Worth the Candle, Ch 70: Moral Agency

As we went through the streets of Parsmont, the Abswifth followed us, sword propped up on his shoulder, calling out directions, “turn here” or “around the cart” as we went. He wasn’t the only one following though. Most of the crowd had dispersed, but there were others who lingered on, keeping some distance back to be clear of the Abswifth’s sword, or flanking our sides. There were a few camera flashes, which startled me, mostly because it was the first time I had seen a camera on Aerb. They were big and bulky, each the size of a shoebox with a small, clear cube on top that emitted an almost painfully bright flash and had to be replaced between each picture. I wasn’t at all pleased by that, nor the idea that these men were surely reporters. We were, after all, wanted criminals in other parts of the world.

I followed the Abswifth’s lead in not saying much, and to my mild surprise, Fenn did as well. At a different point in my time on Aerb, I might have gawked at the people and places we passed by, the occasional wide plaza that served as a reprieve from the narrow streets, or the breaks in the monotony of Parsmont’s mostly human population: a bullfrog Animalia smoking a pipe outside a butcher’s shop, a dark-skinned woman with enormous antlers that had been hung with jewels, and a skull sitting inside a humanoid form of water among them. Instead of indulging my desire to stare at every curiosity we passed in order to compare it against what I had read in my books, I tried to think.

First things first: the Abswifth and the Bendon both had needle-like towers, thin to the point of being a bit ridiculous, one white, the other black. This wasn’t just a peculiarity of their culture or a symbol of their powers, it was a Clue, because I had designed those towers — just not for Parsmont.

They had come from a campaign I’d run when I’d been really into microworlds, the sorts of places where you could drive a car from one end of creation to the other in an afternoon (though not literally, because we very rarely played tabletop in systems that had cars). Angled Ovid [sic] was a world of good and evil, with specific quantities of good and evil being directly proportional to how far ‘north’ or ‘south’ you were on the ovoid. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of it, but the north pole had the tower of ultimate good, set into the center of a bustling metropolis, while the south pole had a matching tower of ultimate evil, set into the center of screaming fields of the eternally tortured. We didn’t actually play a full campaign there — Angled Ovid [sic] was one of a few worlds suspended in a bottle in a god’s workshop that the group were going through. They didn’t spend more than a session there, and as a consequence, I hadn’t really fleshed the microworld out too much.

So what the fuck were those towers doing in the middle of Parsmont, sitting right next to each other, apparently inhabited by the city’s two most important and powerful people? I had no idea, other than that the towers were a powerful magic, and that didn’t bode well.

With that mystery set aside for the moment, I started thinking about the other big question, which was how the Abswifth had found us, and how he knew who we were. He hadn’t said our names. Did he know our names? Did he have some kind of dossier on us? Some magic tracking us? Our list of enemies was actually pretty short; Hyacinth Prentiss was one, Fallatehr Whiteshell was the other. There were a few other loose threads out there, like that velocity mage of Aumann’s way back in Barren Jewel, but I didn’t really consider any of them prime suspects, and only worth worrying about because bringing back early, inconsequential or “off-screen” enemies was one of the things I liked doing as DM. Doris Finch was out there as well, nine and a half million of her, and she had some way of tracking us, even if it wasn’t a very good one, but she didn’t really seem like she had a reason to, especially since she needed intermediaries to pass beyond her domain.

Between Hyacinth and Fallatehr, I was leaning heavily in the direction of Fallatehr, but what I couldn’t figure out was what his endgame was. Was he trying to introduce a complication that only he could rescue me from? That did seem to be his style, from what I had seen. Giving someone enough rope to hang themselves allowed you a lot of leverage if you were the guy who could cut that rope, and that was his modus operandi, at least with regards to me. This was different, because clueing in the authorities in Parsmont left a trail of incrimination that would point back toward him, and it placed the sequence of events outside of his control. He had the means, via his minions, he had the opportunity, when they went into town, but I wasn’t clear on the motive.

What I had to do was backtrack. I could safely assume that if this was Fallatehr’s doing, he had gotten his minions to do it. What information had he had when they’d been sent away? I tried to recall the conversation in its entirety, but it had been brief, and most of my attention had been on the possibility that his two minions would start a covert campaign of tampering with souls, instead of just going to the police.

Skill unlocked: Analysis!

Fucking finally, I sighed. I’d spent some time trying to unlock that one, and every time I’d been deep in thought, I’d been thinking that surely those thoughts counted as analysis. I ran back the train of thought again, trying to figure out what the game had seen in how I was thinking.

Skill increased: Analysis 1!

The Abswifth was practically a god, or maybe a demi-god, at least within the bounds of Parsmont, so I doubted that Fallatehr’s minions had gotten to him. He wasn’t the sort of man you could just grab by the throat and take into the alley so you could have your way with his soul. That didn’t mean that he didn’t have underlings, and those underlings would be a little easier to subvert, but that again left the open question of what purpose this would have in helping Fallatehr achieve his aims, whatever those actually were. I had thought that he wanted my power, but if he had thrown me to the police, I wasn’t sure why he would have gone through with a scheme that saw me in the hands of the Abswifth.

The case for Hyacinth was a little more straightforward. Following Larkspur’s death, and unknown to us, she had decided that it was worth it to find us after all, and either by working with Doris Finch, or dipping into the strategic reserve of elf bones, or some other unknown method, she had found us and sicced the Abswifth on us, presumably so that she could find and kill Amaryllis, thereby inheriting an enormous arsenal of hereditary loot.

Skill increased: Analysis 2!

I’d been hoping that maybe I could use the timing of the skill ups for Analysis to know when I was on the right track, but that didn’t seem to be the case, because the trains of thought I’d been having when the skill ups happened pointed in different directions, and the idea of Fallatehr working with Hyacinth had far too many holes in it to be true.

There was a wall around the white tower, tall enough for privacy from even a giant. There were people picketing outside the wrought-iron gate, but they parted easily enough at our approach. In my (admittedly limited) observation, there were a few different types of protestors: the ones with a burning rage they had to express with effigies and shouts, the ones who saw protesting as a fun event of mutual camaraderie, and the ones that treated it as something like a job. That last one was how the protestors outside the white tower looked to me. They had the same expressions that I’d seen on protesters outside a woman’s clinic in Wichita, not burning with fury, but trudging along because it was a thing that had to be done.

The gates were pulled back by a pair of guards as soon as they saw the Abswifth, and we went forward through a plaza that surrounded the tower. It was devoid of people and plants, leaving only plain hexagonal tiles that reminded me of a battlemap.

“Okay,” said Fenn, as she came to a stop, halfway to the tower. “We’re away from the ears of the masses, who do you think we are and what do you want with us?”

“Keep moving,” said the Abswifth. “We’ll speak in my office at the top.”

“No,” I replied. I’d stopped just after Fenn. We had both turned to look at the Abswifth, in his shining armor and ridiculously large sword. “It would be too easy for us to disappear into that tower and never be seen again. Here, at least, we have eyes watching us.”

“The eyes are the problem,” said the Abswifth. “Lip readers are so cheap that the Bendon can have them stationed outside the tower around the clock, but there are worse intrusions into the sanctity of my domain, so long as we stay outside my office. I would have you think carefully about who you are, and what I might know about you. I imagine there are things you wouldn’t want spread to the ears of every person of importance in this city, especially if they turned out to be false.”

Fenn looked to me. “He’s trying to play us,” she said.

“Play us?” I asked. “Or is he just trying to get a deal that’s sweeter for him than for us?”

“That’s what playing us is, you dolt,” said Fenn, crossing her arms. She turned to the Abswifth. “We’re going to need some kind of concessions to go up that tower.”

“No, we won’t,” I said. “We’ve done nothing wrong, and he’s just doing his job.” That was, admittedly, a very charitable assumption. “I’m not happy about this situation, especially since nothing has been explained to us, but I don’t want to make it more difficult or time-consuming than it needs to be, nor do I think we should be trying to profit from it.” I was hoping that a little bit of good-prisoner/bad-prisoner would go a long way, and that Fenn wouldn’t fight me too hard on this. I was also, have to confess, a little bit worried about how much this guy was actually constrained by PR considerations, and whether we wouldn’t be knocked around once we were inside.

Fenn gave me a sigh and then nodded to Abswifth. “Fine, we’ll go up your stupid tower.”

We stepped into the tower, through an open doorway that showed no sign of ever having held doors. The blindingly white walls gave way to a dimly lit interior space, with ceilings fifteen feet high, timbers of dark wood held up at regular intervals by sunken posts. The tower wasn’t terribly thick around, not given that it was hundreds of feet tall. The room was large and spacious, but it was just a single room, with the full curve of the tower visible. A row of desks held four people, each stopping what they were doing to look to us. A woman began rising from her seat before the Abswifth gave her a shake of his head. None of them returned to what they were doing though, which made the silence seem louder.

At the far end was an elevator, more crude than the ones I had seen elsewhere on Aerb, but artfully designed all the same, as though someone had been trying to make something pretty without the tools necessary to do so. I wondered whether it was simply from another era and hadn’t been replaced, since the tower itself seemed incredibly old.

“We’re going up,” said the Abswifth, more to the people at their desks than to us. He unslung his enormous sword from his shoulder and set it into a rack by the front entrance, then strode toward the elevator without looking to see whether we were following behind him. Fenn shot me a glance, and I shrugged. If we’d had the teleportation key, this might have been the point where I’d simply left rather than get to the punchline, but we didn’t really have many options. I took it for granted that the Abswifth was stronger than us, not to mention fast enough to chase us down. Besides, we needed information, and he had it.

The door of the elevator was a foldable metal one, leaving large diamond shapes that we could see out of as it rose. The Abswifth stood behind us, and while Fenn elected to face him, I tried to pay attention to what I could see on the various floors we passed. I saw more desks, these without people, a room with rows of books, a place for storage and filing cabinets, but what was more interesting than what I saw was what I didn’t see. There were no rooms devoted to living, no kitchens, bathrooms, couches, comfortable chairs, nothing like a break room, and certainly no beds. This tower, then, was a place of business and function, almost religiously so.

But after six floors of that, we passed into a different part of the tower, one where there were no rooms at all, only a drop that quickly became frighteningly far, down to the ceiling of the sixth floor below. When I leaned forward to the grate and looked up, I could see our presumptive destination, far above us, barely lit by the tower’s few small interior windows.

“I’d like some answers,” I said.

“When we get to the top,” replied the Abswifth.

There was a minute amount of motion that came with being at the top of a skyscraper, and sometimes gave people “sky sickness”, a counterpart to sea sickness. My dad got it bad, and talked about it often, because he thought it was hilarious, in a dry humor kind of way. He was a helicopter pilot, comfortable with all sorts of terrible turbulence and choppy rides, but if you put him in a tall enough building he would start to get green about the gills. I had never gotten the same way, but it was something that I thought about when I got high up. Sorian’s castle had it, just a bit, though I was distracted first by the threats on my life, and second by being shot. Aumann’s tower definitely had a little bit of that sway, though it wasn’t even all that tall, but I had been distracted by the people trying to kill us. (In retrospect, the taller buildings of Aerb hadn’t really been good experiences for me.)

The needle-thin tower had none of that. It was stable as a rock, no more subject to minute amounts of sway than a post driven into the ground. Whatever the tower was made of, it wasn’t budging at all. I wasn’t actually sure that I would have noticed that if I hadn’t been preparing myself for it. This was all the more impressive given the faint howl of wind I could hear outside and the absurdity of the tower’s design. From what I had seen, the walls weren’t more than a foot thick, and there were no internal supports, meaning that it was literally just a tube of some incredibly strong white material. In other words, the whole place reeked of magic.

The upper floor was much the same as the lower ones, made of thick wooden beams that seemed, from below, to not actually have any supports. The interior was decorated with furniture that seemed extraordinarily heavy and solid, especially given how far up we were and how much of a pain it must have been to get it here. The elevator didn’t seem like it would have been wide enough to accommodate the desk or chairs on their way up. A wide screen partitioned the room, behind which I could see the corner of a well-made bed, the first and only sign that this tower was a place that was lived in, rather than just a place of work or business. Above us, the ceilings rose to the very top of the needle-point tower, where eight windows wide enough to fit a person let in a large amount of light.

I didn’t really pay that much attention to any of that; my eyes were drawn to the notification I’d gotten as the elevator glided to a stop.

Affliction: Goodly!

“We’re not killing a baby,” said Tiff.

“You know, I’m actually surprised that it would take Joon so long to spring the ‘evil baby’ thing on you,” said Reimer. “He’s grown soft in his old age.”

“It’s an evil baby,” said Arthur, “You have to kill evil babies. You’d kill baby Hitler, right?”

“No?” said Tiff, more as a question. “Assuming that I have access to baby Hitler, I can just kidnap him and raise him not to be evil. Most of him being an authoritarian fascist probably traces back to his experiences in the trenches of–”

“Okay, pretend that your options are either killing baby Hitler or leaving everything how it is,” said Arthur.

“But it’s complicated,” Tiff complained. “I personally think that World War II happens anyway, just not in the same way, and if it happens after the invention of nuclear weapons, then,” Arthur opened his mouth to interject, “Yes, I know, I’m saying that it’s possible that we live in the better timeline, and you want to know whether I expect it to be better on average, and what I’m saying is that I don’t know what the impacts would be. I don’t really subscribe to the ‘great man’ theory of history, it’s all structural forces and background effects, so … no, I don’t kill baby Hitler. And I don’t think that we should kill this demon baby.”

“Classic mistake,” said Reimer, shaking his head.

“It’s the lawful good way,” said Arthur with a nod.

“It’s not actually a demon,” I muttered. It was a penadran, a custom creature that they’d spent the evening slaughtering their way through, more like a spider-dragon than it was a demon.

“I don’t think that’s lawful good,” said Tiff. “I’m not saying ‘don’t kill baby Hitler because there are laws against that kind of thing’, I’m saying don’t do it because it’s not the right thing to do.”

“So, good or chaotic good,” said Tom.

“The alignment system is braindead anyway,” said Reimer. “That’s why they got rid of it in 5E.”

“They didn’t get rid of it,” I replied.

“It’s gone in every way that matters,” said Reimer with a wave of his hand. “In 5E it’s just flavor, but here,” he said, jabbing his 3.5 edition character sheet, “It’s an actual, concrete thing. There are spells that detect it or protect from it. We could literally do the baby Hitler test, if we had a D&D time machine, and the universe would get us a definitive answer on whether or not that was an evil act.”

“Isn’t that a god thing?” asked Tom.

“No,” replied Arthur. “Gods only come into it where paladins are involved, and a few other corner cases. Reimer is right, at least within the context of the game.”

“So there’s an objective right answer to whether killing this baby demon is good, neutral, or evil?” Tiff asked, turning toward me.

“Technically, yes,” I said.

Tiff frowned. “Well that’s dumb.”

The effect, Goodly, wasn’t something that I could actually feel, and without the notification from the game, I wouldn’t have known it was there. I followed after the Abswifth as he went to sit down at his large desk, trying to think things over, and took a seat in one of the large chairs. Fenn sat beside me, crossing one leg over the other and resting her black-gloved hands on her knees in a mock-prim pose.

“Last night we were anonymously informed that an unregistered soul mage was set to visit Parsmont,” said the Abswifth. “We were given descriptions of four individuals, two of which are a match for the two of you. Further, we were given the glyph sequence, make, and model for a car that we were told would be approaching from the south-east, which matches the car you were seen entering the city in.” Fucking Fallatehr.

“Huh,” said Fenn, glancing at me. “And is there any reason that you felt compelled to believe any of this?”

“Frankly, I’m skeptical,” said the Abswifth. “However, the seriousness and specificity of the claims meant that some amount of investigation was warranted. You were watched by a warder for a brief period of time, long enough to confirm that the two of you hold numerous magic items, which raises the credibility of the report.”

“How would you know whether I was a soul mage one way or another?” I asked.

“We have a specialist, who will be meeting with you,” said the Abswifth. “I’ll be asking a few questions while he makes his way over.” He pulled a pen from on his desk and slid a piece of paper in front of him. The whole thing was surprisingly mundane, for a man in shining armor who supposedly had the power of a demigod. Aside from him dropping from the sky, I didn’t really know his abilities, but I wasn’t about to ask for a demonstration. “What are your names?” he asked.

“Are we under arrest?” asked Fenn.

“Technically, no,” replied the Abswifth without blinking. “You are in my custody for a duration of up to one week, with lodging and food provided to you by the city of Parsmont. At the end of one week, or sometime before that, at my discretion, you will be released, unless I bring charges against you. Despite your reticence in coming with me, I don’t intend to bring any charges against you, nor do I plan to exercise my right to extend custody to the full week.” He said this all in an even, practiced tone, which made him sound like a diligent civil servant, and almost made me like him.

“What would be the consequences if I were an unregistered soul mage?” I asked.

The Abswifth hesitated with his pen over the paper. “Are you?” he asked.

I was paying attention to my thought processes as he answered the question, trying my best to figure out whether the answers that I was going to give him were diverging from the answers that I would have given before having entered this room and gotten the status effect, whatever it was. I found myself wanting to tell him the truth, and found, on reflection, that the truth probably wasn’t what I would have given him if he had asked when we were going up in the elevator. And why did I want to tell him the truth? He seemed decent enough, he had the weight of Parsmont behind him, he was being kind when he didn’t have to be — no, there were cynical explanations for his behavior too, but for some reason I didn’t want to jump to them, and that seemed unlike me.

“No, I’m not a soul mage, registered or otherwise,” I answered. I felt bad for lying to him, but I didn’t know anything about him, and besides that, this was a test, to see whether or not ‘Goodly’ allowed me to lie, or whether I was under some kind of zone of truth or Veritaserum type of deal (a terrifying and world-warping magic that showed up a lot in both tabletop games and Earth fiction, but which Amaryllis hadn’t seemed to think existed). The lie went through easily enough, which answered that question. I didn’t want to lie, but I could.

The Abswifth frowned at me, then wrote down the answer on his paper. “And what are your names?”

“Samuel Sterling,” I said, another lie I had to consciously think about, which came with a skill up notification that I kept myself from reacting to. It was possible that the mystery informant had given another name, but I wasn’t going to sweat that.

(The problem was that the wanting didn’t come from nowhere, there was a train of thought that led up to it. Telling the truth seemed like the best way forward, the way that would get me the results that I wanted. I could feel faith in the goodness of people where no such feeling had been before, and when I questioned that faith, I felt myself thinking that even if others wouldn’t commit to that same level of disclosure, I should be an exemplar of truth, because without someone to step forward, the whole world might get caught in a circular firing squad of defection from good. The only reason to lie was that this was what I would have done before coming into this room — and, in fact, had planned to do well beforehand.)

“Eliana Sterling,” said Fenn, with only a brief glance in my direction. “We’re not going to be put on some ledger somewhere, never to escape the wandering eye of the bureaucrats, are we?” she asked. The worry in her voice was amazing, the perfect picture of someone who was more concerned about an ongoing bureaucratic nightmare than having done anything wrong. She was far better at lying than I was.

“There will be a record of this meeting, for the purposes of accountability,” said the Abswifth. “It won’t go into general circulation, nor will it be available to the police of Parsmont, unless there’s something that they need to see. Again, I’d like to let the both of you know that I have no plans to bring charges against you, even for minor crimes I might discover in the course of this interview.”

“Why not?” I asked, furrowing my brow.

“It’s in the interests of Parsmont that people are willing to come in for questioning,” said the Abswifth. “There are cities and countries in which the police will slap every fine and penalty they can think of against someone who does not cooperate, as a way of strong-arming people into giving up names or information, or simply to fill the coffers. I don’t believe that to be sound in the long term, nor do I believe it to be Good.” He said the last word like good was some concrete, physical thing.

“You never answered the question of what would happen to me if I were an unregistered soul mage,” I said.

“And you’re not?” asked the Abswifth.

“No,” I replied. I think the lie came out better that time, and I got another skill-up for it, which still left me far below the bonus that I was getting from Fenn’s Symbiosis passive. “I’m worried that whatever method you’re going to use to determine whether I’m a soul mage is going to be wrong, which would leave me without a way to contest it.”

“There are multiple levels of screening,” said the Abswifth. “Not all of them have the potential for error. At a certain level, you would be extradited into the custody of the Empire of Common Cause, at which point I would have no authority over the situation.”

“Just for my own understanding,” I said, “Do you know what happens to unregistered soul mages, once they’re in the clutches of the Empire?”

“I’m not an expert, by any means,” said the Abswifth. “You will be granted counsel, in the event that you’re lying to me and you fail the screening tests, or if you fail the screening tests for some unforeseen reason. The traditional penalty is death, but it’s my understanding that this is often waived in lieu of forfeiture of talent, especially if there’s cooperation on the part of the mage in uncovering where the unauthorized learning came from.”

“I see,” I replied, feeling my blood run cold. The Abswifth might be polite, and he seemed like a decent enough person, but my life was on the line, especially because the only information I had to give up would lead back to Fallatehr, and I was fairly sure that I wouldn’t get any slack for giving him up, given that I had broken him out of prison. I tried to think about the different tacks I might take to get out of this situation, but I didn’t know what kind of specialist they were calling in for the first screening, nor what kind of magic that specialist would be working in order to diagnose me. There were lines of argument that I didn’t think would work, especially given that I had no idea how close Parsmont’s legal system was to America’s.

“Why did you come to Parsmont?” asked the Abswifth. He was making an effort to smile, which I normally would have taken as manipulation. Instead, I felt like it was probably him attempting to lighten a somewhat tense situation.

“We thought that it would be a place welcoming to strangers,” I said. “It’s somewhat famous for that.”

“Ironic, eh?” Fenn added. I was fairly sure that she was under the same effect I was, but she seemed to be handling it just fine. She hadn’t had forewarning like I did, but she was at least following my lead.

“Yet you arrived in the city by car,” said the Abswifth, “Not by train, not by teleportation key, but by car, and a car that’s registered within the city-state.”

“We were staying at a farmhouse in the country,” I replied. “The car belonged to the people that owned it, until a few days ago, when we bought it from them.” The truth was easier, as a general rule, especially since I thought they would probably have records that they could check against.

“And how did you get to that farmhouse?” asked the Abswifth.

“We drove,” I replied. “Up the Golden Highway, following the Pellmance River. Since you’re going to ask, our origin was Calhaim, but before that, we were in Anglecynn.” I watched as he wrote all that down and hoped that the map I’d looked at wasn’t too out of date. I was starting to form a plan, but I wasn’t sure it was a good one, and I kept having to check my logic against what I thought I would have done before coming into this room and being influenced by (presumably) an arbitrary definition of good forced on me by the tower.

“You changed cars, when you arrived to the farmhouse?” asked the Abswifth, his pen still moving across the page.

“Yes,” I replied.

“And the two others that were with you, they’re at that farmhouse now?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. “They went somewhere else. I don’t know exactly where.” I hesitated, trying to go through my line of thinking again, weighing what his reaction might be. “One of them is a dwarf, originally from the clan of Darili Irid, no one of much importance. The other is Princess Amaryllis Penndraig, the closest direct descendant of Uther Penndraig and a recent political exile from her home country. I would like to formally request asylum on her behalf.”

“Well, that’s pretty ballsy, I’ll give you that,” muttered Fenn.

The Abswifth eyed me. “I see,” he said. “Obviously that would create a great deal of complications for Parsmont,” he said. “The Empire of Common Cause would have to be involved, and it’s always been the policy of Parsmont to keep their involvement to a minimum, where possible.” He tapped his pen on the paper as he watched me. I noted that his pen had stopped moving when I’d said Amaryllis’ name, which I took as a good sign. “Were you planning on requesting asylum before coming to this tower?”

“No,” I replied. “If you hadn’t stopped us in the street, we probably would have used Parsmont as a waystation. However, I’m her primary protection, and if I’m going to be detained for up to a week–”

“It’s blackmail then,” said the Abswifth, setting down his pen. “You’re blackmailing me, in the Tower of Probity.”

“It’s not blackmail,” I said carefully. “The princess is in danger, real danger, which we could better handle by staying as hidden as possible. Failing that, it is imperative that she be protected by as strong a governmental apparatus as possible, and in this case, that means the city-state of Parsmont, which will need to interface with the Empire of Common Cause. That’s not blackmail, to state what I see as my options.”

I knew that I was threatening him with a political nightmare, given that Parsmont had always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with the Empire, which was one of the reasons that we had come here. The only real question was whether his response would be to throw the princess to the wolves, but I couldn’t imagine that being popular, which was something he was worried about, and it wasn’t like I was offering her up.

I felt bad for the Abswifth, because it didn’t seem like he deserved it. There were people outside the walls around the tower, protesting against him, and others who were willing to throw their vote my way without knowing anything about me except that I was in opposition to him. And why? My guess was that it was the vote and the tribalism that came with it. The fact that the city pitted its two rulers against each other was bound to result in something like this. I wasn’t certain that the other tower radiated evil, but if it did, that explained a fair amount of the tension between the Abswifth and the Bendon.

“You’ve put me in a difficult position,” said the Abswifth. “And at times like this, I always feel the need to reflect on what is best for Parsmont.” Well, shit. “It would not do for this city to get wrapped up in an international struggle, not even a brief one that saw your princess transferred to another willing country for more permanent asylum. Nor would it do for the Abswifth to ignore a warning because it was politically convenient, especially not if there were publically available information to that effect.”

I paused. “Ah. You’re worried that we wouldn’t keep our mouths shut.”

“Someone informed on you, whether you’re an unregistered soul mage or not,” said the Abswifth. “If I were to let you go without further inquiries, because I viewed that as being in the best interests of Parsmont, what do you think would happen next?”

“They’d talk to the press, or maybe the Bendon,” I replied. “And if they did, some kind of accusations would be thrown around, which would result in either you having to lie, which is morally indefensible–” I caught myself, but in catching myself, realized that was a mistake. “Which carries its own costs to you, and therefore Parsmont.”

“You’ve noticed the tower’s effects,” said the Abswifth. “You were lying about soul magic, and possibly also about where you came from. Maybe even about your names. If the tower were in its prime, you wouldn’t have been able to resist — but alas.” He shifted his papers around, looking over the notes he had taken. “The effects of the tower are a poorly-kept secret, and one whose effects are often overstated. However, it works better on the evil than the good, and I am sorely tempted to count your ability in navigating the tower’s compulsions in your favor.” He looked up at us.

“But?” I asked.

“I’m given to understand that soul mages are capable of eradicating their own ability in the art,” said the Abswifth. He tapped his pen against the paper in front of him. “I believe it would allow you to pass the first screening, or perhaps the second, in perhaps two hours’ time, after which you would be free to leave.”

“You’re asking him to erase a part of himself,” said Fenn.

“The tower does not look kindly on it,” nodded the Abswifth. I could feel that, an instinctive recoiling within myself at the idea, but it was faint, almost non-existent, because soul magic wasn’t actually a part of me. “But no, I am not asking anything, only, as you said, stating what I see as your options. I don’t know for certain whether you’re a soul mage or not, but if there are only lingering indications that you once practiced soul magic, that would be enough for me to allow you to leave. It would, naturally, be in your best interests to leave Parsmont with all due haste.”

“Okay,” I nodded, breathing a slight sigh of relief. I didn’t actually know how to reduce a skill, but I was sure as hell going to try to figure it out within the next few hours. My chest still wasn’t fixed, and I wasn’t going to give up soul magic, obviously, but resetting back to zero, if I could manage that, was a setback that would be measured in hours, not the years that the Abswifth thought. “Thank you for being forthright, and I’m sorry for the problems we might have caused.”

“I’m going to take a nap,” I said, then closed my eyes and shut out the world.

I didn’t like meddling with my soul. I hadn’t liked it even before coming into the tower, but the Goodly effect seemed to be exerting some power, at least insofar as I was capable of comparing how I had thought about soul magic before. I was thankful that I was a somewhat introspective person, which made that part of this a little bit easier.

I went into the Essentialism skill right away, but there didn’t seem to be any kind of mechanism available to lower the skill. I knew there was at least one sure-fire way to do it, which would be to remove the skill entirely, but I had a limited number of skill changes available to me under the most liberal reading of the rules, and I wasn’t confident that the liberal reading was the right one, so I had to put an asterisk next to ‘sure-fire’. Essentialism was slowly ticking up though, which meant that it might just be a matter of time and practice before I was able to access new abilities. Level 10 of Essentialism hadn’t given me a virtue (something I had to annoyingly go out of the soul to check, given that the soul didn’t seem to have them listed anywhere), which meant that I was almost certainly going to get one at level 20.

I moved away from the floating rows of skills, toward my values, at the one labeled ‘Level Up’. I had been putting this off, for fear of touching and breaking something in my soul in a way that I couldn’t easily undo, but I had managed to repair my hand, and I was feeling a little more confident. My biggest worry in changing the value was that I didn’t actually know what ‘Level Up’ meant, in a concrete sense.

Obviously I valued the ever-increasing feeling of transcendental joy that accompanied the level ups, but each one also raised the caps on my skills in addition to making me into a better version of myself. Were both of those things part of the listed value? The value didn’t seem to point anywhere, or have a definition of ‘Level Up’, at least so far as I could see. If it did encompass both those aspects, then it was also possible that it was linked to a few other, less obvious ones. Leveling up was a path to power, and maybe the values were taking that into account. The more I leveled up, the more likely I was to see Arthur again.

I didn’t feel like an addict. Amaryllis agreed that increasing my power was the smartest thing that we could be doing. Was there an argument to be made that I really should be valuing leveling up above everything else? I thought there likely was, but it was a weak argument, given that there weren’t a cluster of other values sitting up there with the people that were important to me. I didn’t even value my own life that highly.

I was stalling. I could feel myself stalling. Part of it was the idea that my soul was a sacred thing that would doom me forever if I meddled with it, which I was sure was just the tower talking given that I didn’t really hold anything as sacred, and had meddled with my soul earlier in the day. But another part of the hesitation was the knowledge that lowering the value marked ‘Level Up’ might mean that I wouldn’t get to level up as quickly, that I might stall and contemplate when the time came to complete a quest, or exercise caution in a way that would delay the next blast of pleasure as warm light enveloped me.

I shifted the number down as soon as I was able to work up the will to do it, and it got easier as I went. My view of the values was pegged to ‘Level Up’, so I saw it slide past other values as I reduced it, past all of my high school friends, past fandoms, beyond memories I cherished so much they were explicitly named. I stopped when it was between ‘Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream’ and ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, and watched it carefully.

It ticked upward, moving so it was just below ‘Mountain Rush’, which was Shasta’s knock-off version of Mountain Dew, and after what felt like a minute (but might have been more, given how time seemed to get lost in the soul) ticked up again, placing it below ‘Arkwell’s Fantasium’, a book I hadn’t finished. Its progress was slow, and the values here were small ones, fine-grained and plentiful, but it was still going up, inexorably.

Obviously that was a problem, but it confirmed something that Fallatehr had said. Changes would revert, given time. I could lower the value of ‘Level Up’, but even with it lowered, I could still remember how it had felt. I suspected that Fallatehr wasn’t telling the whole truth, and that there were methods of alteration that would leave someone in a stable state that wouldn’t revert, because it was possible to look at and presumably alter memories, even if the interface for that seemed lacking. Even then, there might be other parts of the soul that would need to be changed, unless the soul itself didn’t actually contain everything there was that made up a person. Still, I had a solution that I could re-apply at regular intervals, which was another weight off my shoulders.

I took a brief moment to remember that I had a body out there, with muted sensations coming from it, but that was practically old-hat by now, and I was in the same position I had been in when I started. I could hear conversation, but only enough to know that it was going on, and even then it slipped away, lost on its way to me. Fenn was talking to the Abswifth, and I had to trust her to do the talking, even under the influence, if I wanted the escape the Abswifth had offered me.

I was pleased to see Essentialism hovering at 19, and even more pleased when the number switched over to 20. It seemed like a shame to lose all that progress, but at least Essentialism was easier to hit the soft cap on than some of the others. I backed away from the skill and began looking for obvious changes, though I was going to have to leave the soul entirely to see what the virtue was. I found the change readily enough though; beside my body (as seen by my soul) were thirteen numbers, each with a three-letter signifier by it. Even without checking, I could feel that there was some give to them; these were my abilities, PHY, MEN, SOC, now here in the second character sheet, but this time, alterable.

I blinked back into the real world (such as it was) and looked from Fenn to the Abswifth, who were both looking at me.

“It’s done?” asked the Abswifth.

“Not just yet,” I replied, closing my eyes. “Do we have time?” I asked as I waited for the character sheet to come up.

“A little,” replied the Abswifth.

The new virtue was called ‘Soul Slip’, and the description was fairly vague. All it said was that I would be able to make new modifications and trade-offs within the soul, and alter that which had been unalterable, which wasn’t very helpful at all, given how expansive the soul was. I opened my eyes and looked at the Abswifth again.

“I’m going to take another nap,” I said.

I was faster this time, zeroing in on the Essentialism skill. This time the option was there right away, not a visible bit of text or a button to press, but a notional control that presented itself to me when I looked at the number. I stared at it for a moment, trying to think about whether there was anything that I would want to do before setting myself back by twenty levels.

I wondered whether this was all part of the plan, either by Fallatehr or the Dungeon Master. It wasn’t quite outrageous to think that Fallatehr would implicate me as a soul mage, hoping that the end result would be that I would remove the ability from myself to avoid implication and reset all my progress in the meantime. There were variables that he had no control over, and information that he wouldn’t have had access to, but those were dice he might have rolled. I still couldn’t see the endgame for him, unless he was hoping that I would damage my soul in such a way that only he could fix. At most, it would take me two days to get back where I had been, and I doubted it would even take that long.

I followed the lines to Amaryllis and Fenn, giving each of them a quick check, just to make sure that nothing was out of place. I spent more time on Amaryllis, because she was in the most danger, and with soul magic temporarily gone, it would take some time before I could check on her again. Everything seemed fine though, at least as far as I could tell. When I looked at Fenn I saw that name, Nellan, again and felt a slight stab of jealousy, but her soul had not noticeably changed, even with the effects of the tower upon us.

I went back to my own soul and pushed Essentialism down to zero, all in a single motion, worried that if I tried to do it in measured steps I would lose the ability to do it at all. When the motion was complete, I found myself back in the real world, staring at the Abswifth.

“The specialist will be arriving shortly,” said the Abswifth. “If you are a soul mage, the nature of my help will by necessity be quite different, and I must again offer the warning that my power does not extend far beyond Parsmont.”

“We’ll see what the specialist has to say,” I replied.

As if on cue, the elevator began to move.

The inspection took half an hour, during which the Abswifth sat silently and watched. My inspector was a tall lizardfolk, with pupils that blobbed out in three directions and seemed to spin whenever he squinted, which was often. I was surprised that the Abswifth was willing to spend so much time with Fenn and I, given the importance of his position, but I supposed the situation was a delicate one, and given the reaction I’d seen people give him as we moved through the streets, I couldn’t say that I would blame him for wanting a bit of time in relative solitude at the top of the tower.

“He was a soul mage, once,” said the lizardman, with his forked tongue snaking from his mouth. “He has no skill, at the moment.”

“You’re sure?” asked the Abswifth.

“Sure, for now,” said the lizardman.

“Thank you,” said the Abswifth with a curt nod. “That comports with their official story.”

“There is something else,” said the lizardman. “He is a mage, four times over, of some skill.”

The Abswifth frowned. “His race is human?”

“Yes, and always has been,” replied the lizardman. “His age is seventeen.”

The Abswifth nodded. “Thank you, you may leave.”

The lizardman gave each of us a bow, so deep his nose almost touched the floor, then trundled back toward the elevator. I wondered what he got paid for a service like that, but I bet that it was exorbitant.

“I have questions,” said the Abswifth. “But they are ones that I feel I would probably be better off not knowing the answers to, for your safety, mine, and for the people of Parsmont.” He placed his hands on the table and stood up, which let a ray of light hit his shining armor in a way that I was ready to believe he’d practiced. “This business is concluded,” he said. “The anonymous report we were given was obviously based on false information, and you have, as yet, threatened no harm to the city of Parsmont. That is where we will leave it. The sooner you leave the city, the better. If the people who gave us that anonymous tip give us another, there will be less consideration for your circumstances on my part.”

“May we never meet again,” said Fenn with a nod. I couldn’t help but see that as tempting fate.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 70: Moral Agency

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