As soon as the pain of the teleportation faded, and I had made sure that we were all clear of Fallatehr, Fenn came up and wrapped me in a hug. I returned it, trying my best to keep aware of my surroundings at the same time. Teleportation was both painful and disorientating, which meant that it was the best time for an ambush.
It was still dark near Parsmont (naturally, since Aerb didn’t have timezones) but clouds obscured the multicolored stars and Celestar, meaning that our only light was from a lantern that Fenn had set down on the grass. Behind her was a large farmhouse that wouldn’t have been out of place anywhere in the Midwest, with two stories, wood siding, and a wide, wrap around porch. Behind it was a tall barn with a fifteen-foot tall arch leading into the interior. Amaryllis hadn’t been kidding when she said that this place didn’t have much in the way of neighbors. I had to wonder how we had acquired it, though “lots and lots of money hastily exchanging hands” was probably a good guess. Hopefully that wasn’t going to attract attention, especially since we couldn’t move very quickly with eight people.
And in the other direction, there was Parsmont, the titular ‘mont’ really more of a large hill. It was coated with buildings, visible mostly by the streetlights laced through them. I didn’t have a firm grasp on the time, since I didn’t have a watch, but it was after midnight, and probably by a wide margin. There were cars and trucks moving through the city though, visible by their headlights, even at this late hour. It all looked so like Earth in so many ways that it felt like I had gone to a different world again, at least until I looked down at the half-elf in my arms.
“Still alive?” Fenn asked, backing up just enough so that she could bring a hand up to the side of my face and stare in my eyes. “Still Juniper?”
“You know that you can’t actually get an answer to that question, don’t you?” I asked. “My answer would be the same either way. I mean, obviously I’m still alive, but I would just lie about being me.”
“Yup, still Juniper,” said Fenn, as she gave me a quick kiss on the lips.
“You know that’s not enough, right?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes and smiled at me. “Come on, we’ve got a room.”
“Grak is compromised,” said Amaryllis, her tone hard.
“Under suspicion,” Grak corrected her. “They can’t tell one way or another.”
“Okay,” said Fenn, looking between the five of us. “Meaning?” She slowly drew a finger across her throat, raising an eyebrow.
“The plan is not to kill me, no,” said Grak with a slight snort.
“Well, good,” said Fenn. “Not that I would, you understand.”
“You’d make Mary do it,” said Grak with a slight, wide-toothed grin.
“I would make Mary do it,” Fenn agreed. “Come, let me give you a tour.”
She moved toward the farmhouse, pulling me along. Only a single room of the farmhouse was lit, the front living room, and when we came into it, she waved with a hand. “Home sweet home, for the time being,” said Fenn. “Did you know that if you offer absurd amounts of money to people, they’ll let you stay in their house?”
“That worries me,” I said.
“It worries Mary too,” said Fenn with a shrug. “There were two of them, a little old lady and a nearly decrepit old man, went to go stay with their son down the road a bit, took all the sentimentals they could carry. We have a half now, half later agreement with them, for a fuckload of money by anyone’s standards, but it’s still kind of touchy. Mary still favored this over trying to go into town this late at night and risking more eyeballs in our direction.”
I looked around at the pictures on the walls, the knick-knacks, dried flowers in artful arrangements, and hunting trophies stuffed and put up on the wall, most of which were of species I didn’t recognize. Doors led off into other rooms, but I had been in enough houses like this that I wasn’t terribly interested in what it held. My eyes briefly caught on something that looked like a small shrine, but whatever had been sitting there, it was now noticeably absent, an empty space surrounded by dried flowers and a few unlit candles.
“Did we pick this place at random?” I asked.
“We went down the road a bit, looking at signs, until we found a few that had the same last name. We figured that gave us a better chance of not inconveniencing them too much,” said Fenn. “Out of the way, but close enough to Parsmont proper, where we’re headed in the morning to restock. We paid those people basically the full price of their house for the pleasure. But we should be safe here, at least for a little while.”
The rest of the group came to join us, Valencia first, then Grak, then Fallatehr, and finally Amaryllis following them at some distance.
“Fallatehr and Valencia will stay in the barn tonight, where Rehta and Lehpenn already are,” said Amaryllis. “Grak will stay with us in the house.”
“You cannot continue to treat me like a live grenade,” said Fallatehr, smiling softly. “It is a poor way to build a working relationship.”
“It’s just temporary,” said Amaryllis. “We’re already allowing for the possibility that you might leave. We know that you cannot be forced to teach under duress.” It was curiosity that had gotten him to agree to come with us, that was (probably) true, but I still felt a little ill at the idea that he might leave, and that we’d have inflicted him on the world. It was really a matter of practicality, because we didn’t have the manpower, facilities, or equipment to guard him and his clones, except possibly in the very short term. We might have been able to, if we knew for sure that we had Grak, but we didn’t have Grak. I knew all that, but it still made my stomach flip. “You might understand that our nerves are somewhat frayed by the amount of pain and effort we took in getting you out of prison.”
“I will not thank you for my rescue,” said Fallatehr. “Too many of my long-term projects were lost in the process, and the wider world has always been of little concern to me. Our interests are aligned, for the time being, but I won’t pretend at owing you anything in gratitude.”
Fenn rolled her eyes at that, but didn’t say anything in response.
“We’ll be a little more settled tomorrow,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll make a trip into town and figure out a more permanent housing situation so that Juniper’s training can continue, and once he’s built up some skill with soul magic, we won’t have to worry so much about the trust issues.”
Fallatehr nodded at that. I wondered whether that was giving the game away too much, but maybe Amaryllis was counting on Fallatehr to have already figured that out. Once I had a better working knowledge of soul magic, I could both ensure that my soul was defended, and defend against changes to the souls of others — in theory, at least. His window of opportunity was shrinking, and he presumably didn’t know about the soul link between the three of us.
“We’ll all get some rest,” Fallatehr said with a short bow. He reached over and grabbed Valencia by the chains between her manacles, but she jerked away from him.
“I lied!” she shouted. Fallatehr managed to grab the chain, holding her in place. “I lied, he did touch Grak, he pinned him and touched his soul until he stopped moving, and then they talked to each other, Juniper, I’m sorry, but I lied, you have to be careful!” The words came out in a rush, breaths taken without ending a sentence.
“Believe what you wish,” said Fallatehr with a shrug. “It did not happen as she says, but such an outburst is not uncharacteristic of a possession.”
“Take her away,” said Amaryllis with a sigh.
“You have to believe me, Juniper, please!” said Valencia.
“Is there anything we could do to verify?” I asked. “Details that you couldn’t have known unless this was the truth?”
“No,” said Valencia, saying the word like I had stabbed her.
I gave her a small nod as Fallatehr led her away, out of the door, staring at me with wide eyes but unresisting.
“It’s meaningless,” said Amaryllis. “Nothing we can verify, nothing that we can act on, nothing new, and as likely to be the result of possession as what she initially told us.”
“It’s not true,” said Grak. “For whatever me saying that is worth.”
“The girl seems taken with you,” Fenn said to me, giving me a fake smile and a nudge in the ribs.
“Juniper doesn’t share our cultural values,” said Amaryllis, shaking her head slightly. She blinked slowly. “I need sleep, at least a little bit, before we do a full debrief.” She turned to Grak. “Unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave you out of those conversations.”
Grak frowned at that. “If my soul were touched, he would already know everything I know,” said Grak.
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “But you don’t know everything that we know, not yet.”
Grak frowned again. “I agree with a need for caution. There must be limits though. I cannot be exiled from decision-making and information-sharing forever.”
“You’re too important to keep you out of the loop forever,” said Amaryllis. “But we are waiting on Juniper to have whatever level of skill is necessary to ensure that you’re still the Grak we know.”
“And love,” added Fenn.
“But for now, you’ll be sleeping in another room,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper will close you in with a Lecher’s Vine.”
“Let me put up wards,” said Grak. “Treat them as untrustworthy. I will at least gain peace of mind.”
Amaryllis rubbed her eyes. “No,” she said. “If you were working against us you could turn this place into a death trap and put us at a disadvantage in the event of an attack. Down that hall there, to the right, please.”
“Fair enough,” nodded Grak, looking quickly between the three of us before heading off down the hallway. I followed after him.
“Sorry about all this,” I said once he was in the small bedroom. I’d been expecting quilts, like my grandparents made, but the bedding was clearly some mass produced, perfectly-machined fabric. There were pictures of someone’s family on the wall, and an old dresser that looked like it had been carved from a single, solid, piece of wood. The bed was too high for Grak to comfortably get up on, and I immediately felt bad for him. “If,” I began, then stopped, because Grak didn’t know about the soul link, and I couldn’t tell him. “I’ll figure out a way to check your soul over.”
“I’m not comfortable with that,” said Grak, folding his arms across his chest.
“Meaning that you would refuse?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “It is possible to submit to something uncomfortable.”
“We should try it now,” I said, holding out my hand to him. He hesitated, then took his hand in my own. My Essentialism was up to 7 now, just from poking around, but I had no real idea how I was supposed to be able to access another person’s soul. I tried a few ways to conceptualize it, as though I was following a thread like I did for Fenn and Amaryllis, or like I was opening the book of Grakhuil, but nothing worked, and after what felt like an eternity holding his hand in the doorway, I pulled away.
“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “Thank you for being good about it, even if it’s just a plot that Fallatehr told you to follow.” I meant that as a joke, but it didn’t come out like one, and Grak didn’t show any signs of even mild amusement.
There were no windows in his room, which was a plus, because that meant just one of my Lecher’s Vines was needed to make sure that I would know if he left. I stared at the door for a bit, trying to erase an unpleasant but true thought. At least it was him and not Fenn or Amaryllis. Maybe there was a good reason that he wasn’t loyal to me.
“Personally, I think it’s great to be sharing a bedroom again,” said Fenn as Amaryllis stripped out of her immobility plate. We were going to share the master bedroom on the second floor, which had an adjoining bathroom, and more importantly, would be pretty easy to defend against intrusion. “Brings me back to the good old days, when we were three peas in a pod in Barren Jewel.”
“I’m going to take a very quick shower to wash the sweat and blood off,” said Amaryllis. “Then I’m going to sleep.”
I had already secured the door with another Lecher’s Vine, which had crawled from my skin and went to surround the door frame in bright green leaves, then moved a heavy dresser in front of it. In the event we had to leave in a hurry, we’d be using a window. I averted my eyes as Amaryllis took off the last of the plate and stripped down her underclothes to full nudity. I waited until she had closed herself in the bathroom to sit down on the bed with Fenn. She kissed me on the neck, then rested her head on my shoulder before deciding better of it and flopping down on top of the blankets. The cloak of leaves she’d inherited from Solace was carefully set beside her.
“Hell of a day,” she said.
I laid down beside her. I needed a shower of my own before going to sleep. “Yeah,” I said.
“Let’s never voluntarily go somewhere that makes me so useless,” said Fenn. “Do you ever have that dream where you’re punching someone, but it feels like your fists are hitting mud?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s universal,” I said. “Your brain’s not getting feedback from the nerve endings, so it invents an interpretation that fits the data.”
“Well that’s how I felt all day,” said Fenn. “Just shooting those things with arrows over and over, not doing shit to them.” She rolled toward me and gave me a kiss. “You need a shower too, especially if we’re sharing a bed.”
“Fair enough,” I said, looking up at the ceiling. “I think we should kill Fallatehr.”
“You have soul magic unlocked?” asked Fenn.
“Yeah,” I said, breathing a sigh. “There’s certainly more he could teach me, and I’ve already run into a few things that worry me, but … he’s dangerous. I’m not even sure that we should be letting him out of our sight.” Our original plan hadn’t looked like this, but the problem with needing someone for their intellectual labor was that you couldn’t just hold them at gunpoint, not if you didn’t have someone to replace them.
“He’s a deviant,” said Fenn. “Not sure how much you cottoned on to that.”
“Yeah, he’s a mad scientist,” I said. “That was pretty obvious.”
“No,” said Fenn. “I mean, as far as elves go, he’s … he’s flagrantly imperfect, he’s not even trying. Science is trial and error, that’s anathema to an elf. He speaks with a lisp, no sane elf would do that. The culture of elves, no matter the flavor, is all about perfection, I — I don’t know if I can do justice to how fundamentally wrong he is.”
“Ah,” I said. “Well he’s the first elf I’ve really met.” I paused slightly. “I’m going to need to read that entry in The Book of Blood sometime soon. I probably should have insisted.”
Fenn sat up slightly and looked me over. “So you didn’t actually read it?” she asked.
I shook my head, furrowing my brow. “You said that you didn’t want me to.”
“And that’s why you didn’t know about the teeth,” said Fenn.
“I’m glad that didn’t screw anything up for us,” I said. “It also seems like the sort of thing that the book would mention.”
“Huh,” said Fenn. “I’d sort of assumed that you — when we were together, how did you know?” I raised an eyebrow. She blushed slightly. “How did you, ah, know your way around?”
“Wait, you think that I cheated by reading that book?” I asked.
“Well I don’t know,” said Fenn. “Yes, I guess that is what I thought. I wasn’t about to complain about it, given the results, but,” she stopped mid-sentence, looking me in the eyes. “It didn’t really occur to me that you hadn’t violated that agreement. I knew you were curious, and it was a minor thing, so I just sort of,” she shrugged, still watching me.
“So you’re saying that I’m a better man than you thought I was?” I asked.
Fenn nodded. “You’re not mad at me? We’re not going to have a big dumb fight about this?”
I shook my head. I could see it happening, maybe, in some other universe, but I’d betrayed trust enough times in my life that I wasn’t about to get upset about someone assuming I’d done wrong. Fenn leaned down and kissed me on the lips.
Loyalty increased: Fenn lvl 20!
Companion Passive Unlocked: Symbiosis (Fenn)!
“Wait,” I said, placing a hand on her chest and gently pushing her away. “Game stuff,” I explained as I closed my eyes.
Symbiosis: You and Fenn are connected on a deeper level now, with the last vestiges of reluctance stripped away. When together, you may both use either your own skill, or half the skill of the other, rounded down, whichever is higher.
“What kind of game stuff?” asked Fenn. I opened my eyes and looked at her. “Loyalty 20?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think we both just got better at … a lot of stuff, actually. You might know some magic.” So long as I was with her, the ungestalted Lying and Stealth were both practically useless to me, since I could just bum off her. My optimal build, which I hadn’t even worked out yet, had shifted again with this new passive. “Oh, and I can see your character sheet now, or something close to it.”
“And you didn’t lead with that?” she asked. “Here, let me get you a pen and paper, you need to write it all down.”
“Later,” came a voice from the doorway. Amaryllis was toweling herself dry, and I averted my eyes again. “Full debrief when I’m awake enough for it. Fenn, you have my clothes.”
“I do, don’t I,” said Fenn with a vulpine smile.
“Fine, I’m going to bed,” said Amaryllis. “Joon, take a bedroll or get over yourself, I don’t care which. With the vines in place, a barricade, and the rope keeping watch, I’m prepared to risk going without a guard. The threat from Fallatehr is going to be more subtle.” With that she slipped under the covers and cast the sleeping spell over her forehead, putting her out like a light.
(That was the first spell I had ever seen, aside from maybe the slow-fall tattoo, depending on how it counted, way back when we’d been camping out in a farmhouse in the Risen Lands. It was one of the very few spells that were universal and without a school. It had no unintended applications that I could find, and Amaryllis had looked at me like I was an idiot for suggesting it could be exploitable. It didn’t work unless you actually wanted to get to sleep, and you couldn’t even fake it by consenting to the spell.)
“She’s been trying to match you,” said Fenn, nodding toward Amaryllis.
“She was doing a good job of it,” I replied.
“You’ve got her beat in physical strength, reach, and by the way our sparring has gone, training too,” said Fenn. “She has the better sword, I think, but the real thing closing the gap is how much effort she’s been putting in.”
“Ah,” I said.
“I just wanted to let you know, because I know that social skills aren’t really your thing at the moment,” said Fenn.
I wanted to say that they weren’t that bad, but I hadn’t realized that Amaryllis was pushing herself that hard, nor that it might be because she was trying to match me. I didn’t necessarily know whether Fenn was right, but the hypothesis hadn’t even crossed my mind. “Thanks,” I said.
“Do you want company for your shower?” she asked, looking at my lips for a moment before kissing them. “I was thinking that it might be good to work out some of my frustrations over how the day has gone.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m rancid under this armor,” I said. “But you would help me get clean?”
Fenn gave me an eager nod.
“Okay,” said Reimer. “But be explicit. Give it in mechanical terms.”
“You don’t get to just know the mechanics,” I said. “That strips back everything interesting.”
“It shouldn’t,” said Arthur, frowning at me. “Yes, it reduces the mystery, but most of what’s interesting about this place isn’t in how the rules work, it’s in seeing what impacts those rules have on the world.”
“Besides that,” said Craig, “Presumably everyone in Parsmont is aware of the rules, they should know those rules backward and forward, so we can just talk to a fishmonger or something.”
“Fishmonger?” I asked. “That’s the most random — there aren’t any fishmongers, it’s a city on a hill, at best there are some river fish, but it’s a place of meats and grains.”
“So fish are only for the hoi polloi?” asked Tom.
“No ‘the’,” said Arthur. “‘Hoi’ already means ‘the’. And ‘hoi polloi’ means masses, which — Joon, are the fish a high class or low class food? I can see the argument either way, the fish are river fish and a food of convenience for those who live near the rivers, but they’re also in limited supply, which suggests that they’d be valuable, assuming that they weren’t all fished out. Happened a lot historically, commoner’s food making the jump to fine dining.”
“I just want rules, dammit,” said Reimer.
“I mean I’m pretty sure that we just agreed we’re going to find a fishmonger,” said Tom, with a small grin.
“No, veto,” said Reimer. “I know I don’t have veto power, but veto.”
“Do we find a fishmonger?” asked Arthur, looking to me with a smile.
“I … “ I looked down at my notes for Parsmont, then over to the table of randomly generated names I used for times like this. “You eventually find Homeleron, a Kandrian merchant who sells some of the river fish brought in to him from the Pellmance. Kandria is on the sea, and Homeleron is the guy that all the Kandrians go to when they get a little bit homesick and want to make one of their traditional dishes, albeit with some substitutions. You think that he’s probably a well-connected man.” That was a load of frantic bullshittery, and I was hoping that no one would call me on the fact that I had just said that there weren’t any fishmongers in Parsmont.
“Greetings, Homeleron,” said Arthur, “You seem like a man who knows a thing or two.”
“That I might be,” I said with a laugh. I didn’t tend to change my voice much in-game, if only because I never knew how long a character was going to stick around, and some of the more extreme voices I’d tried in front of a mirror were really hard to hold. I had a picture of Homeleron in my head almost immediately, and let some of that creep into my speech; he was uneducated but knew a lot, a man with many connections and maybe more self-importance than was warranted. A poor man, I decided, but only poor in the sense that he had his small stall and few possessions, not the kind of poor where he was scrambling to make rent or hurting from taxes.
“I’d like a list of mechanics,” said Reimer. “I have pen and paper, and want you to write down everything you know about the workings of the orb at the center of Parsmont and the abilities that it gives to the people within it. I’ll pay you … ten gold.”
“His eyes light up at that,” I replied, inwardly groaning. “Well, I’m not sure I know my letters so well, but I can tell you whatever you’d want, he says.”
“Everyone has a vote, right?” asked Arthur. “What does it take for us to vote?”
“Well you can feel it, can’t you?” I asked, as Homeleron, playing the part of someone who was pretending to be shocked by their ignorance. “At the back of your head, the votes sitting there?”
“I touch the back of my head, cautiously,” said Arthur.
I gave Homeleron a belly-laugh. “No, in your head, like you’re looking backward without using your eyes.”
“Okay, I do that,” said Reimer. “Seems like the sort of thing that you would immediately realize was there if you had 18 Wis.”
“You see two indents in your mind’s eye, one with a hundred gleaming jewels, the other empty, but with room for far more,” I said.
“I move the jewels from one indent to the other,” said Craig.
“You die, instantly,” said Reimer.
“No, you don’t die,” I said with a sigh. “Nothing happens, you can’t do it.”
“Okay, then I try to transfer my jewels — a single one of my jewels, actually — to a theoretical receiving indent in Berberous’ head,” said Arthur.
“Berberous,” I said, turning to Craig, “You see a single jewel appear in the empty indent.”
“Do I feel any different?” aske Craig.
“No, not especially,” I replied. I turned to Arthur. “You have a slight feeling of connection to that jewel still, like you could pull it back if you wanted to.”
“I do so,” replied Arthur with a slight frown.
“So whoever gets the most jewels gets to be a badass, but people can take their jewels back at any time?” asked Reimer. “Meaning that all power in Parsmont is transitory.”
“Are you asking me, or Homelaran?” I asked.
“Homeleron?” asked Arthur.
“Right, Homeleron,” I said. I had already forgotten his biographical details, and tried to recreate them from scratch. He was a fishmonger, world-weary, selling goods that had been carted in from too far away, losing their freshness in the process. It wasn’t what I’d decided before, but none of that had been exposed to the players anyway.
“Sure, I’ll ask him what the power structure looks like,” said Reimer.
“Oh, people come and people go,” I said as Homeleron. “But less than you’d think, because the people up top fight each other, and not too many want to put themselves in that fight, so it’s mostly about putting your vote behind the guy you think has the best chance of fighting against the guy you hate.”
“And they literally fight each other?” asked Reimer. “With as-yet-unspecified powers?”
“Once in a blue moon,” I replied.
“Two point seven years,” answered Reimer.
“That’s …” I started, then stopped. “More often, they pursue their own goals, and try to keep people happy enough that they retain the vote.”
“That’s Homeleron saying that?” asked Arthur.
“No, it’s me,” I said. “Look, is anyone going to buy any fish?”
“All I want is for you to stop teasing and just be explicit,” said Reimer. “That’s not so much to ask. We’ve got the fluff out of the way, right?”
“And now you want some crunch,” I said with a sigh. The night didn’t seem like it was going my way, for reasons that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Sometimes a session just got away from me. “Okay, a thousand jewels gives you a +1 bonus to skills, stackable up to +10, two thousand gives you a bonus of +1 to AC, stackable up to +10,” and this continued on for a bit, as I read through the things on my list. At the highest levels, with a million people pledging their full support, an NPC didn’t quite become epic level, but that was the only restraint I’d shown.
“Well how are we going to beat those guys then?” asked Craig. “Poison?”
“The answer is always poison,” said Arthur with a nod.
“Except not, because D&D poison is awful,” said Reimer. “And I doubt that Joon is going to let us get away with homebrew again.”
“You all understand that your goal is not to come into every town and murder the people in charge, right?” I asked. “Please, someone tell me that you know that. You have a quest.”
“Yeah, we’re here to get a MacGuffin,” said Craig. He paused slightly. “So what I’m thinking is, we bus people in and get their votes.”
And if we’d been teetering on the brink before, that was when the session went off the deep end.
I woke up at what felt like fuck o’clock in the morning, with the sky a pale color that suggested the sun hadn’t finished cresting the hill. I blinked twice and looked around, coming to my senses slower than I would have liked, with my Anyblade in hand, looking for the threat. The dresser was still in front of the door, and the vine was still wrapped around the frame, healthy and green.
“I was going to let you sleep a bit,” said Amaryllis, her voice low. She was half-dressed in plate; Fenn had left out a change of underclothes for her, a concession in the direction of practicality. The greaves and boots were on, but the upper sections were still on the floor, leaving her staring at me in the cold half-light with just her tank top on.
“I still might,” I said, looking over at Fenn, still sleeping beside me. “You’re up early. Thought you needed sleep.”
“I got sleep,” said Amaryllis. I could see that she still wasn’t at peak condition though, with bags under her eyes. “We need to stabilize.”
“In what sense?” I asked. Ropey was sitting on the bed, coiled with one end lifted slightly, and I put my hand out to him. “Clear?” I asked him. He nodded, and I relaxed a fraction.
“You want more training with Fallatehr, to make sure that you don’t make some grave error,” said Amaryllis. “That’s of questionable value, given that he might misinform you.”
“I know,” I said. “I’d have fixed my hand already if I actually trusted him. It’s not really about the training, in the literal sense, it’s about using him to get past the skill cap of 20.”
“We need to figure out a way to make this work,” said Amaryllis. “All of it, the big picture. Not just soul training, we need to stop lurching from one encounter to the next.”
“I’m not sure that downtime is going to be likely, given our circumstances,” I said. The Dungeon Master probably doesn’t want us to have it, and once one Sword of Damocles has been lifted, another will take its place. Wait, that’s a bad metaphor, the Sword of Damocles was an ever-present danger, so the narrative forces, or the Dungeon Master himself, is the Sword, and the presentation of that sword is all that will change.
“I’m not talking about downtime,” said Amaryllis. “We’re in a pattern of reaction right now, we have been since I was taken by Aumann. You had the crisis of needing to save me, then the crisis of needing to cure me, then the crisis of needing to cure your own ailment, and now we have the crisis of Fallatehr, not to mention trying our best to save the locus. We need to break out of the cycles of crisis. We need to chart a path forward of our own accord.”
“Ah,” I replied. “That’s kind of hard to do when we’re still putting out fires.”
“I agree,” said Amaryllis. “The problem is that the fires multiply. They’re what I’m worried about, when I talk about stability. We need to keep our fires contained. Episodic.”
“The n-word,” I said with a grimace. “I’m not sure how we can do that.”
“We came to Parsmont because they’re welcoming to visitors and somewhat dissociated from the Empire of Common Cause,” said Amaryllis. “We did not come here to have any interaction with their system of governance. We’re not trying to shake things up, we’re not trying to solve problems, we’re just here because it’s a relatively safe place. We can’t afford to get sucked into anything.”
“I know all that,” I said, trying to be gentle. “I’m just worried that we’re going to get sucked in by … something.”
“Forward motion,” said Amaryllis as she put on the breastplate. “I think part of the problem is that we haven’t been committing to the quests.”
“From a narrativist perspective?” I asked. I really didn’t want to operate with narrative in mind, and that wasn’t just because I thought it was likely to get us pushback from the Dungeon Master.
“Either way,” said Amaryllis with a shrug.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” I said. “Parsmont probably has something for us, but I don’t think we’re obligated to take up every quest that’s on offer. The Risen Bile back in Barren Jewel turned out to be set-dressing, and in retrospect, there was probably a quest in there.”
“They attacked us,” said Amaryllis.
“Well, yes,” I said. “But after that, hunkering down worked. Whatever we run across, we’ll try to employ the same strategy while we deal with Fallatehr.”
“Assuming he’s still there,” said Amaryllis, putting the last of her armor in place. “If he’s run away in the middle of the night … at least you unlocked soul magic, and given that he would be willing to abandon us, he wouldn’t teach you anyway, so I suppose that’s not as bad an outcome.”
“Sounds like sour grapes to me,” I replied.
“Sour grapes?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow. She was fully armored now, with her helmet in hand, looking every inch the warrior. There was something more beautiful about her this way, more terrifying, but more in tune with who she was as a person. I could imagine that when she was in her forties, people would remark that they couldn’t imagine that she had ever been a teenage girl. It wasn’t that she looked old, really, just that she was more hardened than anyone my own age should be.
“Do you not have Aesop’s fables?” I asked. “There’s this fox, and he can’t reach some grapes, so he says, ‘eh, they were probably sour anyway’?”
“You think that I’m practicing self-deception,” said Amaryllis, brows knitted slightly as she focused on me with a trace of a frown on her lips.
I had really just been talking without thinking that much about what I was saying, but that word, ‘self-deception’ made my mind jump tracks, and the memory of her telling me that she had tried to love me came, unbidden, to the forefront of my mind. I wasn’t sure that’s what she was thinking, but I was momentarily stunned by the thought that maybe she was.
“We’ll see soon enough whether he’s stayed,” Amaryllis continued, shrugging off that line of thinking. The thought that he might not have stayed still made me queasy. “The only reason to think that he left is base pessimism.”
“And we’re okay with unleashing him on the world?” I asked.
“Soul magic is less powerful than it was during the height of the Second Empire,” said Amaryllis. “There are exclusions applied to it, pieces of it that no longer work. He’s far from harmless, but then again, he wasn’t ever a predator, at least from what I can tell. The bigger issue is how he might impact us on the world stage.”
“Assuming that we get there,” I replied.
We debriefed, once we’d woken Fenn up. She put on her clothes, grumbling the whole while, as she listened to us talk.
“You took Tree Magic without knowing what it did?” asked Amaryllis. She had her notes out and was making marks on her paper version of my character sheet.
“There’s a whole lot of magic that’s excluded,” I said. “Tree Magic and Library Magic are two of the only ones that aren’t recognized schools of magic, which means that they’re either important or powerful, maybe both. Same with Spirit, though maybe that’s not a proper magic.”
“You shouldn’t have taken three kinds of armor,” said Amaryllis, looking down at the sheet. “Unarmored and Heavy armor are defensible choices, given that you can’t always walk around in armor, but –”
“This isn’t the time to second-guess every decision I’ve made,” I said, again looking out the window to the barn. There was no sign of Fallatehr yet, but it was still early in the morning, just after sunrise. We hadn’t gone to get Grak yet; the things we were talking about weren’t for his ears. “I was thinking that I didn’t really know what counted as light, medium, or heavy armor, and as far as armor goes I’m currently constrained by our access to magic items, so it made sense to hedge my bets there, since survivability is really important in an Iron Man run … I’m assuming.”
“And you dropped Art,” said Amaryllis. “Art that you need in order to inscribe new tattoos.”
“Is this your last objection?” I asked. Amaryllis shifted around, looking down at the papers. “It’s all been done, there’s no point in chiding me for it, or making me explain myself.”
“Of course there is,” said Amaryllis. “If you make a mistake, you have to understand that mistake so that you don’t make it in the future.”
“I’m going to have more time, next time I choose skills,” I said. “I’ll be going in with a plan. Do you think that locking myself into the existing skills for another four levels was a good idea? I had to choose, and choose quickly.”
Skill unlocked: Debate!
I smiled inwardly at that. When we had the time, we were going to have to level that up (though time was something we were short on).
“That only makes me question your ability to make decisions on the fly,” said Amaryllis, before adding. “No offense.”
“None taken,” I replied. I looked down at my malformed hand, the product of a different decision made on the fly. The results hadn’t been good, but there, at least, I was pretty sure that the result of inaction would have been death.
“So why’d you drop Art?” asked Fenn. She was standing next to the window, holding the bottle up to the light. We didn’t have Solace to make the miniature sun anymore, and keeping the bottle in darkness might mean that the temperature would drop, which would in turn mean that the things within it would die. We were going to have to find a solution to that in short order, or at least find a way in so that we could get some sense of what was going on, instead of just the bird’s eye view.
“The tattoos are useful, but I have a lot of them stocked up at the moment,” I said with a sigh. I couldn’t actually imagine what it would have been like to not tell them anything about my power, but there were times when I had a pang of longing for that alternate timeline. “And my Art was at 6, and not going up without investment into the relevant abilities. But beyond that, I have some level of ability in things that aren’t part of what the game layer considers to be my skills, so I was hoping that would be enough. It’s a fairly painless and concrete way to test what remains after a skill is off the roster.”
“And have you?” asked Amaryllis.
“I haven’t really had a chance,” I said.
“Looks like we’re going to wait a bit for that,” said Fenn, moving away from the window and slipping the bottle back into the cloak of leaves she’d inherited from Solace. “Unless art is a more pressing concern than our resident soul fucker stepping out from that building?”
“Let’s go get Grak,” said Amaryllis with a sigh. “Time to see whether we can make this arrangement work.”