Worth the Candle, Ch 199: Nearest and Dearest

The marriage inspector was the last thing we needed to deal with in Anglecynn, with the caveat that the Amaryllis clones and thirty of the tuung would stay behind in order to manage everything within the kingdom. The clones were hilariously bad at anything related to combat, and couldn’t use magic or entads, but the tuung would be their security service, and we were hoping that Amaryllis’ remote updates, along with a share of the Fourfold Flask, would allow us some early warning in case there was something we absolutely needed to deal with there. The clones didn’t have souls, per se, which meant that they couldn’t be soulfucked, and weren’t vulnerable that way, but there were other vectors of attack to be worried about, like memes. Still, it was clearly what the clones were meant for, to the extent that the Dungeon Master had meant them for anything, and we were hopeful that they could handle things that needed handling. (Honestly, I might have held too high an opinion of her, or been blinded by affection, but I felt like a single Amaryllis would have been able to handle the kingdom on her own.)

The plan was to return to the Isle of Poran and then go deal with Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle. We took perfectly legal trips via teleportation key, bought and paid for rather than using the illicit key, mostly because of the number of people we had with us and the desire to leave a paper trail. There was no touchstone on the Isle of Poran though, so we went through the Ha-lunde city of Ludhad, then took a flying ship across to the Isle.

It was The Underline, the same ship that we’d used through the Warrens when we’d first gone to Anglecynn, but the biggest difference now was that we owned it outright, and Captain Bonny and her crew were our employees. She seemed perfectly pleased about the arrangement, which seemed to at least partly be because she was under the impression that I had punched out the gold dragon that had been following us. It might also have been that we were paying her good wages, though I wasn’t handling matters of money.

When we got back to the Isle of Poran, Grak and Solace started setting up for getting the locus out of the bottle.

Over the months we’d all been together, we’d come up with a lot of plans for how to get the locus out. The problem was, there were very few of these methods that we could safely try, and Solace was understandably reluctant to, for example, smash the bottle, ward against the bottle, have Bethel eat the bottle, or do anything that had a decent chance of killing the locus outright.

(I’d offered to do all of that and more while in a unicorn loop, which would mean that I would have six seconds to see whether it had worked or not, but Solace hadn’t been willing to agree to it, even in principle. The way I saw it, I probably wouldn’t know the outcome after five seconds, but it would get us some data we didn’t have, and the risk was very low. The way Solace saw it, this was all pretty dumb, and if ‘smash bottle, get locus’ was a viable plan, they wouldn’t have been driven to us through increasingly less specific augeries.)

Now though, with Grak’s warding what it was, and his partial entad warding, he thought that he had a good chance of being able to do some manipulations to what the entad bottle was, which might allow the locus to be safely, gently plopped out onto the Isle of Poran. The rite that had brought Solace to us, Zorisad Yosivun, hadn’t specified that it was me that would free the locus, meaning that it could just as well have been any of the four of us that had been there, but if this worked, and the spell had really been finding Grak, well … Solace seemed to like the plan, but I was skeptical.

We had picked out a spot on the Isle of Poran ages ago. We controlled Miunun, more or less, and if the locus was going to have its domain anywhere, best for it to be a place where we could theoretically control the borders. Poran had a few other things in its favor, like the fact that it was an island, which would make it far more difficult for anyone to get to, and the closeness of allies like the Ha-lunde. Solace didn’t seem to think that biome mattered all that much, so long as there was life, which there always had been on Poran, even if the crops were poor. And the locus would expand out into the water, so that didn’t seem to be a problem either, though if it ever became a problem, then things were going really well.

I wasn’t convinced that getting the locus out of the bottle was going to be the end of it. We’d gotten the Second Empire research from the Infinite Library, and it was really, really grim. No locus with three or less druids had ever grown back. No locus with less than ten square miles to its name had ever grown back. Solace didn’t put much stock in anything the Second Empire had to say. While I didn’t fully trust their research, given it was done by people involved in an extermination campaign and grossly unethical, I couldn’t just ignore it. I knew a lot of the research done by the Nazis and the Japanese was just torture in science drag, not just unethical, but worthless in terms of scientific value, but from the books we had, it was hard to tell whether this was the case with the locus stuff. The more I had learned about them, the less I saw the Second Empire as being fantasy Nazis; they were their own kinds of evil, their genocides seemingly rooted in utilitarian calculation rather than outright malice, though there were definitely some blurred lines there.

I held my tongue. I wanted this to work.

Grak created a ward a mile wide, and I walked with him as he made it.

“Did you like being a dwarf?” he asked.

“It was only for a few seconds,” I said. “But, uh, sure? Did you like being a human, way back when? I never asked.”

He gave me a look. “Circumstances were difficult.”

“True,” I said. He’d been human only briefly, after we’d been poisoned, when I had needed to get his soul back to a good state but hadn’t had backups at the ready. The brief period he’d been a human had been right after Fenn had died, which I could imagine really put a damper on any sense of adventure or experimentation he’d had. “Do you ever think about being human?”

“Often,” replied Grak. He held his hand out to the side, using it in place of a wand. I had the Crown of Eyes on, and could see what he saw, which included warder’s sight, thanks to the Six-Eyed virtue. Grak himself was practically glowing with wards, while the ward he was creating was incredibly faint. Single-entad wards were some of the easiest and cheapest wards you could make, which was good, given the size we might end up needing.

“Does being human appeal to you?” I asked.

“Of course,” replied Grak. “The world is not built for dwarves.”

“Yeah, I noticed that in Anglecynn more than other places,” I said. “But at least you’re the second most common species.”

“We are second most populous,” said Grak. “Not second most common. I don’t care for dwarfholds.”

“Not even the more modern ones?” I asked.

“Those are better,” he replied. He kept on walking, not seeming to pay all that much attention to what he was doing. I wasn’t about to say that he could have done this in his sleep, but it really was a very simple ward, it was just that it had a perimeter of three and a half miles or so.

“So the thing that appeals to you about being human is just fitting in?” I asked. “Or having a world that’s not designed around a form different than your own?”

Grak kept walking for a bit, mulling it over. “People treat me differently,” he said. “There is an unpleasant friction. Some of it comes from my upbringing.”

“Some of it is language,” I said.

“I am fluent in Anglish,” said Grak. It was the language we were speaking in, more out of habit than actual design. I hadn’t switched to Groglir, and he hadn’t either.

“You’re fluent,” I replied in his native tongue. “But you’re more fluent in Groglir. Everything you say comes out more natural.”

“Then maybe I should say that I think about having been born human,” said Grak. “Or at least a more conventional of the mortal species.”

“How do you define conventional?” I asked. I’d meant to pad the question, but Groglir was bad at padding, and it came out a little more blunt than I’d intended.

“We have only one gender,” said Grak. We took another few steps before continuing on. “We are short. We breed differently. Dwarves are less like humans than many other species.”

“You mentioned gender first,” I said.

Grak hesitated, then nodded. “It, or its lack, is an essential element of being. It is custom across Aerb to speak of us in terms of he and him, but that is not actually what we are. I understand the reasons for it, but it chafes sometimes.”

“What are the reasons?” I asked. I was slightly puzzled. “We had this conversation before, when you were first teaching me Groglir. But I think I would have remembered your answer.”

Grak replied before I could recall the specifics. “I told you it was tradition,” said Grak. “At the time I didn’t want to have a discussion of the finer points.”

“Those being?” I asked. Usually he wasn’t so circumspect.

“Words have power,” he said. “Long ago, before the Dwarven Coalition was formed, it was communicated and decided among dwarves that it was better to be seen by humans as a society of men. A dwarfhold would be seen as a small kingdom of ready soldiers, with no spare mouths to feed, as they sometimes thought of their women. By and large, it was easier to be respected as a man, easier to integrate into male traditions, which most of the early dwarves were striving for. The humans knew that we were not men, but so long as we harnessed the words, life was easier for us.”

“Okay,” I said. “But in the modern Aerb?”

“There are those who argue that we should flaunt our differences,” said Grak. “They would argue that we take on new words, to make clear that something different is being described. Other species push harder than dwarves, but it’s the sort of fight that will be slow and long until it’s not, and it comes with drawbacks.”

“Huh,” I said. “Yeah, I definitely would have remembered if you’d gone into it. But I don’t really understand why you didn’t.”

“I thought that you would ask me the obvious question,” he said.

“Ah,” I said. “I would ask you whether you preferred me to refer to you using the Groglir terms.”

“No,” said Grak. “I thought that you would ask me whether I prefered to be viewed as male or female.”

I thought about that for a moment. “But obviously the answer is that if you’re not going to be viewed as maka, then whether you’d rather be viewed as male or female depends on context.” He gave me a nod. “Those dwarves making the argument that they would rather human societies view them as male were doing it on the premise that they should be porcupines, showing off their spines for everyone, threatening war. But if the situation were different, then I can imagine presenting as female would have its own benefits, though, uh, I’m coming up a little bit short.” I stopped where I was for a moment, and Grak kept walking, not waiting for me to literally and metaphorically catch up with him.

“This was a you and me thing,” I said as I came up beside him once more. “You would rather that I viewed you as female so that I would think of you as a potential mate.”

Grak nodded once. He was blushing a little bit. “It was a foolish attraction that I am well over,” he said. “You are married.”

“Fake married,” I said.

“Hmm,” said Grak. “So you have not consummated?” It was very rare that Grak ever sounded smug about something.

“No, as a matter of fact,” I said. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“You were supposed to,” said Grak, looking at me with furrowed brows, his hand still trailing along but obviously only getting a fraction of his attention. “And it is my business, because it’s a matter of law. If you do not consummate, you are not married, and if you are not married, then your trial by combat holds no legal weight. We could all get pulled back to Anglecynn. This is entirely my business.”

“Alright,” I said. “Fine, it’s your business, within one degree of reasonableness.” I sighed. “Are you sure we’re good, you and me? I don’t want to leave anything on the table as far as that goes.”

“I am handling myself well,” said Grak. “My feelings for you have faded.”

I couldn’t help but think about how things had been going between me and Amaryllis, and how my relationship with Grak was in some ways a mirror image, at least on the topic of desire. I felt bad that I didn’t hold any desire for him. Yet if I tried to imagine doing as Amaryllis had done for me, engaging without actually experiencing desire — well, yes, I could imagine having sex with Grak, and being happy at him being happy, more than taking pleasure myself, but it was like putting myself in the mind of an alien, and I couldn’t fathom how different things would have to be in order to make any of that into a reality.

Maybe if he had been the one to get pregnant with Solace, and I had been stuck in the time chamber for a few months with him instead of Amaryllis, and if I had just been really sexually frustrated … I didn’t know. That was a different scenario though, one where things happened between me and Grak because I was horny, not because I had made some rational decision to ‘help’ a friend.

It was all confusing to me, because there was very explicitly a harem thing going on, with my companions being women that all had their own appeals, whether they were appropriate and sane or not. Even Bethel, who was literally a house, who was evil, at least her, if put in a lineup with the others, I could understand why. But Grak? It felt like a cruel joke, or if not that, then commentary of some kind that I really wasn’t understanding.

(The locus was obviously another exception, but it was a package deal with Solace, and before Solace had died and become an increasingly-older child, I could maybe have slotted her into some kind of coherent ensemble. The older version of Solace had really given off the vibe of being up for anything. The locus itself already liked breaking rules, so why not another?)

“Did you want to talk about Amaryllis?” asked Grak.

“Sure,” I replied. “She’s been different, with her clones up and running. We’ve been spending way more time together, and while I think it’s going to change, for now it seems like she’s devoted her original self to mostly slacking off and joking around with me. It’s like it’s constantly movie night.”

“And this is the reason you haven’t had sex?” asked Grak.

“No,” I said. “No, it’s … I don’t know, it’s weird.”

“That doesn’t clarify,” said Grak.

“We’re not dating,” I said. “We’ve spent absolutely massive amounts of time with each other over the last half a year, which is really more like, uh, two years for her, I think. But still, there’s all this time together, and I don’t think that I have to tell you that I’m attracted to her —”

“You do not,” replied Grak. He started laughing to himself a little bit, and I waited for him to stop, which took longer than I thought it should have.

“But we’re not actually married, and we’re not dating, it’s all just this,” I paused. “It’s unspoken. It’s a bit flirty. It’s nice.”

“You’re worried that if it becomes sexual, it will stop being nice,” said Grak.

“Oh,” I said. “It’s kind of already sexual.”

Grak looked at me and raised an eyebrow.

“You know, I think I got way too accustomed to not having any privacy,” I said. “I just assumed that everyone knew my business. No, we, uh, were working on our stories for the marriage inspector, trying to make sure that everything was airtight, and — I don’t want to get into all the details of it, but yeah. And over the next few days we did some other stuff too, and then it was time to consummate, which wasn’t strictly necessary, but did seem like there was some legitimate reason to … and all the other stuff aside, I just had this realization that I couldn’t have sex with her and not tell her that I was in love with her.”

“Is there a reason that you don’t want to do that?” asked Grak.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Lots of reasons come to mind, but it’s hard to tell what’s backfill and what’s not. I can know how I feel, which is that something bad would come of it, without necessarily knowing why I feel that way. If I wanted to be really rigidly logical, I would probably blame a sense of narrative. But maybe it’s just that I think things are nice the way they are now, or maybe it’s some idiotic part of me that’s worried about rejection.”

“She would not reject you,” said Grak.

“I know,” I said. “Even if she was just a completely platonic friend, —”

“She is not,” said Grak.

I looked at him. “Yeah?” I asked. “What have you heard? Other than what I just told you.”

“I see the way she looks at you,” said Grak. “I listen to her defend you. You check her soul from time to time. Have you not seen it?”

“I try not to be invasive,” I said. “I just scan for threats or anything suspect. But yes, I’ve seen some suggestions in that direction.”

“You are being stupid, Juniper,” said Grak.

“Okay,” I said. “You’re probably right. So as someone with a level head and minimal personal stakes, what do you suggest?”

“Tell her that the marriage is meaningful to you and that you wish it were real,” said Grak. “Then have sex with her if she consents. Then reserve flirtation and coy glances for when the two of you are alone together.”

“Ah,” I said. “Sorry.”

Grak waved a hand, the one not trailing a ward. “We are almost done with the ward,” he said. “Then the hard part will begin.”

I watched from a safe distance as the bottle grew. Amaryllis and Solace were inside it, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. I was outside with Raven and Grak, fairly close to the bottle itself, but ready to get the fuck out of the way if things started to happen in a hurry.

Grak’s novel method (or ability) of partial entad warding was ripe for abuse, but only in specific ways. To hear him tell it, the manipulation had to be in the form of negations, ways of altering the behavior of an entad by subtracting what it could do, in whole or in part. This could be fairly fine-grained, but it depended on the specifics of the entad and what rules it was following. The teleportation key had a number of distinct inner workings, such as allowing you to view your worldline, having a two hour refresh time, and actually teleporting you. Grak’s partial wards could knock out individual elements of the teleportation key, like preventing it from showing a worldline, or preventing it from refreshing, but the limiter itself couldn’t be removed, or at least, he hadn’t worked out how to do it yet. It was exactly the kind of thing that was begging for an exclusion, since there were any number of entads which could, if their limits were removed, destroy the world. Grak was, understandably, being careful.

The bottle seemed safe enough though, and it was the first promising lead on the locus situation, so we were barreling ahead, and if warding got excluded to the Isle of Poran… well. That would be bad.

The strategy that Grak was taking was to selectively nullify specific elements of the extradimensional magic, and to do it in a slow and careful way that would prevent the bottle from breaking, which would almost certainly be catastrophic. Because the bottle was an entad, and a powerful one, it was impossible to run tests, but Grak had successfully done the same procedure on two other extradimensional entads of roughly similar function, which served as proof of concept.

The bottle was growing, more and more with every passing moment. Every once in a while it would stop, and Grak would watch it. I looked through his eyes, but whatever he was seeing in the magic of the bottle, I had none of the background necessary to understand or interpret it.

The problem with extradimensional spaces was almost always in their boundary conditions. The inside was bigger than the outside, yes, but how did that work when at some point the inside and outside had to meet each other? For something like Sable, that was easy, since the only connection from the exterior to the interior was through commands that seamlessly placed things in or out. But for a building that was bigger on the inside through star magic, the warping really had to take account of the difference between the inside and the outside, especially if you wanted something dumb, like a window, because if the interior wall was stretched, then the window might also be stretched, and would let in the same amount of light over a much larger surface area, making the outside dim, to say nothing of what would happen if someone tried to go through the thing. There had been cases of amateur star magic outright killing people who tried to walk into their new extradimensional rooms.

The bottle wasn’t just one window, it was pure glass. I had noticed the sunlight effect on my first or second time in: the bottle presented maybe a few square feet of surface to the world, but when you were inside it, the sun felt just as strong as it did outside. Something weird was going on at the boundary, a multiplier effect that allowed you to feel like you were outside. And Grak was having to grapple with that too, because as the bottle’s interior expanded against the exterior, that secondary effect was starting to cause some problems. The interior of the bottle was noticeably brighter than the exterior, its forest basked in sunlight that was almost blinding, even from outside. Grak stopped the process for a few minutes, and canceled that portion of the entad effect entirely.

It was slow going, but the bottle was growing. I wasn’t even sure what was happening, but my best guess, based on what Grak had said, was that he was unconstraining the interior space, and it wasn’t that the bottle was growing, it was that the interior volume was pushing out against the outer layer. This was anticipated to cause some shear stress, but the bottle, like other entads, had some degree of self-healing and resistance to damage, and Grak was doing something to compensate for the boundary.

I was mostly just standing there watching, fidgeting slightly and trying to will my Six-Eyed virtue to cover what Grak was doing. He was trying to make the bottle squat, manipulating the dimensionality by negating only part of it, so that we wouldn’t be standing next to mile-high walls of tall glass, and so that the ground within the bottle would be pushed right up to the opening.

After two hours of slow expansion, the bottle was half a mile wide, with the ground inside pushed up so that the trees were just barely brushing the upper part of the glass. The main tree, the one in the center, which we’d slept inside for a fair amount of my time on Aerb, was sticking out, fully outside of the bottle.

“How are you doing on concordance?” I asked.

“This is nothing,” said Grak. “I have already regained what was spent. It is like asking a clockmaker if they are winded from delicate work on a pocket watch.”

“Okay,” I said. “You’re still burning mental energy to do it. Is that fine?”

“It’s fine,” said Grak. “I can stop if I need to. The wards Thargox made needed to be dismantled halfway through, but the locus will hold and the ward is permanent.”

“You could just leave it like this?” I asked.

“I could,” he replied. “The plan is to expand it so the interior matches the exterior. The walls … should hold.” That was an uncharacteristically long hesitation from him.

“And if it doesn’t?” I asked.

“It’s hard to say,” he replied. “There may be a considerable amount of glass falling down.” He gave me a look. “I put up a secondary ward around us to annihilate the entad on contact, but if the magic fails and washes out too quickly, you will have to protect me.”

“Of course,” I replied. “Just say the word and I’ll use a unicorn bone. I can give you a second or third chance.”

“I don’t think it will help,” replied Grak. “This is for me to do.”

The big problem came a half hour later, when the bottle had been widened as far as it would go, so that the interior dimension matched the exterior dimension. It was a full mile across, all inside the ward, as planned, with the headspace shrunk down as much as it would go. The problem was with the neck of the bottle, which, no matter what contortions Grak attempted, couldn’t force the entire mass inside the bottle out of it, not without causing lots of damage to the domain. The locus wasn’t just the biomass, but it was a little the biomass, and to snap hundreds of trees and throw thriving plants under soil … we were worried about the outcome.

Amaryllis and Solace came out of the bottle for a consultation, Solace as a fast-moving cloud, Amaryllis using the Amulet of Five Spirits, which she’d promised was only on loan. When she landed, she turned back into her human form, fully naked, and took some clothes that Grak had ready. Entads did the nudity thing a fair amount, because ‘you’ was much more of a coherent concept than ‘you plus all the stuff you have on or with you’, and nudity excluded a lot of munchkinry. I tried to be a grown up about it, which meant that I only thought about boobs instead of saying anything.

“Is there an argument for leaving it in its current configuration?” I asked. “At least part of the biome is sticking up out of the bottle, and it’s full-sized. Maybe the domain can expand across the barrier this way?”

“Unlikely,” said Solace. “I don’t want to rush this, but this is substantially worse, as it is.”

“We are committed,” nodded Grak. “The issue is whether to push it out now, with the damage that would cause, or to try something else.”

“We should think about other options,” said Raven. “Grak, what’s your opinion on an annihilation ward?”

“It worries me,” said Grak. “The pressure is equalized, the interior matches the exterior … it could work.”

“Do it,” nodded Solace. “If it can’t be pushed out, then annihilating the bottle is the best option.”

I winced. I’d been hoping that we would keep the bottle, and maybe, if it wasn’t going to have the locus’ domain inside it, we could start building our own facilities. There were a lot of things that you could do with a bottle whose insides were that big. And Bethel, if she ever came back, if I could ever forgive her enough to work with her … I put those thoughts out of my head. It was a good entad for a meta-entad to use. I seemed to be the only one who cared about losing a powerful entad, so I kept my mouth shut. The locus was, obviously, more important.

“This is the second time my skill as a midwife has not come in handy,” murmured Grak, and the image of the domain coming out of the bottle as a birth was so strong that I couldn’t find it in me to laugh at the joke.

We were two hundred feet from the bottle when Grak changed his ward, and it was annihilated in an instant, dropping the land inside by a few feet where the thick glass had been. The sides of the domain slid down, toppling trees, but the destruction was localized to the edges, and more gentle than it might have been, with some of the edge still standing, showing off the strata of rocks, earth, and plant life.

The locus came to the edge shortly afterward, looked at us, brayed once, and trotted back into the woods, as though nothing had happened.

“Good work,” I said to Grak. “Really, really good work.”

“Did the quest update?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. “But we might have to wait for a bit. It’s not clear.”

“The bottle is gone,” said Solace, speaking softly, as though she couldn’t believe it. “And the locus is free to grow once again.”

Amaryllis looked at me with an eyebrow raised. She’d read the same reports that I had, and while she hadn’t expressed any skepticism, I knew she felt it too.

We knew better than to ask for a timeline on when we would or wouldn’t see results. Instead, we headed into the transplanted domain to see how things had changed, and in part, to be there for the locus in its time of transition. This was a big step, maybe the biggest step that the locus had taken since it had gone into the bottle in the first place.

It also meant that Solace wasn’t going to be traveling with us anymore. Taking the bottle around the world was one thing, but to abandon the locus to its own devices would be nearly unthinkable. That was on top of the fact that Solace’s powers would wane away from the locus, so by a strictly utilitarian calculation, it was better for her to stay where she could do the most good. I was worried that both Solace and the locus were going to become background characters now, from a narrative point of view, and most of the worry was that background characters were sometimes expendable for the sake of making a point.

But I was a single point of Loyalty away from the locus getting a new virtue, and we knew from experience that those could be game-changing, especially if it was coming hot on the heels of completing a companion quest, which … well, there had been a chance that after the bottle was annihilated, I would have gotten one, or if not that, an update. I was getting worried that this was only step one though, with another three or four steps in front of us, and there were other pressing matters, like the date with Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle and his zombies.

The locus didn’t seem any different from before, though I wasn’t a great judge. It — she? After the conversation with Grak, I was inclined to stop playing around with pronouns, since they seemed systematizing either way — was laying down and not moving much, almost napping, but that wasn’t unusual behavior for the locus. Solace patted the locus’ flank and told the locus that it had done a wonderful job, that it was strong and beautiful, which only reinforced the birth analogy in my head. Raven and Amaryllis joined in, giving their love and support, but I stood back, and after a moment, I realized that Grak was standing back too.

“You okay?” I asked.

He shrugged, then replied in Groglir. “It didn’t work.”

“The quest didn’t update,” I said. “That’s not the same thing.”

“The Second Empire was right,” said Grak. I could practically see his heart sinking in his chest.

“If they were, then we just have a different problem,” I said. “One that we can solve.”

“There is not always a solution to the problems that life creates,” said Grak.

I swallowed, because I had wanted to say that this wasn’t true for us, that we were special, that this was a world that didn’t give problems with no solutions … but Fenn was dead, and she had stayed dead. I knew enough from my own history as a DM to know that how it was supposed to work was that you would allow anything with an epic enough quest, that you could descend into the hells to rescue someone you loved, that you could slay a god and wrest control of their domain, that there weren’t supposed to be any actual limits, just limits of how long the party would stay invested in a campaign … but I hadn’t always DMed that way. I had, on occasion, decided that rocks fall and everyone dies, because what they were trying to do was stupid or impossible.

“You did a good job,” I said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “I didn’t understand any of it, but you did a good job. The locus is out of the bottle. That’s what we were trying to accomplish, and it’s done. Okay?”

“Okay,” he replied. His hand went up to rest on mine. “Thank you, Juniper.”

Once everyone was done fawning (heh) over the locus, we went to the tree house.

“I’ll keep three of my clones with you,” Amaryllis said to Solace. “And obviously there will be a contingent on Poran to handle the industrial and engineering considerations.”

“And what would those clones be doing?” asked Solace, raising a dark green eyebrow.

“Communicating with you about what’s going on with us,” said Amaryllis. “There don’t seem to be any distance limits on the sync. And beyond that, I can do whatever you’d like me to do. To the extent you need extra hands, —”

“It’s the extra minds that worry me,” said Solace. “You have real affection for the locus, I can see that, but it’s poisoned with calculation.”

Amaryllis set her lips into a thin line. “Very well,” she said. “I can station a clone at the edge of the domain, if you’d prefer. I don’t want us to lose contact with each other, not for longer than a day. Or I can make brief visits.”

“That would be better,” said Solace with a nod. “And we will, of course, want to start looking for druids.”

“That’s not how it’s normally done, is it?” I asked.

“Of course not,” said Solace. “But if we hew to the old ways and wait for people to come of their own volition, allowing whomever would like to into the domain, we would be overrun in a heartbeat.” She gripped her staff. “It would have been better to remain cloaked in secrecy.”

“I’m sorry,” said Amaryllis. “I really am.”

“I understand why you thought it was best,” said Solace with a wave of her hand. “What’s done is done. I’ll speak with the tuung, to see who among them might make a suitable druid, if the locus so chooses. And if none have the temperament or desire, then perhaps I’ll open the gates.”

“It will be a security challenge,” said Amaryllis. “But it would be workable, if it comes to that.”

“And in terms of the worst case?” I asked. “If the domain doesn’t expand and new druids can’t be inducted?”

“Then we’ll find a way forward,” said Solace.

I appreciated the optimism, I really did, but I thought it was a little bit misplaced. Amaryllis and Solace started talking about induction processes and how to balance the need for new druids against the risks involved, but I spotted the locus outside the door, and went to it, which no one seemed to object to.

Within half a minute, I was up on its back, and we were riding away from the tree house, exploring the changed domain. It seemed so much more open without the bottle looming over us, like a dome had been lifted off the world. Eventually, we came to the edge, a part that had broken off and sloped down, giving us a view of the sea. I didn’t know whether or not the locus could leave the domain, but it seemed like if it couldn’t, that would be the sort of hard and fast rule that the locus didn’t respect.

“Back in the old days, you’d just let in whoever wanted to come,” I said. “If someone wandered in, it was no big deal, and if they wandered back out, it was also no big deal. They could even hunt, so long as they didn’t take more than they needed. They could live with you, or on your domain, so long as they lived in the right way.” Some of this I was guessing at, some was history as relayed by Solace. “And if they loved the place, then eventually you would find them, and if they were the right kind of people, the right thinkers, then you would connect to them and allow them … hrm. Maybe it wasn’t like granting them permission, maybe it was letting your vast power flow through them, so long as they kept the faucet open on their end.” I liked that as a metaphor. “The problem, now, is that there’s not enough juice, and the flow has been reduced to a trickle. Enough for Solace to do what she can do, but there isn’t enough to push out toward others, nor to expand. At least, that’s my working theory.”

The locus didn’t reply. It could understand Anglish, or at least tone, but it only looked out at the sea. I wondered, if it ever did expand to reach the shore of Poran, whether it would stay as a doe or become something else instead.

“We could find a battery,” I said. “Some fucking enormous source of power and vitality, in whatever form, we could go on a quest to get it, and then hook it up to you somehow, again with me being a little light on specifics at the moment. And when that was done, you’d be able to pour yourself out over these lands.” I sighed. “Not too likely to actually work though, because if we tried to hook you into a rune magic engine, it would be like AC and DC, or, uh, two things that don’t go together where one is systematized and the other is not.” I snapped my fingers. “It would be like trying to integrate Lego with Play-Doh.”

The locus huffed slightly.

“I’m just thinking out loud,” I said. “I’ll have to try to find a version of that metaphor that works on Aerb.” Lego and its knock-offs were made out of plastic, but I was pretty sure that with the right setup, you could make a wooden version with lower tolerances and higher cost. Probably someone had already done it. Maybe it had already been done on Earth. I had no idea whether or not there were wooden Lego precursors, and once again wished that I had internet access to look it up. “Look, the point is, the way I see things now, we find some nigh-unlimited source of power that’s as wibbly-wobbly in concept space as you are, maybe even something pulled from the conceptual realm … or it’s not solvable. It’s like I said before, that maybe this is just it, all you’ll ever be. Maybe that’s even the lesson. I think the only real change is that now there’s a chance you can outlast Solace for an appreciable length of time.”

The doe huffed again, but didn’t move, and still stared off into the distance. I used the crown to look through its eyes, and got a multifaceted painting instead, one where nothing was literal and everything was either exaggerated or in metaphor. I reeled from it, the augmented vision comprehension of the crown not being nearly sufficient. The locus wasn’t even really seeing the world through its eyes, it was seeing an abstraction of the world, but not an abstraction that made things simpler. Even the image was, I was pretty sure, a simplification of that abstraction.

The outside world had been vibrant through its eyes, and the domain had been, if not dull, then repetitive, the kind of stale sameness as landscape pictures in hotels that were mass manufactured, selected for being as inoffensive as possible. The difference between the two was stark, and it took me a moment to realize how much it represented envy and hunger. The doe had been in the bottle for a long, long time, in a small, stagnant environment, and now it could see the outside world without a layer of glass. The Isle of Poran might legitimately have been like nothing it had ever seen before.

I worked some water magic and parted the clouds, sweeping them to the side and letting light hit the water, which sparkled for us, the grass, which shone a vibrant green, and the dark rocks, which became solid and imposing rather than dour lumps.

“Everything the light touches,” I began, but the words died on my lips, because I could see that it was meaningful to the locus, and maybe this was actually important.

Loyalty Increased: Six-Eyed Doe lvl 20!

Companion Passive Unlocked: Deer to Me (Six-Eyed Doe)!

The locus looked at me, and nudged me in the stomach with its head. I took the hint and swung myself up to ride her, but once I was there, she just stared out at the bright, shining land with me, and when I made to get off again, she moved against me, keeping me in place. I didn’t mind, of course, but I wondered about what the locus was getting from being mounted. I was going to look at the virtue, obviously, but my philosophy of late was that the game layer would keep, and I wasn’t going to let it interrupt me. Slowly, carefully, I looked through the eyes of the locus again, and this time held myself to it, staring at the world as it appeared to this alien intelligence.

It wasn’t even a matter of replacement, not a filter applied to the world, it was completely different, like a painting rendered by someone who was only hearing about the scene secondhand. And it wasn’t really from the same viewpoint, instead, rearranged so that everything was in its own eclectic composition. Seeing through the doe’s ‘eyes’ was misleading, because the doe itself was there, represented in its own view of the world, maybe a bit more small than it really was.

Standing beside the doe was a stag, and it was only because I was absent from the view that I interpreted that stag to be me.

After some time had passed, the locus turned around and headed back to the tree, where the others were waiting, their business concluded. I refrained from telling them about the loyalty up for as long as I could, because it was like breaking a spell, pinning numbers on something mystical. I would have to say something of course, I couldn’t not, and I would have to look, but there was a part of me that didn’t want to, because with how much the locus interfered with the interface of the game, it still seemed like the two shouldn’t be touching at all.

It wasn’t until later that night that I finally looked at the virtue.

Deer to Me: When within the domain of the locus, you can sweet talk the Layman. When within the domain of the locus, the map might become confused with the territory. You, and some distance around you, are part of the domain of the locus, except not for the purposes of the prior two abilities.

I stared at the virtue for a bit. It wasn’t obviously good, not like some of the other virtues I’d gotten. It was obviously in the flavor of the locus, with hardly any direct numbers or mechanical references, which I was a little grateful for. I wondered at some of the language used, and thought about ways to test ‘some distance’, then discarded those thoughts as being not in keeping with the spirit of the locus. I tried to imagine the locus as belonging to a completely different game, one without much in the way of rules, or with rules that mapped to something else, rather than reality, or where the reality as the rules presented it was more important than reality as reality was.

The biggest impact was, as far as I understood it, that Solace would stay at full power so long as she was with me, no matter how far away from Poran we got. The second impact, again, so far as I understood it, was that the locus could come with us, though I wasn’t sure whether this would require the locus to teleport, warp space, or Just Do It.

Either way, it didn’t change all that much, and it didn’t give us a magical out, which meant that we were going to go ahead with everything else as planned. In a few days time, we were planning to kill Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 199: Nearest and Dearest

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