Moving through the prison following the dirt golem was nerve-wracking. We saw more dirt golems as we walked, usually from a distance, but there were an awful lot of them, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle them as effectively up close, if they trapped us in a hallway. Our golem guide was silent as it walked, and behaved more or less like I would expect a videogame NPC to, stopping when we stopped and behaving as though it was going through a script (which, for all I knew, it was).
Grak stopped every time we came to a new hallway and raised his monocle to his eye, but whenever he said that it was clear, he gave me a look for confirmation. After the first two times I started to feel a little bit guilty about it, because I didn’t actually think that Aerb could be entirely predicted on the basis of genre or narrative conventions. You had to be aware of them, but the way I had always handled things was to subvert, invert, or change the tropes as often as I played them straight. If we came across a scheming vizier, I would have to consider that he was betraying his king, but also that he was just a loyal vizier, or that it only looked like he was betraying his king, or any number of other possibilities. That didn’t mean that there was no predictive value in knowing the tropes, just that they were pretty far from being an absolute guide.
I hadn’t been able to predict that a bomb was coming out to greet us at the prison’s front door. I hadn’t foreseen Solace’s death. It was easy to make sense of it in retrospect, to fit it within different frameworks, but that was all useless if you did it after the fact. Maybe that was why I hadn’t pushed back against Grak when he said that the statues weren’t magical, or why I had yelled at him after it had turned out that I was right. That sheer uselessness, the way that I almost had a grasp on what was going on and it wasn’t doing me any good, was really starting to get to me — and had been, even before Solace.
“Here, through this passageway,” said the dirt golem as it came to a stop, gesturing at a door.
Grak raised his monocle and spent a long while peering at the door, then lowered it with a frown. “Nothing that I can see.” He turned to me. “Juniper?”
I had no fucking idea. “Let’s just go in.”
We weren’t idiots about it, and did a passable door clear with Fenn aiming an arrow straight through the crack and no one standing directly in front of the door, but the room had only a table and a handful of chairs, with an elf seated in one of them. Grak informed us of a powerful ward stretching from one wall to the other, bisecting the room; the golem had told us that it was an absolute ward, built with a layer of defense against every possible type of magic, and he tentatively agreed with that assessment.
The elf sat with his arms folded across his bare chest. He had scars like the ones that Fenn had, but far more extensive, covering his skin from his wrists, to the base of his neck, and down his chest, in similar patterns of curls and whorls. But those weren’t the only scars he had; giant scars, each the width of a hand, crisscrossed his chest. The meaning of that was obvious to me. If scar magic was predicated on the unchanging nature of elf skin, then the way to deprive an elf of that power was to tear some strips of skin off him. The man himself stared at us with that same, tight-lipped, imperious expression I’d seen on every elf I had passed by in both Barren Jewel and Cranberry Bay. He had long, flowing hair, so blonde it was almost white, and ears that were more sharply pointed than Fenn’s. He had little in the way of fat or muscle, but I knew from Fenn that didn’t matter too much for elves, in terms of what it said about combat ability. We slowly, cautiously moved into the room. I took one of the chairs and Amaryllis took the other, while Grak and Fenn were left standing.
“Very –” the elf began.
“Fuck!” I shouted, jumping halfway out of my chair, because when he’d started speaking I had seen his teeth, long, sharp teeth like a piranha that instantly awoke a basal fear in me.
And then, after I’d had a look around the room and seen the confusion on everyone’s face, I sat back down, feeling a growing warmth on my cheeks. No one else is surprised. This is just what elves are like, and everyone knows that. Fenn had pointed out that she was a half-elf when we first met by pointing at her ears and her teeth. Obviously elfish ears, obviously human teeth.
I coughed once. “You were saying?”
The elf stared at me with pursed lips. “Who are you?” he asked. I tried not to recoil from the view of his sharp teeth, which were visible when he spoke.
“We come seeking your expertise in souls,” said Amaryllis. She had given me a look of incomprehension, when I’d had my outburst, but now she was as good as pretending that I wasn’t there.
“Ah,” said the elf. He smiled at us — more specifically, at me, revealing his pointy teeth in full. I had a guess that wasn’t so friendly of an expression in elf culture. Just a hunch. “And who are you? What interests do you represent?” There was something very subtly off about his accent that I couldn’t place my finger on.
“We are independent actors,” said Amaryllis.
The elf shook his head. “No,” he said.
“No?” asked Amaryllis. “No, you won’t help us, or no, you don’t believe us?”
“No, I do not believe you,” replied the elf. “You are too well-armed to have come alone.”
“We’re really very wealthy actors,” said Fenn. “Our little troupe has done quite well for itself.”
“And do you offer escape?” asked the elf. “You have suffered, getting here.” That, at least, was easy to see; we were all varying degrees of bloody, and my blue armor was marked white with every hit I’d taken. I had used bone magic to heal Amaryllis’ leg, but there was no longer immobility plate covering it, and there hadn’t been anything we could do about that.
“We want knowledge first,” said Amaryllis. “Tell us what you know of the soul, –”
The elf began laughing, a high, melodious sound. “I know everything there is to know,” he said. “Everything knowable outside the exclusion zones.”
“Enough that we could get started on our own,” said Amaryllis, without looking my way.
“You want classes,” laughed the elf. “The warden would never allow it. It would take years of study to have even the barest comprehension of your own soul, let alone to touch another’s.”
I didn’t say, “try me”, though I really wanted to, because Amaryllis was on point for diplomacy.
“You were arrested and tried by the Kingdom of Anglecynn for the horrors that you perpetuated under the Second Empire,” said Amaryllis. “You hadn’t broken any laws, but the power had shifted and examples had to be made. I am sympathetic to that, retroactive criminality is a miscarriage of justice. We want to help you, so long as you help us.”
“And do you offer escape?” the elf asked again, leaning forward slightly, still with his arms folded across his chest. I was painfully aware of a few facts. First, that the void wasn’t considered magic on Aerb, and couldn’t be stopped by wards, and second, that the prison hadn’t seemed to understand that it was carrying a void bomb to us until well after the fact. The barrier between us had a few flaws that I could think of, but that was the glaring one that was getting my attention. Hell, that was how I was planning on killing him, if it came to that. The void rifle was in Fenn’s glove, and she was waiting for the signal.
“You understand that trust is an issue,” said Amaryllis. “That’s why we want to get the basics, the bare basics, first.”
He narrowed his eyes and looked between the four of us. “It is a test,” he said with a nod. “But knowing that it’s a test makes it pointless, because you know that I know enough to pass, and if I know it as a test I can fake cooperation. Which you know.”
“Indulge us,” said Amaryllis with a slight frown.
The elf stared at her, then blinked once. “It’s not a test,” he said, looking between us again. “Why are you here?”
“You’ve been stuck here for hundreds of years,” said Amaryllis. “The majority of the other inmates must be dead by now. I would think that you would want to show off. What’s holding you back?”
“What specific expertise do you seek?” asked the elf.
Amaryllis hesitated. She didn’t look my direction; if I were her, I wasn’t sure that I would have been able to resist.
“I know a bone mage who sucked several of his own bones dry,” said Amaryllis. “I was given to understand that a soul mage could help with that problem.”
The elf smiled again, with the same unpleasant display of teeth. “A simple problem,” he said. “One of the soulself. I could fix it within a half hour, were escape on the table.”
“I haven’t said that it’s not,” said Amaryllis.
“You haven’t said that it is,” the elf replied.
“I assume that the warden, as you call it, listens in on all conversations that take place in this room,” said Amaryllis. “We would, therefore, never directly say that we were willing to help you to escape.”
“You are cautious,” said the elf. “Cautious enough that you would never let me touch the soul of someone, even if it were to fix damage, for fear of what I might do.”
“No, of course not,” said Amaryllis. She crossed her arms, mirroring him. “We don’t want you to engage in any actual work. We want you to teach someone without laying your hands on the soul directly.”
“And you would still not trust me,” said the elf with an approving nod. “My pupil would not be allowed to practice soulcraft unless he first understood precisely what he was doing. You would bring in test subjects before ever touching your valued bone mage.”
“If we had to,” said Amaryllis.
“And then you would kill me, as much understanding as you might have for my plight,” the elf continued.
Amaryllis frowned. “I can see where that would be the logical conclusion,” she said. “Is there anything that we could do to assuage your concern?”
“Traditionally, the kingdoms of men would take hostages,” he replied. “But of course, such an exchange doesn’t work when we do not know the map of values. You might give me a hostage you did not care for and accept such a cost for concluding business.”
“Then we’re at an impasse,” said Amaryllis with a sigh. “Unless you want to stay here for the rest of your life, you’re going to have to take a chance on us. I solemnly promise not to kill you, or have you killed, or even allow anyone else to kill you while you’re under my care. You will effectively serve as our prisoner until the training is complete, but your conditions will be better than they are here, and you’ll have access to whatever information you want about the outside world.”
The elf gave her a thoughtful look. “And were escape an option, how many could you take?”
Amaryllis hesitated at that, and finally broke eye contact with him to look to Fenn. “How long are the masks good for?” she asked.
“An hour,” replied Fenn.
“And they’re made using the kit?” asked Amaryllis.
Fenn nodded. That meant we had a practically unlimited supply of them, meaning that if we had a lot of time and coordination, we could put two or three hundred people into the glove, as an upper bound.
“It would, of course, depend on who these people were,” said Amaryllis. “We could keep careful watch over two or three people, potentially, but –”
“Twenty,” said the elf, unflinching.
“Friends?” asked Amaryllis.
“Something like that,” replied the elf.
Amaryllis stared at him for a moment, furrowing her brow. I didn’t know what she was thinking, but I was thinking that even if we could overcome the logistical hurdles of getting twenty people out of this prison, which would likely mean destroying every security system and golem in the place, there was no way that the four of us could keep twenty people contained except through their own goodwill. And these weren’t just twenty people, these were twenty elves, faster and stronger than humans, long-lived enough to have acquired a wide variety of skills.
“Miss Red, may I have my amulet please?” asked Amaryllis, holding her hand out toward Fenn.
The blue amulet appeared in Fenn’s hand, and she tossed it over without another response. I hadn’t asked Fenn how she would feel about seeing another elf, but my guess of ‘not good’ seemed to be mostly accurate. She didn’t seem to be in a great mood, not that I thought any of us were.
Amaryllis held the amulet in her hand, and her eyes glowed blue as she consulted with it. I felt a chill come over the room as the minutes passed.
“What magic does she hold in her hand?” asked the elf.
“Are you interested?” I asked. “If you want knowledge for its own sake, we have plenty that we can share with you, as a way of rewarding good behavior.”
The elf shrugged, but his eyes stayed on Amaryllis, who was taking her sweet time talking to her great-grandfather. Eventually her eyes cleared, and the room immediately warmed back up. She tossed the amulet back to Fenn without looking, which seemed pretty careless to do with a priceless artifact, but based on the way her jaw was clenched, I got the sense that she hadn’t had a great talk.
“He’s not Fallatehr,” said Amaryllis.
“I never said I was,” replied the elf with such smooth arrogance that I nearly reached across the table to punch him in the face.
“Seems like he’s sort of useless to us then,” said Fenn. I saw her gloved hand twitch slightly.
“Who is he then?” I asked with a frown. “And why would the prison think that he was the one we wanted to talk to?”
“I am not Fallatehr,” said the elf. “He took my soul and reformed it in his own image.”
Quest Updated: Crimes Against the Soul – Fallatehr Whiteshell has altered every remaining prisoner at the Amoureux Penitentiary to become as close to him as possible. Only the real Fallatehr will serve all purposes.
“Scenario two,” I said to Amaryllis. Scenario one was confirmation that Fallatehr was a companion; scenario two was a change in the quests; scenario three was a new quest. “And that’s why you want to move twenty people out. Fallatehr, and people like you.”
The elf nodded. “If it can be done, do it.”
“We wanted a lesson,” said Amaryllis. “But you couldn’t actually pass that test, could you?”
The elf shook his head.
“Well fuck this,” said Fenn. “We’re talking about twenty of this guy? He already tried to kill us once, we don’t need him that badly.”
“We have other options as far as healing goes,” said Amaryllis, staring at the elf. “But that’s not the extent of our problems. Fallatehr Whiteshell might be the only person that can resolve the other one.” Might. We didn’t actually know that soul magic was going to be needed to get the locus back out of the bottle and connected with a new land, but Solace had thought it likely, and it was as good of a guess as we had at the moment. Besides that, if Fallatehr had been a part of the Second Empire at the time it was going on its campaign against the loci, and he was important enough of a researcher that he’d been made an example of, then it was possible he had more information about the soul of a locus. That was all still all up in the air though, and nothing that I really wanted to risk my life on.
“You may consider me interested,” said the elf, looking between us. “I can relay your message, and your offer.”
“We haven’t made an offer,” said Amaryllis. “We only came here to talk. It’s true that we have a fair amount of magic at our disposal, but we still don’t have any way to ensure a working relationship.”
“You need him,” said the elf with a smirk. “You took a risk in coming here. You didn’t turn away at the first or second sign of danger. You don’t turn away even now, as difficulties pile up.”
“I think all I’ve heard so far is that we don’t need this guy alive,” said Fenn. She was drumming her hand against the side of her leg.
“It wouldn’t be good for our negotiations,” said Amaryllis, turning only slightly in Fenn’s direction before looking back at the elf.
We still hadn’t gotten his name, but apparently it didn’t matter, because whoever he had been, he had been altered on the level of the soul to become something else. I still didn’t know what that entailed; memories, abilities, values, something else? Soulfuckery wasn’t really a realm that I wanted to delve into too deeply, not if it was going to expose me to more horrors. I’d had enough non-diegetic existential horror without having to go through a fresh round of it happening on the Aerbian layer.
“Talk to your master,” said Amaryllis. “I’m sure that twenty heads are better than one. Tell him that we need to have our own discussion, in private, and that he might not hear from us again. We might have to arrange another meeting like this in order to get some information on … the specifics of his incarceration.”
The elf looked at her for a while. “We are not slaves,” he said. “He might agree to being taken alone, but the rest of us would not let him go so easily. We are like him, enough so our prison can confuse us, but we are not clones, nor automatons, nor perfectly loyal.” He stood up, unfolding his arms. I’d been worried, the entire time, that he would have a void weapon in his hands, but all that worry was for nothing; he was unarmed. “Do you offer escape for all of us?”
“I don’t offer escape,” said Amaryllis. “If I did, I would take your unique circumstances into consideration.”
“Did everything go your way?” asked the dirt golem as we left the room. Compared to the elf’s mouth, I found its detailed simulacrum of a mouth almost comforting. “Did he have anything of interest to say?”
“It was illuminating, yes,” said Amaryllis. “I’m afraid that our business isn’t concluded yet.”
“Most troubling,” replied the dirt golem, “You have led me astray. You said what you came to say.”
“We need to talk amongst ourselves in private,” said Amaryllis. “My friend is going to make a ward against sound so there’s no threat of anyone hearing.”
“What about reading lips?” I asked.
“I can make a ward against outgoing light,” said Grak. “There is some risk of overheating. I do not know how long we will talk.”
“I meet this proclamation with dismay,” said the golem. “No wards, this prison, put up, since.” It stopped, with its mouth slightly open. “Very well, you may.”
Grak began drawing out the wards, first one to encircle us that immediately blocked out the sound, and second one just beyond the first, which warped the world around us in an unpleasant and slightly disorienting way. Light couldn’t leave the cylinder we were contained in, so it bounced around the inside until it struck something, and sometimes that something was my eye. I could still mostly see out, but it was a visual struggle.
“We can’t let the locus die,” said Amaryllis, as soon as the second ward was complete.
“These wards should hold for an hour,” said Grak, “Maybe less.”
“The terms of the quests that I have don’t actually indicate that we need Fallatehr or soul magic,” I said. “Solace didn’t know for sure that soul magic was needed. At this point, it’s looking very dangerous. If he can rewrite a soul –”
“He can’t, not fully,” said Amaryllis. “That’s excluded.”
“Right,” I said. “And I actually think that we might have had an easier time of this if they were all just puppets, because it sounds like they have enough free will to not want him to leave by himself. I don’t know what mechanisms he’s got to keep them in line, but they’re only close enough.”
“Three factions are not too many to fight,” said Grak. I wasn’t quite sure how he was counting them, but my guess was the soulfucked prisoners, the old, static defenses of the prison, and the dirt golems was a good guess. Of course, there was also the possibility that we’d only scratched the tip of the iceberg, as far as threats went.
“I’m with the dwarf,” said Fenn. “Kill everyone but the one we want, then take our leave. Sounds like a plan.” She looked out at the ward. “This thing is giving me a headache.”
“We obviously can’t take all of them,” said Amaryllis. “A disproportionate ratio of guards to prisoners is only made possible by either strict systems of control or an adequate level of socialization, neither of which we have, or can have on short notice.”
“And short of getting the real Fallatehr into one of those visitation rooms, we’re going to have to run afoul of the golems, at the very least,” I said.
“The wards include absolute velocity,” said Grak. “The glove would not be able to pass. The ward would prevent him from ever touching it. On first impression, I do not think that I could subvert it.”
“So that plan dies in the cradle,” I said with a wince. “We can fairly easily overpower the dirt golems, I think, they had us badly outnumbered last time and we made it through — but the game called them ‘basic’, so I don’t know if that will hold true.”
“We’re doing all of this to break out someone who we don’t have any reason to think will be loyal to us,” said Amaryllis.
“But based on what your grandfather said, he’s the best?” I asked.
“Great-grandfather,” Amaryllis replied. “And yes, Fallatehr Whiteshell does seem like one of the most capable soul mages to have ever lived, if he could take over twenty other men and women in virtual perpetuity, nevermind doing it under the watchful eye of an imprisoning entity.”
“I can’t say that I’ve been that impressed by the prison so far,” said Fenn. “Seems like we’re getting a bit of a free run because it thinks we could kick its ass.”
“It maneuvered us deep inside,” said Grak.
“That’s what she said,” I replied. It got a snort from Fenn, but only a look of disapproval from Amaryllis and Grak. “Sorry.”
“We are more vulnerable to the golems here than we would be elsewhere,” said Grak. “They could attack us from both ends of this hallway.”
“They could try,” said Fenn. “I can’t say that a bow and arrow seem particularly great at taking out those golems, but I’m willing to give it a shot.”
“It comes down to threat analysis then?” I asked. “The golems hit hard, but they’re slow and easy to take on in multiples. My armor is getting a little bit white for my tastes, but if it were just a matter of killing our way through dirt golems and dirt golem variants, I would be fine with that, especially if there are three quests in the mix. But it’s not just that, it’s facing down other kinds of idiosyncratic threats, plus trying to navigate around maybe two dozen almost-people who have got to be threats in their own right, if they’ve each been here for hundreds of years.”
“I’ve already said that I’m in,” said Fenn. “I don’t know that it’s what Solace would have wanted, but it’s what I would have wanted, if I’d been Solace.”
“I agree,” said Grak. Fenn had joked before about him being suicidal, but I was starting to believe there was some truth to that. For someone whose specialty was in setting up defenses, he sure seemed eager to throw himself up against new and uncertain challenges.
“Juniper?” asked Amaryllis.
“Mary,” I replied.
“What are your thoughts?” she asked.
“I want to hear yours first,” I replied. We were, by agreement, a democracy, which meant that third vote could make the fourth vote irrelevant. If I voted before her, she could vote in agreement with me as an act of manipulation, even if she didn’t actually think it was smart. She’d be giving up an opportunity to exert her will, but fourth vote was a position of power, in a lot of ways, and I didn’t want her to have that, not when she was trying to get it so transparently.
“Narratively –” she began.
“You can conclude this without me,” said Fenn. She stepped beyond the wards without another word.
“I wasn’t aware that she was so sensitive to that word,” said Amaryllis, staring beyond the ward. “But it’s necessary for us to talk about, I think, given the context.” She took a breath. “Narratively, I don’t think that we actually have a choice. Joon, I know that you would prefer to simply abandon talk of narrative and take things on their merit, but … assume that narrative is a rule of the world. Assume that it can be subverted, or changed, or something like that, that it’s not absolute, yes?”
“Okay, yes,” I said slowly.
“We came here following a quest that was given to us by the amulet we found at Caer Laga,” said Amaryllis. “When we arrived, Solace lost her life protecting the cloak that contains the locus, the very same locus that we might be able to save using the soul magic of the man who we’re here for. Now we have multiple antagonists in front of us, in a large area that approximates a dungeon in many respects.”
“I get it,” I said, “There’s a lot of narrative weight. But we absolutely cannot do things just because the plot says so. End of discussion on that.”
“Do you recall telling me about the Scattered Asches campaign?” asked Amaryllis.
I winced at that. The Scattered Asches campaign had started normally enough, with the party meeting each other during community service, saving the life of a distressed princess, and getting sent off to do some very sensitive work because they were a band of skilled eccentrics well outside the kingdom’s spy network, all pretty normal as far as campaign starts went. The problem was that after the first dungeon, they found a Clue as to greater goings on which threatened the Eight Realms … and then left to go be ninjas on another continent, dropping that plot thread entirely and forcing me to scrap about two weeks worth of work.
But the way I thought about worlds was that they didn’t just stop running because you weren’t looking at them, or because you went off to go do something else. If the threat the party had seen was real, and they just ignored it, then that thread couldn’t just quietly die on the vine, something had to happen with it, either another party would have to come in and deal with it, or it would grow and fester, but either way, in a living, breathing world, you couldn’t just drop plot threads, because that would make it seem like the world wasn’t alive.
So the threat had grown, slowly and steadily, and as the party went to ninja school and got involved in ninja plots, they would occasionally hear whispers and rumors from the Eight Realms, they would come across people in exile, and that original plot, one meant for characters of 3rd level, grew until it needed all their might at level 11 to defeat it. Everyone enjoyed it, maybe more because they saw it coming than because I didn’t just let them drop it, but that was my go-to method of dealing with a player that dropped a quest — let them drop it, sure, but there would be consequences, echoes, and aftereffects.
And if we just left the Amoureux Penitentiary, and tried to get me access to soul magic some other way, what would the Dungeon Master do? He might railroad us hard, but even if he didn’t, then he might not be willing to drop all the narrative threads, or to say that sometimes things were meaningless, pointless, wastes of time and resources. For myself, games, movies, television, and literature were the few places that I wasn’t comfortable with embracing the bleak meaninglessness of existence.
“I understand what you’re saying,” I replied. “But if it were me, and someone said, ‘Oh, well I guess we have to, because that’s clearly what the DM wants’, I would have a long, out of character conversation with them about how it’s not about what the DM has planned. And failing that, if I for some reason had no way of communicating with them outside of the game, I would figure out some way of communicating to them within the game that there had been other options, that it was okay to go off the beaten path.”
“Except you would bring them back to the original plot,” said Grak. “It’s contradictory.”
“Of course it is,” I practically shouted. “You’re making all this crap up as you go along, it’s a process of reconciling different learned lessons and feeling your way along by intuition. That’s why I think that we would be fundamentally unwise to follow along with what we think the entity, or the narrative, or whatever, wants from us. Maybe it’s rolling its eyes at this conversation.” Or maybe it was looking on in glee, though that was a less pleasant thought.
“Fine,” said Amaryllis. “Leaving narrative out of it, you cap your skills at 20 unless you have a proficient teacher. Soul magic is powerful, if less so now than it was hundreds of years ago. Fallatehr is demonstrably one of the most powerful soul mages that we’re likely to have access to, and the ways in which that access is dangerous are ones that we can deal with by sufficient application of the force we have available to us. I believe to get better than him, we would have to either go into one of the exclusion zones that got soul magic partly excluded, or we would have to somehow poach from one of the larger polities within the Empire. We need to heal you, sooner rather than later, we need to get the locus out, sooner rather than later, and I know that I said it was a distraction, but if you want a third path for Solace, not the oblivion or hell that currently awaits her, this seems to me to be one of the only ways that’s going to happen.”
I felt an uncomfortable sinking feeling in my chest. She could have led with Solace, and I probably would have changed my vote right then. “Okay,” I said. “Then I guess it’s unanimous.”