Worth the Candle, Ch 7: Twenty Questions

Amaryllis spotted a house beside a barn when we were two hours out from Comfort and we turned down a dusty, bumpy road overgrown with weeds to get there. We did a sweep for zombies, killing the two we found, then hid the soulcycle away and began trying to find something to eat. The kitchen was filled with long-since rotted food that I was almost hungry enough to attempt eating. On top of that there were cabinets with broken doors and upturned cans, clear signs of looting.

Eventually I went into the yard and looked around in the undergrowth. It hadn’t taken me terribly long to find where a garden once stood, and that was where I found our supper of raspberries, tomatoes, and onions.

Skill unlocked: Horticulture!

Before anything else, Amaryllis insisted that I tell her about the magic I possessed and the delusions I was under. We sat together in the porch as the sun set, until eventually the only light was moonlight filtered through a still-overcast sky. I described things in brief, until eventually I found myself having to tell her about tabletop roleplaying games.

“My friend used to describe it as basically being a play,” I said. I didn’t really say Arthur’s name much anymore, mostly because it brought a lump to my throat. “Except it’s a play without a script and instead of just making things up as you go along you have numbers and dice as a guide.”

Amaryllis nodded. “There is a form of public performance similar to that in Five Spires,” she said.

Five Spires exists, I thought to myself, filing that away for later. I had seen one of the White Spires on a calendar back in Comfort, so that wasn’t a particular surprise. “Do they use dice?” I asked. One of Greg’s favorite jokes was his character breaking out a pencil and paper and whittling dice to play a game-within-a-game. I’d humored him sometimes, when I thought the joke was funny. I had no idea if that kind of thing would end up here.

Amaryllis shook her head. “The action stops at various points within the play so that one of the characters can come forward and ask the audience for advice on some crucial decision. When the audience has made their choice clear, usually by yelling, the action resumes. All possible decisions are written ahead of time, with the traditional form having thirty-two possible outcomes. It’s low art. These games are similar?”

“No,” I said. “That sounds more like Twitch plays Shakespeare.”

She gave me a blank look. “Explain.”

“Uh,” I replied. “Nevermind. We’d be here all night.” I paused. “Do you have computers in Aerb?” (I hadn’t seen any in the shire-reeve’s or any of the shops that we’d been in, but I wasn’t sure that meant anything. The Risen Lands were in an exclusion zone, and making assumptions about the rest of the world based on what I saw here would be like an alien landing in Chernobyl and trying to infer what humanity was like from what it saw.)

“Yes, we have computers,” said Amaryllis.

“Okay, well the other thing I need to tell you is that while there are games that are played with paper, pencils, and dice, later on a bunch of those games transferred to computers, first by just adapting in the rules as well as they could, and after some time doing that they became their own thing. I mention that because I think that’s the sort of thing that the words and numbers in my head are mimicking. There’s, uh, a lot to talk about there.”

She gave me another blank look. “I don’t understand how a computer helps,” she said. “You said that there was math involved with these character sheets, but I was under the impression that it was all done by hand.”

“Right,” I said, not sure where the disconnect was happening. “So instead, the computer handles all that. Wait, are computers expensive here? On Earth they cost … a week’s wages, if you’re doing menial work.” That was roughly what my netbook had set me back.

“For how long?” asked Amaryllis.

“How long?” I asked.

“If you spend a week’s wages, how long do you have the computer’s labor for?” she asked.

“As long as they last, but most people trade in after two or three years,” I replied. I could feel the disconnect growing, but couldn’t imagine where it was. If they only had large-scale mainframes here her confusion would make more sense. “Low cost means that there are a lot of them.”

Amaryllis sighed. “When I say computer, I mean a woman trained for at least three years at the Athenaeum of Mathematics and Metaphysics, usually hired for the purposes of complex mathematical calculations relating to cryptography, physics, or the more esoteric magics. What is it that you mean?”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s actually what the word used to mean on Earth. Not with the athenaeum or magics, but ‘a person who computes’.” I had used that as a plot for a short adventure in a steampunk campaign. “We have electronic computers.” Amaryllis raised an eyebrow. “The numbers are more complex than in tabletop, because if you swing a sword with a certain amount of force, at a certain angle, then you can calculate whether it hits a different sword that’s moving at a different angle and speed, and the computer will just do all that without you having to think about it and tell you whether or not you parried.”

“I don’t think this is helping us,” said Amaryllis. “There have been a thousand dream-skewered, all of them interviewed and tested many times over at the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny. The details of these mechanical computers are interesting in an academic sense but don’t remotely explain the physical effects of your personal magic, nor the governing logic of it. There are so many questions that I’m starting to find it frustrating.”

“You think it’s frustrating?” I asked. “At least you have some knowledge of Earth and some context for my condition, even if I think you’re probably wrong. There’s this entire world of Aerb that I know nothing about, and half of it seems to be tied to things that are already in my head. And, I like talking about roleplaying games, partly because it lets me not think about the people I killed today, but you haven’t been very forthcoming with information.” As soon as the words were out I felt like I had gone too far. I’d snapped at people from time to time back on Earth; it was practically a daily occurrence in the weeks after Arthur had died. I was worried that she would turn away and say something like ‘we should get some rest’, but she only looked at me for a moment.

“We both want information,” she said. “Question for question, no more than a few minutes per answer, and follow-up questions can be taken as your next turn. The Athenaeums recommend structure. You can go first.”

I took some time to think.

Things to Ask Cypress Amaryllis

  1. How do I learn spells?
  2. What powers do gods have?
  3. What happened to the Risen Lands?
  4. Why were you on that plane?
  5. What are you the princess of?
  6. How large is Aerb in comparison to Earth?
  7. How quickly is technology progressing, if at all?
  8. What do the dream-skewered say about Earth?
  9. Does Fel Seed exist?
  10. Do the mimsies exist?
  11. Is there a city called Nightsmoke?
  12. Why don’t people say the z-word?
  13. What are void crystals and why were they banned?
  14. Where do souls come from?

I probably could have kept going. Every thirty seconds a new one popped in my head. I could sort of see the point of going tit-for-tat on questions though. It wasn’t just about equality in sharing information, it was about ensuring that both people would at least try to ask each other the important things first. I knew that we couldn’t spend all our time talking, which meant it was time to prioritize. I ended up starting with something that hadn’t even made the initial list.

“What’s in Silmar City?” I asked.

“That’s too many questions,” said Amaryllis, but she gave me a small smile after she said it, so I kept my complaint on my tongue. It was the first time she’d smiled at me. “The short version is that Silmar City was the target of the attack that formed the Risen Lands, it’s awash with the walking dead, and there was once a secret facility there dedicated to the study of necrotic field effect, which I believe contains a key we can use to teleport ourselves to safety.”

I opened my mouth to ask another question before I remembered that we were taking turns. “Okay, your turn.”

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 2!

“What skills does your character sheet say you have?” she asked.

I closed my eyes and read them off, slowing down only at the last three. “Comedy, level 1; Deception, level 4; … and Romance, level 0.”

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. I was sure that I was blushing. (And yes, I was in mortal danger, locked off from the world I knew, I had killed people, but she was so, so pretty and maybe I was just a stupid sop for looking at her like I did, or maybe I was trying to find comfort in whatever I could). “Your turn,” she replied.

“Okay,” I said quickly, trying not to trip over my tongue. “Where do souls come from?”

“Really?” she asked. I nodded. The question wasn’t important to my personal well being, but it had been nagging at me. “Can I ask why you want to know? You can count it against me, if you’d like.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “By my reckoning, the tank on the soulcycle could hold about seventy souls, maybe as many as a hundred. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve seen empty glass tanks that look like they probably contained souls. Even simple math seems to show that there are far, far too many souls sitting around.”

Amaryllis let out a puff of air that didn’t quite rise to being a sigh. “The soul first appears six days after conception, though we don’t believe it’s capable of going to hell until roughly one month after formation. You are correct that our desire for souls as a power source far outstrips those available from people naturally dying, so to that end we have laboratory techniques which create souls from volunteer samples. Almost all the stock you see comes from a combination of Podsnap’s Technique and Bokanovsky’s Process.”

That sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Souls and the afterlife were one of the default assumptions in most fantasy games, so it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had thought up something like that … but the memory was unclear, and I was distracted by a sudden realization of the implications.

“You’re creating souls to damn them to the hells,” I said.

Amaryllis shifted uncomfortably. “In theory,” she began, then stopped. “The lie we tell ourselves is that the souls will be created and then used up with no conscious experience to speak of. Usually that’s true, but accidents and assaults happen. A large enough bomb detonated in a city wouldn’t just claim the lives of the people, it would consign the purpose-made souls to hell. Thousands of them, maybe millions.”

“Shit,” I said. What happens when someone gets to hell? Do they have a body? Would thousands of newborn babies just drop out of the sky? It churned my stomach enough that I decided I didn’t want to ask just now.

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “In the games you play, what skills, aside those you’ve already ‘unlocked’ would you most expect to see?” she asked.

“Um,” I swallowed, trying to shift gears. I closed my eyes and looked at my character sheet. “One-handed weapons implies two-handed weapons, parrying and dodging imply blocking with a shield, pistols and rifles mean maybe automatic rifles or shotguns, horticulture is new but that makes me think along the lines of crafting or gathering skills like smithing or mining, and of the social skills … persuasion is notably absent, and I think I would have gotten that by now, but that does leave intimidation. And depending on how magic works, I’d think I’d have at least one magic skill.”

“Try to intimidate me,” said Amaryllis. She leaned back and waited with an expectant look on her face.

“Um,” I said. I raised my fist. “You, you had better … had better not sleep during your guard shift tonight. Or else.”

Skill unlocked: Intimidation!

Critical failure!

I had hoped that Amaryllis would laugh, or at least give me another smile, even if it was a small one, but instead she just raised an eyebrow. “Did that work?” she asked. “You took your focus off me for a moment.”

“Yes, it worked,” I said. “Thanks. I critically failed.”

“Yes, I saw,” said Amaryllis. She didn’t smile, she smirked, but it was close enough that I started blushing again.

Skill increased: Romance lvl 1!

“Is it your turn or mine?” I asked.

“Yours,” she said calmly. I had this certainty that she could read me like a book.

I tried to think back to my list, but I was tempered by her last answer. I was going to have to sleep in this creepy house. “What are you the princess of?” I asked.

“Right now?” asked Amaryllis. “Nothing.” She saw my frown and tucked hair behind her ear. “I was part of the Lost King’s –” she stopped and shook her head. “Can I tell you a story, as a prelude?”

“Sure,” I replied. I had just noticed myself getting tired and was willing to end our mutual questions in favor of sleep. A story that gave me a reprieve from the intensity of thought the question game required sounded nice.

“There was once was a great and powerful king,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was different, in telling it, and I had the feeling that this was a proper Story, not just a recounting of things that happened. “He was everything a person could want a king to be, kind and just, noble and pure, charming and avuncular, like he was a loving father to the entire kingdom. He had two sons, one a warrior, always on the battlefield, and the other a scholar and administrator. Each of the princes was skilled in his own way, each loved equally by their father.

“One day, the king went on a great and dangerous quest. He never returned.”

Quest accepted: The Lost King, Found?

I immediately began paying the full amount of attention as Amaryllis continued.

“The administrator had been put in charge of the kingdom while their father was away, but it was his brother, the warrior, who was the eldest and therefore the rightful heir. As weeks turned into months, the warrior began to push for the administrator to declare their father dead. The administrator refused, because their father was so wise and powerful that he would never have gone on a quest of such importance and then simply failed. The brothers argued at length as the months turned into years. It was a time of peace, one forged by the king, which meant that the warrior was mostly concerned with petty threats and the appearance of strength. It was the administrator who had all the actual powers of rule, in the king’s protracted absence.

“Eventually matters came to a head. The two brothers fought one another … I’m actually going to skip this part, because the way it usually goes it takes ages to get through, but it would suffice to say that the administrator bested the warrior three times and the matter was laid to rest. To avoid a civil war and ensure that the matter was truly settled, they jointly declared that their father, that wise and glorious king, would not give up his crown until either he returned or his body was recovered.”

Amaryllis let out a breath. “That was five hundred years ago. Every heir of either brother since then has been styled as Prince or Princess, and there are hundreds of us in almost every important governmental role, so don’t think that I actually stand to inherit a proper title of Queen one day. I’ve seen more than one foreigner make that mistake.” She held out a hand. “Amaryllis Penndraig, tenth of her name, Special Liaison on Existential Emergencies for the Kingdom of Anglecynn, long may it stand.”

I shook her hand weakly. My blood had run cold. “The Lost King,” I said slowly. “What was his name?”

She looked at me like she thought I was about to faint. “Uther Penndraig,” she said slowly.

“Oh,” I whispered. I recognized the name, only this time it wasn’t one of mine.

“Tom, character name?” I asked.

“Elhart Cloakshield,” he replied in his most pompous voice, the one he reserved for elves and wanna-be elves. “Signature move: twirling his cloak and using it like a shield.”

“So he decided that he couldn’t let a name like Cloakshield go to waste?” I asked.

“There is literally nothing in the rules that allows that to work,” said Reimer.

“Maybe Cloakshield is a family name?” asked Arthur. “The Smith family name comes from generations of blacksmiths, it’s not totally insane to think that they’d get a name that identified their most defining combat ability.”

“An ability which, again, the rules do not provide for,” said Reimer.

“Eh, we can do it as a weak custom magic item,” I replied. “I’ll figure it out later. Arthur, character name?”

“Uther Penndraig,” he said with a smile. “Mechanically he’s a pretty standard sword-and-board fighter, but I’ll be taking some paladin levels later on, just to warn you.”

I jotted that down in my notebook. The start of a campaign always saw my notebooks more organized and the first session started with a page neatly divided up so I would have places to write down details of all the player characters. It would only be later that it would descend into scribbles of names and places I never remembered a few days later.

“Arthur Pendragon?” asked Reimer. “I thought we weren’t doing copycat names.”

“I said you couldn’t be a warforged named Megatron,” I replied with a roll of my eyes.

“He’s the leader of the Decepticons!” said Reimer.

“Technically I picked Uther, who is Arthur’s canonical father,” said Arthur. “And I picked the Middle English version of Penndraig so it would be less immersion breaking. But yeah, I always wanted to have a character that was something of a King Arthur ripoff. Not that I think I am King Arthur or anything, but I grew up with the name and I’ve always thought there was a connection to famous people you share a name with, like if your name were Alexander you might have an interest in Alexander the Great, or if your name were Benjamin you might think about Benjamin Franklin.”

“Didn’t he have syphilis?” asked Tom. “Also, why are there no famous people named Tom?”

“Tom Hanks?” asked Reimer.

“Historical Toms, I mean,” said Tom.

“Thomas Aquinas,” I said, holding up a finger. “Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison,” I continued.

We went around the room like that for a while, until eventually Craig went to Google and began listing off every single Tom of note since the New Testament. Arthur leaned over to me while that list was being read off.

“I can change the name,” he said.

“No, it’s fine, I get it,” I replied. “I mean, obviously you can’t start as the King of England, but I’ll see what I can do about a watery tart throwing a sword.”

And that was more or less how Arthur had started down the road to becoming the Best King Ever.

And now Uther Penndraig was here, in this world, as a part of this game or whatever it was. I shouldn’t have been so surprised by that; every world I had ever made had players stomping around in it, why shouldn’t those characters be there too? But I’d always felt like players were intrusions in the worlds, not fully acquainted with what I had made, and I was always bending to them, even to Arthur, if only a little bit. A fresh wave of fear came over me as I thought about some of Reimer’s characters being here.

And that quest, “The Lost King, Found?”. If Uther Penndraig was a real person in this place … he wouldn’t be Arthur, I couldn’t start imagining that, and he had been missing for five hundred years, but the game wouldn’t give me a quest that I couldn’t complete, would it? I started getting dizzy with hope just thinking about it. Even if Uther wasn’t Arthur, it was a creation of his, a character that had started as a ripoff and become its own personality.

“Do you want first shift or second shift?” asked Amaryllis. “We’ll sleep here tonight, since I don’t see any red eyes on the horizon. We might have to get up in the middle of the night to clear them out before they can clump up.” It took me a moment to realize that she’d let the questions and answers die out without even mentioning it.

“Second shift,” I said. “If that’s okay with you.”

The air had gotten chilly and we hadn’t found any usable bedding in the house. I wondered whether I would even be able to get to sleep given all that had happened that day. I tried to make myself comfortable on the hard floor with, Amaryllis sitting next to me and keeping watch, but it was cold and awkward. I spent some time looking up at the ceiling of this abandoned place, then turned over and looked at a wall instead.

This went on for about half an hour until Amaryllis reached down, placed a thumb to my forehead, and said a word that seemed to slip off my mind like a runny egg. I was out like a light before I could even think the word magic.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 7: Twenty Questions

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