Skill increased: Bone Magic lvl 10!
Spell discovered: Power Tapping!
Spell discovered: Speed Tapping!
Spell discovered: Endurance Tapping!
Skill increased: Bone Magic lvl 12! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat KNO.)
Affliction: Broken Bone Removed!
It took me the better part of eight hours to cap out bone magic and fully heal my hand. Fenn left to go get more bones once it was clear that I was going to power through the hundreds available in the gunzels. Each bone was a pittance of power, even when I was pulling from it as hard as I could. Watching Bormann work made me think that it was less efficient to do it that way, so I tried to stick to teasing the power out of the bones as slow as possible, which gave an even smaller effect but over a longer period of time, which I suppose was meant to be a net gain in healing.
It wasn’t until I hit level 10 that I unlocked the ability to pull specifically endurance from the bone, rather than just all physical stats, and that helped me to speed up the healing process. It still took all of the bones I had available to me to get my finger fully healed, and it was still slightly bumpy afterward where the bone came back thicker. With another few hours and hundreds of the gunzel bones, I might have been able to get it entirely back to normal, but by the time I was finished both Fenn and Amaryllis had long gone to sleep. Fenn had gone first, unceremoniously stripping down to her underwear and claiming the big bed, while Amaryllis watched me work and kept me focused until an hour later when she was yawning so much it was a distraction. They shared the big bed together, and Fenn had one arm wrapped around Amaryllis’ waist, in what I was fairly sure was a subconscious attempt to bother her. That was when I finally changed out of my towel and into a set of clothes that Fenn had bought for me.
I kept on. I could feel the desire to sleep, but not the need. I wasn’t tired, but I was sure that I could have gone to sleep on the small bed within a handful of minutes if I had made the effort. I wasn’t exactly sure where Barren Jewel was in relation to Silmar City, nor whether they had a time difference, nor how much, but it was possible that I was experiencing some combination of jet lag and the magic powers of leveling up. Besides, I had taken a nap out in the sun.
It was nice to have some time alone to think. My mind kept going back to the bathhouse. There were a few things bothering me. First, Risen Bile was a terrible name, not the sort that you’d give to yourself unless you were a punk band or deliberately evil. Second, the rumors that Fenn had picked up said that they had done this terrorist attack because of some moral crusade, but we’d seen them targeting specific members. Third, the two men I’d fought had been weaker than I had expected, given the display of magic inside, which left me thinking that they were pawns or patsies. Fourth, I shouldn’t have been there. This was apparently a world where luck was a real, physical thing, and while I took Amaryllis to heart when she said that only elves had luck, I also knew that she didn’t know everything about my power, and my power said 0 LUK.
I tried to will a quest into existence in order to get more answers from the flavor text, but that predictably failed.
With some pencil and paper that Fenn had procured for me, I began writing down everything on my character sheet and then all the things that the game had told me and not recorded anywhere, with a special focus on the skill caps. I still had two points yet to spend and I was waffling on where I wanted to put them. The fact that Bone Magic had unlocked something on reaching a round number changed my thinking a little bit, since that made reaching those round numbers more valuable.
After I had filled a page with those observations, I began work on filling another page, this one with thoughts and questions about how the game tied into everything I’d created as a DM. I’d so far held off on asking about them, partly because I didn’t want to bother Amaryllis about unimportant things, and partly because there were questions that I didn’t want the answers to. I was feeling like I had put it off long enough though, and to be honest I was feeling a little bit more confident about this world’s ability to handle things, given the magics they apparently had at their disposal.
I was three-quarters down the page when Fenn woke up with a start, dislodging Amaryllis, who opened her eyes briefly and then readjusted herself to go back to sleep. Fenn stretched out and popped out of bed, still wearing very little clothing. She opened the window just a crack, enough that I could hear a very distant sound of gunshots, then shut it again. Had that been what woke her up? The sound of guns, too faint for me to hear while I was writing? I added a bit about the nature of elves to my list of questions.
“Whatcha writing?” Fenn asked as she moved over and peered down at my page.
“Put on some clothes,” I said. I was pretty sure that she was just standing next to me so skimpily dressed to provoke a reaction.
“Make me,” said Fenn. She reached forward, past me, and ran a finger down my list. “You’re listing exclusion zones?” Her finger stopped at Fel Seed. “Or just trying to make yourself feel bad?”
“He’s real,” I said slowly. “This world has a Fel Seed.”
“You don’t believe the legends?” asked Fenn. “Or wait, you have that broken brain that thinks it invented a lot of the details of this world from whole cloth. So you think that you thought up Fel Seed? In what context?”
“It’s a long story,” I replied. And not that pleasant of one. “Is he — was he killed?”
“Nope,” said Fenn. “Still sitting on his throne in the City of a Thousand Brides. Not sure if that particular part of your brain survived your stroke, but he’s not someone we talk about in polite company.”
I shook my head. “He was built to consume the world. If he were in the process of doing that, or if he were killed, that would make sense, but … he’s still alive, doing his … work?”
Fenn patted me on the head. “You are a very strange hooman,” she said. “What is it you think an exclusion zone is?”
“Um, it’s like Chernobyl, which is a place on Earth where there was a horrible accident,” I said. That seemed like where the terminology would have been borrowed from, if I was designing this world, which in some sense it seemed like I was. “People who went into the heart of it would suffer from horrible cancerous growths and then die, or maybe just be killed outright by the poison there.”
“And the thing that keeps Chernobyl from spreading is the exclusion rule, right?” asked Fenn. She ran a hand over her ear. “The whole world would become a Chernobyl if not for that.”
“Um,” I said. “That’s … not really accurate to Chernobyl. I mean, there it’s something called a nuclear weapon –”
“Ah, Blue Fields?” asked Fenn.
I paused with my mouth open. “There are nuclear weapons on this planet?” I asked.
“There were. But then they got excluded,” replied Fenn. “Gods, otherwise there probably wouldn’t be anything left of Aerb. You could still set one off in Blue Fields, if you really want to make that your life’s goal, but that seems a bit silly, even for a hooman.”
I was mind flooded for a moment by thinking about what that all meant. There were nuclear weapons, which seemed at the far end of the technology I’d seen present on Aerb, but they were somehow prevented from going off in … what, some kind of Dies the Fire type of scenario? Some change in the laws of the universe?
“So Fel Seed can’t spread,” I said slowly. “Because he’s … excluded. Somehow.”
“Yup,” said Fenn. “Just him, his captives, and his spawn, excluded from civilized society. Though we seem to be in something close to a civil war right now, so eh, clear houses, as you humans say.”
“Glass houses,” I corrected her. My eyes began to drift to her midriff and I looked down at the paper in front of me instead. “So you’re saying that most of these are exclusion zones. Places where there was a spreading sickness or evil that was stopped?”
“Sure,” said Fenn, leaning over me. Her arm was next to me as she pointed at the paper, and I glanced briefly at the curling pattern of scars there. I shut down the urge to ask if I could touch them. “Fel Seed, Nightsmoke, yes, Parsmont, yes, City of Lasting Blood, technically yes, Glassy Fields, a big yes … but you’ve got things like the white spires here, which are benign, a few I don’t recognize, like this ‘Teeth City’, and it’s kind of a jumble.”
“How many of these exclusion zones are there?” I asked.
“Fifty-three,” came an answer from the bed. Amaryllis swung her feet off the bed and blinked a few times before standing up and looking down at her rumpled clothes in distaste. “Hand healed?” she asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Fifty-three?”
“By a conservative count, yes,” said Amaryllis. “I won’t bore you with the imperial politics of it all. And since we’re all up, we have other things that need doing, like preparing for Caer Laga. Fenn, I would appreciate it if you put some clothes on.”
Fenn pouted, but began slipping her pants and shirt back on. I was certain that it wasn’t by accident that she was pointing her butt in my direction as she did so. I caught a frown from Amaryllis at that, but tried my best not to read too much into it.
“First things first,” said Amaryllis once we were all clothed. “I think that we should train up Joon.”
If this were a movie, here is where we would have a montage.
After Amaryllis looked at my handwritten character sheet, she asked me for specifics on what kinds of things had made those skills go up in the past. I moved ahead of her in the conversation a little bit by suggesting exercises I thought would work well to raise those skills in the controlled environment of our hotel room, and after some discussion of what was most important, with general agreement that a focus on combat was best, I spent about a week maxing out all my skills except for pistols and rifles, neither of which could be done without making a racket, and horticulture, which I didn’t have an easy way to increase.
I learned the skill Bows from simply touching Fenn’s bow, but she wouldn’t let me shoot it and ended up spending a fair sum on a bow that I shot at targets across the room. That was only enough to count once I had some very small targets to aim at; until it was a challenge, the game wouldn’t give me anything for it.
There were a few interesting things that I learned about the game in the process though.
Skill increased: Parry lvl 10! (Skill capped at five times the value of secondary stat INS.)
New Virtue: Nascent Blade-Bound!
First, getting to level 10 in a skill did occasionally unlock something, though it was inconsistent. Second, skills were capped at either three times the primary stat, or five times the secondary stat, which put an additional restriction on how high skills could go and made the social skills more important than I thought they would be.
I got a few more virtues along the way, but they were incredibly minor effects when I looked them up on the ‘Virtues’ screen. Unarmed Combat 10 gave me the virtue “Hardened Knuckles” that lessened the toll unarmed combat would take on me (no numbers, just that flat statement). Dual Wield 10 gave me Ambidexterity, the uneasy feeling of being equally adept at using either hand for a task and removing all preference (which I immediately tested by writing; it was unnerving to sign my name left-handed). Thrown Weapons 10 gave me “Range Finder”, the ability to more easily determine how far away something was. Improvised Weapons 10 gave me “Structural Assessment”, the ability to hold and wield improvised weapons in such a way that they would break less easily, though never outside the bounds of reason.
Like I said, it was nothing that left me in awe, just very minor benefits. If you could have bottled any one of those, you could have sold them for a mint, especially Ambidexterity, but I wasn’t convinced that they would ever make the difference between life and death.
The most awkward were probably the social skills.
“Alright,” said Fenn, rubbing her hands. “Flatter me.”
“Um,” I said. “I don’t actually think this is all that necessary. We’re going to an abandoned castle and fighting some mindless creatures along the way, right?”
“Thaum-suckers aren’t mindless,” said Fenn. “They’ve got a cunning to them, makes them dangerous. But no, they’re probably not going to be swayed by telling them what beautiful blue eyes they have. Me, on the other hand, I’d be more amenable.”
“Your eyes are green,” I said.
“And how beautiful are they?” Fenn asked with a grin.
“Your eyes are …” I hesitated, choosing my words. “I could get lost in the beauty of your eyes, the way they seem luminous in the morning light, and when I see you smile, and that smile touches those elegant eyes, my breath catches in my throat and my heart hammers in my chest.”
Skill increased: Romance lvl 3!
Skill increased: Flattery lvl 4!
“Alright,” I sighed, “That worked.”
“Hooray!” said Fenn. She bit her lip. “Now flatter my, hrm, … tongue.” She stuck out her tongue. “Ad do i’ igh.”
So that was all very silly and awkward, but it thankfully didn’t go on very long because my social skills were capped at 6. Romance was the worst, partly because I couldn’t see myself ever using that skill, and partly because Fenn seemed to like being a flirt. I couldn’t tell whether she had any actual interest in me or whether she was just having fun at my expense, or maybe both. Either way, I wasn’t about to act on it or do anything but be flustered. Still, practicing Romance and Flattery with Fenn was preferable to doing it with Amaryllis.
Other than that? I’m not sure what to say. It was a week of my life, lived mostly in a hotel room because there were recurring bouts of violence on the streets and Amaryllis — Mary, now — didn’t think it was smart of me to go out when I was so ignorant of the world.
They did try to remove some of that ignorance, but they were trying to haphazardly cram a lifetime of knowledge into me, and it was mixed in with things that I remembered from D&D, which made me misremember things with some frequency. There were also too many things for me to ask about and too many things that they would both assume were the same between our worlds.
Common Knowledge About Aerb
- Aerb was about ten times larger than Earth, flat instead of a sphere, and shaped like a hexagon. If you went far enough north, you would end up in the south, and it was the same in any direction. (Amaryllis gave me a measurement for Aerb and I had to approximate Earth’s size given that I could only remember how wide the continental United States was.)
- Aerb had no time zones, because the sun was in the same apparent position no matter where on Aerb you were, with no parallax. Despite that, there were still seasons, because the sun got smaller in the winter and larger in the summer. There were also regional variations in temperature caused by something called the projection layer, a super-atmospheric phenomenon that Fenn was ignorant of and Amaryllis didn’t know too much about.
- There were roughly 200 “mortal species”, plus the Animalia, which were anthropomorphic animals like Quills. There had been five distinct waves of elven migration from Celestar, each of which was considered a different species. There were dwarves, but they mostly kept to themselves, underground. There weren’t “evil” species per se, but there were evil cultures made up exclusively of one type of species, which Amaryllis seemed to think was an important distinction and Fenn rolled her eyes at.
- There were twenty-two different kinds of magic, and that was the conservative count. Many of those only included in the less-conservative count were hereditary, racial, or otherwise not the sort of thing that was available to just anyone. Looking at my character sheet and assuming it was laid out in a sane way, I would have access to at most fifteen of them, though probably less. (I was extremely interested in learning more of them, but Amaryllis thought that all the low-hanging fruit had already been picked. That didn’t stop me from asking questions, but she was right that there were significant barriers that it didn’t seem like my ability to learn things really quickly would overcome, or which would be useless to us without the necessary resources to capitalize on them.)
- When people said “the empire” they meant something akin to the United Nations, in that it was a rather toothless organization whose real power came from member countries agreeing to impose standardized laws or make global (they said hexal, for obvious reasons) sanctions against one another. The proper title was “The Empire of Common Cause”, but people just called it “the empire” or “The Third Empire” if they were being snarky, for historical reasons that I don’t think are too important.
“Okay,” I said after one of these infodump sessions. “But there’s one thing that I don’t really get.”
“Just one thing out of literally everything in the entire world?” asked Fenn. She was getting annoyed with the whole dream-skewered thing, I could tell, just like she’d predicted she would be.
“So, forge frenzy is distributed fairly randomly and on a per capita basis, right?” I asked. Amaryllis nodded. “Well, what I don’t really understand is how the Lost King and Anglecynn still have so much power, unless they’ve been hoarding entads and heirlooms created in Anglecynn or brought in from elsewhere. But if that’s the case, then I wouldn’t expect the most direct descendant to have much in the way of any particular power.”
“And why do you think that?” asked Amaryllis. “Why shouldn’t power acquired retain its value? It would dilute, because succession of heirlooms follows different rules, but I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
“Okay,” I said, “Well more magic items are being created every year –”
“Why?” asked Amaryllis.
“Because … there are more artisans over time?” I asked. “Unless this is a mechanization issue?”
“Why would there be more artisans over time?” asked Amaryllis, using her patient voice. She was getting annoyed with the dream-skewered thing too, but she dealt with it much better.
“Every year there are more people than the last,” I said, just before realizing that wasn’t necessarily true on Aerb. “Okay, explain this to me, is global population going up or holding steady?”
“During the reign of Uther Penndraig, five hundred years ago, the hexal population was twenty billion,” said Amaryllis. “Today it’s five billion.”
“Seems to me that people need to start fucking more,” said Fenn. “At least, I heard that was how babies were made.”
“Sex doesn’t help if people use prophylaxis,” said Amaryllis. “And it’s a complicated issue even beyond the question of whether the replacement rate is high enough. The exclusion zones are a problem that keeps getting worse and there are singular events which cause dips in the world population that we never recover from.”
“Aerb is dying,” I said.
“Well that’s a leap,” said Fenn. “Celestar, now there’s a place that died, if you need context for world death.”
“It’s not clear whether it’s dying or not,” said Amaryllis. “The overall trend is downward. Optimists feel that the final graph will be sigmoid, with a long period of stability before the First Empire, a period of instability, and then a second long period of stability.”
We moved on to other things after that, but it left me thinking holy shit is this world grimdark. There was no heaven, only nine thousand hells, and Aerb itself was becoming a shadow of itself. It was obvious to me that this was a reflection of my own mind; since Arthur had died, I hadn’t really been a believer in bright and happy futures, and even before then I had always made my worlds a little dim so that the heroes could shine all the brighter. That was the thought that gave me hope. If I had designed this world, then maybe I was a hero in it, one of the people whose purpose was to blaze with light and banish the darkness.
Fenn and Amaryllis did most of the other preparations, moving through the city to gather supplies when the fighting calmed down a little bit. There were still periodic bursts of gunfire, audible when the window was open, and the occasional metallic smell of blood in the air. Whoever the Risen Bile were, they were being slaughtered by the city guard. The word from Fenn was that the guard was being a little bit overzealous, which caused civilian casualties that no one was happy about. Between that and the looting that followed some of these attacks, the city wasn’t a great place to be. Perhaps if the tattoo Amaryllis wore wasn’t single use, she would have pulled it out and we would have made our preparations elsewhere, but I almost got the feeling that the instability was to our benefit.
We filled our packs with food and water for the trip. Fenn bought (or perhaps stole) a sword for me, along with a void rifle I discovered to my surprise was the same one I’d left outside the wall a week ago; she had recovered it for me. Fenn filled her quiver with arrows and acquired a new dagger to sit on her hip, replacing the one she’d stabbed Leonold with. I wasn’t sure how much of what we had was stolen by Fenn and how much had been legitimately bought, but it didn’t really seem to matter. On the night before we left, she came into our room and unloaded a sack full of bones for me to pull from, and I was certain that she hadn’t come by them honestly.
And then, just like that, we climbed over the wall and set out for Caer Laga.