. She had said that there was no money in games, and that if that’s what I wanted to do, then I had better be happy being poor. She’d called it a flight of fancy.
She was right, obviously. It wouldn’t have stung so much if she wasn’t. I wanted my hobby to be what I did for a living, and the problem with that was that the supply of teenage dungeon masters far outstripped the demand for them. It still hurt, to be brushed aside and told that my dreams were stupid and unrealistic.
“I’m going to try some more, okay?” I asked.
“Okay,” my mom said. She was watching me more closely now.
I began using huge motions, trying to sweep the water around, not just the clouds, but the sea as well, and the humidity in the air. Water mages were, in formal terms, macrohydrokinetics, capable of moving large masses of water around, contingent on there being a lot of water to move. I could see the problems already, how the water was slow to respond to me, how I could only do big swaths at once, how I couldn’t really control the water so much as shove it around, but I could also see how someone could get better, gain more control, more precision. I kept getting skill increases, as the game repeatedly notified me about how I was blasting through the lower levels.
“How are you doing that?” my mom asked as she watched me.
“It’s complicated,” I replied. “Complicated and classified.” I waited for her to ask more questions, or to put forward some theory about me being a liar and having trained before, or me owning an entad, the kinds of things that I would have said if I had been in her shoes, but she was simply silent.
Skill increased: Water Magic lvl 10!
New Virtue: Hydromancer
Hydromancer: If you can sense the water around you, you have an intuitive understanding of what the weather will be like and how it can be affected by changes to the water content of the air and movement of vaporized water.
I stopped and tried to take that in. The forecast for the Isle of Poran was the same as it had been for pretty much every day that I’d been there, completely overcast with a mild, chilly wind and the occasional drizzles. The clouds were moving on their own, even without my help. My sense of water had expanded as my level had gone up, and it was already out to five miles, maybe even more. Water mages had incredible range, which helped to compensate for the fact that they struggled to do anything on the scale of a person, or even an individual building.
I kept going, pushing more and more water around, stopping with the clouds for a moment to move around the sea. I could make big waves by moving a mass of water in the sea, but I couldn’t do anything like waterbending, because my control just wasn’t that fine-grained, and for most water mages, would never get to that level. I was tempted to use Essentialism to put points into Water Magic, but it would have been a fairly rash move, given that it had a concrete cost.
“You don’t need to move your arms,” my mom said. “It’s a crutch.”
“I know it’s a crutch,” I replied. “I’ve read books, I just needed training from someone in person. Aside from that, I don’t think it’s wrong to use a crutch for this.”
“You’ll tire out your arms,” my mom replied. “Pulling clouds is just about everything that I do. If you can’t learn to do the job without motion, you’ll tire yourself out before the first shift is over.”
I stopped where I was and began moving the water without using my hands. It wasn’t even particularly difficult, once I’d taken a minute or two to get used to it. I relaxed into a battle stance and put the water magic stuff on one thread while I talked to my mom using the other.
“Anything else you could tell me would be helpful,” I said.
“What happened to you, Juniper?” my mom asked. She had her arms folded.
“I was granted powers,” I replied. “Really, really strong powers.”
“You’re different,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I guess, a little. I can do more, but I’m still me. I’m still — still the son that you raised.” More or less. I didn’t like lying to her, but I had no idea how I should break the dream-skewered-but-actually-still-your-son thing.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” I replied. “Bumps in the road. I’m doing better than I was this time last year.”
“Good,” she said, nodding. She looked out at the sea, and the clouds that I had moved around. “I’m not going to pretend to know how any of this is possible. I just hope,” her breath caught. “I hope that you do okay. That’s all we ever really wanted for you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “It really is very dangerous here though. You should probably go. If you have an address, I’ll make sure to send you mail.”
“You were never good about mailing people,” my mom replied. “Never sent cards thanking your grandmother.”
“I’ve been trying to do the things that I should,” I said.
“I know,” my mom replied. “I can see that.” She paused, frowning. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sorry too, if I’m not handling this well, or if I was … I mean, no ifs, I wasn’t the greatest son you could have asked for. I’ll own that.”
My mom was silent for a long moment, looking at me, like she was wondering whether I expected her to reciprocate and say that she wasn’t the best mother either.
“I’m not going to stick around,” my mom said. “There were dragons here, and the rumors that I’ve heard about that facility of yours,” she shook her head. “Rumors about the people here, about what’s being done.”
“Good,” I said. “You’re in danger if you stay here. You should also probably stay out of Anglecynn for as long as you can. We … have some enemies there.”
“Juniper, you need to be very, very careful around royalty,” my mom said. “Remember what happened to your grandmother.”
“I know,” I replied, though I had no clue at all, because neither of my grandmothers had anything to do with royalty. “We’re not trying to start something.”
“I don’t know if you’re better or worse off now than when you were sent to jail,” my mom said.
“Better,” I said. “A lot better.”
She seemed skeptical, but she nodded.
“I have one other thing to ask before you go,” I said. “It’s about the rules for the game I played …”
“How was the water mage?” asked Amaryllis, when we met back up later on. “I thought I saw some clouds moving out the window. I’m also pretty sure that I’ve got the sense.”
“It was fine,” I said. I was watching her face. “I got the unlock, so that’s good. I think I’m going to spend some time getting it up to thirty, if I can find something that doesn’t count as amateur training.” Amaryllis was barely showing any interest in the conversation.
“Well, good,” said Amaryllis. She stretched out. “I’ve been in meetings, and it looks like I’m going to continue to be in meetings, some of which will hopefully allow me to delegate other meetings. By the by, do you have any interest in some meetings?” She was smiling.
“The water mage was my mom,” I said.
Amaryllis looked me up and down as her smile faded away. “That — what?” asked Amaryllis.
“My Aerb mom, naturally,” I said. “Not my real mom from Earth. Close enough that there were only a few tells, one of them being that she’s, you know, a water mage here.”
“I didn’t hire your mom, Juniper,” said Amaryllis.
“I know,” I said. “I figured that you didn’t, because it would be a breach of trust, hugely manipulative, and narratively suspect.”
“I swear I didn’t know,” said Amaryllis. She was holding her hands out like she was worried that I was going to explode, or like I was a feral dog.
“I’m sorry I tested you,” I replied. “I just wanted to be sure there wasn’t foul play. Trust but verify.”
“I didn’t,” said Amaryllis. She raised a hand to touch her forehead. “I don’t even understand how it could have happened.”
“I asked her,” I replied. “There was a big storm system moving across Aerb, one they needed quite a few water mages to stop. Once it was finished, the woman you’d originally hired handed the job off to my mom, since they were both at the same certification level and this other woman had some things she suddenly needed to take care of. My mom took her time getting across the sea, and has pretty much been staying at one of the hotels down in the village for the last two weeks while we were at Sound and Silence. How she didn’t learn about me, I’ve got no idea.”
“Fuck,” said Amaryllis. “This is a setup, isn’t it?”
“It was,” I said. “It’s got the Dungeon Master’s fingerprints. If I know him, he probably made my mom a water mage in the first place so that she would have some impetus to travel around Aerb, and then he put that particular magic on my character sheet in the hopes it would stay there. That would allow him to bring her to me at his leisure.”
“And,” said Amaryllis. “And how did it go?”
“It was okay,” I said. “We didn’t work through all our issues in a handful of hours, and working through all our issues would probably require working through all of mom’s issues, which … honestly, is probably never going to happen. But I tried my best to be a mature adult about it. I can’t change her, and holding onto all of the stuff from the past never really seemed like it would do much good.”
Amaryllis looked me up and down. “You seemed very hesitant to go to Sporsan.”
“It’s not a change of heart,” I said. “I still don’t want to go there. I will go there, if the quest is going to be short, but we don’t know for sure. I didn’t want to see or talk to my mom, but I sucked it up once she was here. I can do the same for my dad, or whoever else. There was something Valencia once said to me … it was, ah, that I wasn’t allowed to wander off and wallow while the world turned to dust around me. There’s work to be done, and I’m the only one that can do it.”
Amaryllis stared at me, eyes slightly narrowed. “You know that I’ve been saying that for essentially the entire time we’ve known each other, right?”
“I know,” I replied. “Sorry, I don’t have a quote from you handy.”
“I’m just wondering about the change of heart,” said Amaryllis. She tapped her toe for a moment, then stopped.
“I’ve been feeling really powerless lately,” I replied. “The Bethel thing, another visit from the Dungeon Master, the dragons, and maybe even further back, to Fenn’s death … I spent a lot of time learning all the ways that you couldn’t bring someone back from the dead.”
“I know,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was soft.
“So I’ve just been thinking, okay, I’m powerless, in some ways, relatively speaking. I’m going to get knocked down, there are going to be these giant monsters, and these tidal forces that are going to just be literally impossible to beat. Things are going to happen that I couldn’t possibly have prevented, or that I could have but didn’t.” I sighed. “I think I felt that most for Mome Rath. This feeling of … holy shit this thing is so much bigger than me, so much stronger, it’s weird and confusing, and it’s from out of my nightmare setting, and I just thought that I could either do nothing or do something.”
“Running away would have been something,” said Amaryllis. “Your options weren’t between a fruitless climb up the thing’s leg and sitting in the corner in a fetal position.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sure. I mean, I did single-handedly kill Mome Rath.” I gave a little smile. It was shoddy logic, the kind that I deserved to be called on.
Amaryllis rolled her eyes. “I do understand wanting to act,” she said. “Did we ever talk about the later Penndraig reforms?”
“The ones that came after Uther?” I asked. She nodded. “Not really, but I have been reading a frankly astonishing number of books, and it was mentioned in one of them.”
“Some of my ancestors were quick to act when they saw a problem,” said Amaryllis. “They would make some decisive action, and sometimes that worked out, and other times, there would be problems that would have been obvious if they’d done studies or made surveys or consulted experts. And when the Second Empire came along, for complicated reasons, they continued on with that approach, amplifying all the errors like they were going to die if they didn’t.”
“They were also completely immoral,” I replied. “That probably didn’t help.”
“The Second Empire, or my ancestors?” asked Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow. “Either way, the answer is yes, they were, and no, it didn’t.” She twisted her lips for a moment, thinking. “You’ve been feeling powerless, probably since you came to Aerb, maybe even before that. On Earth, your reaction was just to check out, to put in as little effort as possible unless it was something that you cared about. Right?”
“Uh, sure,” I said. “Did Reimer tell you that?”
“Some,” said Amaryllis. “And I’ve read between the lines. Accurate?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t think that it was about power, per se, I was just in this system that didn’t really care about me, with parents that didn’t really care about me, and so the easiest thing to do was limp along as a B student while I focused on the stuff that actually interested me. I probably would have been a C student if half of the classes I took weren’t subjects that I liked.”
“And on Aerb, you sometimes just defer to following quests, or following orders,” said Amaryllis. “But when you’re feeling powerless, you don’t feel like doing that, you feel like throwing out the script and getting your hands dirty.”
“Do you have a devil in you right now?” I asked. “You have to tell me if you do.” I felt a slight stab of guilt at that; Valencia was out there somewhere, fighting her own battle, and I was powerless there too.
“Ah, and now we’re down to jokes, are we?” asked Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow.
“Frankly, I’m a little bit wiped,” I said. “I’ve got about one big social encounter left in me for the rest of the day, not including this one, and we’re, what, not too far past lunchtime?”
“Ah,” said Amaryllis. “I was hoping that I could convince you into taking some meetings off my hands.”
“Well, for you,” I said. I shot her a little smile. “Are these emotionally heavy meetings?” I held up a finger before she could respond. “Will these meetings be with people who are doppelgangers of important people in my life? Oh, and also, will I be in mortal or existential peril at any point?”
Amaryllis grinned at me. “You just have this thing with tempting fate, don’t you?” she asked. “No, the meetings that I had in mind were the ones I think I can safely delegate, the first on fishing rights around the Isle of Poran and what the considerations are, and the second with the tuunglings about their thoughts on launching a second generation without the time chamber.”
“I can do that,” I replied. “I assume that I’ll need to go in with more information than I have right now?”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “I picked those because you’ll be reporting back to me. They’re fact-finding meetings. If you want the responsibility, then you can be the expert on those areas, which means that you’ll get more meetings in the future, and take over some of the decision-making, because it’s really not looking like I can do it all by myself.”
“I can do that,” I replied. “I’ve been ducking responsibility for too long.”
Amaryllis looked at me like she was going to disagree, then nodded. “I don’t necessarily know that I agree with you, but it’s still comforting to hear you say.” She hesitated for a moment. “According to your father, your mother was the one who had the rules that your alternate wrote out.”
“Ah,” I said. “Yeah.” I took a breath. “She burned them.”
“Fuck,” said Amaryllis. She screwed her eyes shut and let out a sigh.
“From what I can tell, we could have gotten them if we’d gone to Sporsan right when I first got the quest, but by the time we met Reimer, it was already too late, which means I’m not really sure what kind of reward the actual quest will have, if any.”
“Okay,” said Amaryllis. She waved the whole notion of a complete rulebook away. “Water over the bridge, as they say.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be,” she sniffed. “We’re going to focus on the future, okay?”
I agreed, I really did, but I was thinking about Anglecynn, and the fact that we would probably have to confront her past there sooner, rather than later.