With seemingly nothing left to do — a full 90% of Essentialism seemed locked behind various exclusions — I tried transferring some of my points from Essentialism back into my other skills, only to find that the game still seemed to count them as points transferred for the purposes of the Skilled Trade malus. This was pretty basic anti-cheese; otherwise I could have had over 100 in any skill for a handful of minutes and only have to pay a single point as the price.
We retreated into the tree at the center of the bottle, a place that was more of a home to us than anywhere else on Aerb. Valencia wanted to stay outside with the Six-Eyed Doe, but when I told her there was something we all needed to talk about, we reached a compromise where the locus would stick its head through the window and Valencia would stand by it.
“I’ll give that outcome a four out of ten,” I said as Fenn popped some cold drinks out of her glove and set them on the table. It was hot inside the tree, just like it was outside.
“Worse than that,” said Grak. “We were not able to accomplish what we set out to accomplish.”
“We’re going to bring Solace back,” I said. “I don’t want to mark this as a failure if that’s the outcome.”
“It has led us down a chain,” said Grak. “It’s as you said.”
“True,” I said. “But it’s pointing in a direction that we were going to go anyway, and we did get a few things out of it, which is more than I’d thought. When I was giving the dire warning, I was more thinking that I would end up staring into the eye of the abyss and have to fight an Elder God.” I coughed slightly. “Speaking of …”
“Did you fight an Elder God without me?” asked Fenn. “Also, what’s an Elder God?”
“I spoke with the Dungeon Master,” I said.
The room was silent for a bit; there were some looks of confusion.
“That’s your name for the entity that you believe created and controls all of reality?” asked Amaryllis.
“Yes,” I replied.
“And you spoke to it?” asked Grak.
“Yes,” I replied again. “Him. Or, he took a human form, I guess, but I think it was a him. I’m kind of under the impression that he was what he claimed to be.”
Amaryllis was clenching the table. “Please tell me that you were diplomatic.”
I paused slightly and tried to think of how to word it. There were two memories of how it went, and I could put them in sequence because of how one of those memories ended. “We didn’t really prepare for me to meet the all-knowing entity that controls the world,” I said. “It started off with — look, I think overall it was a positive, productive conversation, but — I asked him about the problem of pain, and he was kind of a dick about it, so I beat him to death.”
“No,” said Amaryllis. She closed her eyes and shook her head. “No, Juniper, why, I’m pregnant now, I can’t even drink my sorrows away.”
“He wasn’t actually dead,” I said.
“Oh?” asked Amaryllis, opening her eyes. “Really? The all-seeing entity that controls reality didn’t die from you punching it?! How could anyone possibly have seen that coming!”
“I was angry,” I said with a shrug that didn’t reflect how I was feeling (defensive, if I had to pick a word). “The problem of pain is a bit of a sore spot for me.”
“Yet the conversation was … productive?” asked Grak.
“I don’t understand what the problem of pain is,” said Valencia.
“I don’t think now is the time to get into theodicy,” I said.
“It probably is, if it would explain why the fuck you thought trying to beat up an omnipotent overgod was a good thing,” said Amaryllis. “Theo- meaning god, -dicy meaning … what, exactly?”
“I’ve got no idea where the word comes from,” I said. “But it’s basically just the study of the problem of pain, the question of how you can claim that god is virtuous or omnibenevolent given that there is suffering in the world.”
“Demons and devils aren’t enough of an answer?” asked Valencia. She seemed confused.
“The gods are decidedly lacking in virtue,” said Amaryllis, crossing her arms.
I let out a sigh. “Okay, fine, I’m going to give a very, very brief summary in the interests of bridging the cultural divide. On Earth — well, no, in the specific part of Earth that I grew up on, we’re raised to believe that there’s only one singular god, who made everything in the whole world, wrote all the laws of physics, set up all the rules the world works by, is omnipotent, meaning that he’s all powerful, he’s omniscient, which means that he’s all-seeing, and finally, the kicker, he’s omnibenevolent, which means that he’s all-good, as good as good can be.”
“That actually sounds really nice to me,” said Fenn, frowning slightly. “I’d choose to live in that world.”
“I might too,” I said. Leaving aside the issue of free will for a second. “The problem is, I lived on Earth, and that kind of god didn’t seem to me to be the kind of god that made sense in the context of all the stuff on Earth.” I could feel my anger rising. “So I was ten years old, laying awake in bed, having this — probably another concept that doesn’t translate, but a crisis of faith.”
“It translates,” said Grak.
“It translates,” Amaryllis nodded in agreement. “Just not in the context of the gods.”
“Ah,” I said. “Right. Shit, sorry.” Grak waved a hand, dismissing my oversight. “The crisis of faith, for me, was just sitting there, thinking, and being so angry at God for not doing anything about, you know, people starving to death, or the body of a child found in the woods, or — on Earth it was very easy to get a lot of information very quickly, at all hours of the day, and so even if the general trends were positive, mostly, you could still start reading about a guy in his twenties dying of cancer, or a woman crying over her child born with anencephaly, or … whatever personally affected you most, you could read about it, and keep reading about it, and you’d never have to stop, because there would always be something new.” I was dredging up old feelings, and I knew that I was making a hash of things, but I just wanted to get it out, so I stared at the center of the table as I spoke. “And through all this, surrounded by all this, where was God?” When mom and dad were yelling at each other, their words indistinguishable through my bedroom door, leaving only raw hostility to reach me, when I was praying to God, why was the only thing I heard back silence? I took a deep, shaky breath.
“This is about Arthur,” said Grak.
“No,” I replied, shaking my head. “No, no, it was way before his — before he died. I was little, and I had all this pain, a lot of it imported from television and the internet, and the answers that I got back when I tried to stumble my way through a conversation with the pastor were just answers that I hated. God has a plan. God works in mysterious ways. If you’re omnipotent, how fucking shitty do you have to be at planning for any of your plans to involve killing millions of children every year?”
“Juniper, I mean this with all due respect,” said Amaryllis, “But it seems like this is probably about Arthur.”
“No,” I said, more forcefully this time. “This is about every shitty thing that ever happened to anyone. Arthur meant — means a lot to me, but this wasn’t a new thing when he,” died, “Died.” I hated the taste of that word coming out of my mouth. “It just brought up all that old hatred and anger that had already been there, because where I’m from, when people die, especially young people, all these idiots come out of the woodwork to say that God has some stupid fucking plan that required what’s effectively murder, or God works in some mysterious way, or, you know.” I stopped and let out a hollow little laugh. “Or that he’s in a better place.”
“Which he was?” asked Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow. I could see that I wasn’t getting through to her with the whole theodicy thing.
“No,” I said. “I wouldn’t say that Aerb at the height of the Dark King’s power was a better place. A different place though, that I’d grant.”
“Wait,” said Fenn, her brow furrowed. “I’m confused, why would you be angry? Why would you think that this god was actually all-powerful? Maybe bad things happen because they’re out of his control? You can’t just get mad at someone you don’t know because they didn’t have enough power to protect you.”
“Yes, you can,” said Amaryllis, folding her arms. “If it was their job to protect you, and they failed.”
“Well, whatever your issues are, I’d think it would make more sense to just say that, actually, this all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful god isn’t actually those things, or maybe doesn’t exist, which is what you’ve said before,” said Fenn. “I don’t think I’ve ever been worked up into a rage about something that doesn’t exist, and I’ve been in plenty of rages.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I threw up my hands. “I really don’t know, I think I was just so convinced that there was a god, and the part that seemed weakest was the goodness, not the omnipotence, because someone had to create the world, so …” I shrugged. “I’m not saying that it makes that much sense, I’m just trying to explain it from a personal perspective, my own viewpoint on the matter. Which is why, when I came face-to-face with as close to that kind of god as actually existed, yeah, I snapped a little bit.”
“You said you killed him,” said Amaryllis.
“I beat him to death with my bare hands, yeah,” I said. “Insulted him a lot, yelled a bit, and then beat him to death. He didn’t seem too torn up about it when he came back. I wandered around in a white void for what I think might have been a few days, I think maybe to tire me out.”
“You did all this in a handful of minutes?” asked Grak.
“He stopped time,” I said. “His words. Anyway, we talked for a bit, when I wasn’t busy being mad at him for allowing pain to exist, or for making the hells, or for … I don’t know, lots of personal stuff I was upset about. I yelled a few times. I called him an asshole. I called him a shitty DM.”
Amaryllis sighed and laid her face in her palm. “You said it was productive.”
“It’s not sounding particularly productive,” said Fenn.
“Yes,” I replied. “He said he wasn’t the enemy, he was the Dungeon Master. He wanted to tell me not to worry about the narrative, because he was fine with us breaking those molds, and not to worry so much about the existential terror, because he was just doing nudges. He told me that I could fail and die, and that he wouldn’t save me if that happened, but it was in my hands. Oh, and he told me that eventually the campaign would come to an end, and if I made it, I would become a god in my own right, though I think he meant a god like he was a god, not a sixth god of Aerb. I found it fairly cathartic, I guess.”
“Even though it might all have been lies?” asked Amaryllis.
“If he was feeding me lies, then okay,” I said. “They didn’t feel like lies. He called us kindred spirits, and that felt true.”
“You said that he was an asshole,” said Grak.
I nodded. “Yeah. And he was an asshole in the same way that I could be an asshole sometimes, in the ways that he argued with me … he wasn’t me, but he was close. I don’t know how else to describe it. A reflection of me? Me, but a step to the left?” I stopped, trying to work out how to word the next part.
I knew that Amaryllis was going to get on my case about the wishes, because she would have studiously constructed an ironclad wish, and when it was shot down on the grounds of being overpowered or not what the Dungeon Master had in mind, she would have worked as hard as she possibly could have to squeak out as much possible advantage as she could have. I could see where that might have been smart … but if the Dungeon Master was kind-of me, a kindred spirit, he would have hated it. I’d given favors to players before, and always hated the end result, which was an intense negotiation over something that I was just doing to be nice. (I’d wished for more wishes to be a dick, not because I thought it would work.)
“There’s more?” asked Amaryllis, watching me.
“Some personal things,” I said. “Things I don’t want to share, and that I don’t think it would be helpful to share. And … keep an eye out for a backpack, I guess. He said that there would be a magical one that could get things from Earth, a gesture of goodwill.”
The Six-Eyed Doe suddenly lifted its head and made a loud, intense sound like a creaking door. When it brought its head down, it coughed and spat something on the floor, then looked at us in something that might have resembled surprise. I went over and picked the backpack up.
“So there’s that, I guess,” I said with a shrug.
Sometimes it seemed like our discussions went on forever. Amaryllis wanted more details from me, and if she could have wrung a full transcript from me, I was pretty sure that she would have. I got the sense that she was treating the Dungeon Master like he was a devil, but worse, a perfect liar who could also directly reach into your brain and modify memories and feelings without limit. She didn’t press that point of conversation though, and I didn’t really want to talk about it.
The thing about Amaryllis was that she tended to have her shit together, but the flip side of that was that she really liked to talk things out. I’d interpreted our exchange before the ritual as being an agreement that we would go to Kuum Doona, but to her, it had apparently been an agreement that we had a number of options so far as the time-constraints on bringing Solace back were concerned. She had been acting quickly and decisively in the interests of expediting the ritual, not actually agreeing to anything specific.
So, we talked, and talked, and eventually Fenn got bored and left, and Grak decided that he would rather have a summary of what we were doing once the options were more fleshed out, and I realized only then that Valencia and the Six-Eyed Doe must have bowed out some time earlier, because they were nowhere to be seen.
“Just once, I would like for things to be easy,” I said, once we were alone.
“Have you completely forgotten what Grak said earlier today, about you seeming to think that the world owed you something?” asked Amaryllis, frowning at me.
“Sorry, easy was probably the wrong word,” I replied. “I would like for things to be straightforward, so that we only had one logical option instead of eighty options that are spread out in front of us that we have to endlessly go over.”
“At some point we’re going to have to address your recurring attention problems,” she said. “The ability to choose is not something to be taken lightly.”
“I know,” I said. I looked down at her neat handwriting, which had filled four pages. “It just seems like there are a lot of ways to accelerate a pregnancy, or slow down the decay inside the bottle, and none of those ways are the obviously correct one.”
“If I’m carrying Solace to term and then birthing her as normal for either crantek or humans, as the quest says I will be, then I don’t think placing a stop on the bottle is a good idea,” said Amaryllis, briefly consulting her notes. “Even if we discount the more unorthodox lines of thought, like throwing the bottle into the Lunar exclusion zone,” that would be the one with the guy doing his best impression of Groundhog’s Day, “That would still leave me having to endure the pregnancy in full, and I highly doubt that we can rest on our laurels for nine months. I know that I’m not the most valuable member of the team –”
“Knock that off,” I said.
A slight frown crossed her face. “Sorry,” she said. She pursed her lips, as though she was about to say something, but stayed quiet.
“Is that why we’re doing all this?” I asked, gesturing toward the papers.
“It’s important work,” said Amaryllis.
“I think we moved past the point of productivity an hour ago,” I replied. “You’re pushing on for the sake of pushing. We’re going to Kuum Doona, because it’s close enough to your worldlines that we can actually get there in less than a week, and because it kills two quests with one stone, and because there’s likely to be some loot there, in addition to a fully secured base of operations, and maybe even some mysteries of the past. We’re seriously constrained by time, even the train ride to the Boundless Pit is stretching it. Some of these other plans …”
“I wanted to be thorough,” said Amaryllis.
I sighed. “I know. What I’m worried about is that you’re being thorough for the wrong reasons. You’ve been putting a lot on your shoulders since … well, since as long as I’ve known you, but I’m really concerned that you see yourself as the weakling, or worried that we see you as the weakling, and … I know a thing or two about self-destructive behavior, and I don’t want to see that from you.” I studiously avoided mentioning how readily she’d taken on the burden being the one to birth Solace.
Amaryllis frowned. “Have you been talking to Fenn, Grak, or both?”
“About … this?” I asked. “Neither.”
“Shit,” said Amaryllis. She grabbed the papers in front of her and crumpled them up. “I’ll try to tone it down. Doing work that doesn’t need to be done is one of the greatest sins a person can commit.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” I said.
“It’s something one of the magi used to say,” she replied. “I wasn’t in a great place then, and I found myself going above and beyond just because I needed to … I don’t know.”
“Be useful?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I was a piece in the games of the Lost King’s Court and didn’t know how to make myself a player, so I focused my attention on other things and tried to do them really well, because at least that way I had something I could accomplish. It was foolish, looking back.” She looked down at the notes. “Just like this is foolish. Work for the sake of work, discussion because it feels useful, not because it is useful.” She folded her hands in her lap, then looked up at me. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” I said. “I understand the impulse. You can’t do the thing that you actually want to do, so you have to put your energy someplace else.” I gestured at the crumpled papers. “This is, maybe, not the place to put that energy. Nor were the safehouses, really, as useful as they are. Have you thought about maybe having a hobby?”
“A hobby,” said Amaryllis, giving me her best blank stare.
“For me it was worldbuilding,” I said with a shrug. “If things weren’t going well with my parents, or at school, or even sometimes with friends, I could always work on my worlds. And it wasn’t really useless, because at least I was creating something, or looking up information along the way. You could, I don’t know, crochet or something.”
“I don’t think that I’m going to take up crocheting,” said Amaryllis with a soft smile. “I appreciate the sentiment though. You have a very different approach from our other friends.”
“What did they suggest?” I asked, curiosity piqued.
“Grak told me that I should meditate,” replied Amaryllis. “The dwarves have a specific form of it where they feel the rocks, putting the whole of their attention into their fingertips to trace each individual bump and curve of a surface, mapping and memorizing in their mind’s eye. It didn’t really seem to be to my tastes. Fenn suggested that I hire a prostitute.”
“Aaahhhh,” I said, a strangled sound coming out of my mouth.
“That didn’t seem to be to my tastes either,” said Amaryllis, smiling at me. “I’d wondered, given that you can shift your points around, whether you would put them into social abilities as a default or mental abilities. Seems like you chose mental?”
“You caught me off-guard,” I replied, crossing my arms.
“I don’t mean to make fun,” said Amaryllis. She set her hands on the table and sighed, smile falling away. “Among the personal things that you asked the Dungeon Master, was there anything about me?”
“Some,” I said. “Not really anything that I want to repeat, I just wanted to make sure that you were as much your own person as possible, and that you could be happy.”
Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 17!
“Thanks,” she said. “That means a lot. And did he say?”
“He didn’t say, not really,” I replied. “I know you’re skeptical about the whole thing, and I think you’re probably right to be, but … he said that you were meant to be a companion first and a love interest second, and that given time, you would get over me.” I paused. “I’m really not sure that I should have told you that.”
Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 18!
“It continues to surprise me how free you are with the truth,” said Amaryllis. “Do you ever think about what it would have been like if you’d kept the secret of the game from me?”
“The level ups would have been hard to disguise,” I replied. “I’m not sure that I could have lied well enough.”
“I’d never have guessed the truth on my own,” said Amaryllis. “I would have just thought that you were partially dream-skewered with an amazing ability to learn quickly.” She looked over to where the backpack was sitting up against the side of the table. “And it seems as if Earth is real?”
“Maybe,” I said. “My guess is that it’s as real as Aerb, which is real enough for me. I’ve been trying to think of what all I want to show you, now that I have a connection.” I’d tried grabbing a laptop, and gotten back a note on legal pad, in my handwriting, that said ‘no laptops, sorry :-(‘, and decided that more testing could wait til later, if it wasn’t going to be the sort of thing that was going to break the game wide open. “Is there anything that would make you happy?”
“Happy?” asked Amaryllis, as though the concept was foreign to her. “Let’s try something frivolous. Earth confections.”
I started with my favorites, Jelly Belly, Reese’s minis, Warheads, Sour Patch Kids, and then moved on to other things I thought she might like; Arthur had always been a fan of Twizzlers, but Amaryllis hated them, just like I did. I offered commentary as I pulled things from the backpack, trying to give her the cultural context of everything. She got a little hung up on the wrappers, since they were made of plastics far beyond what was available on Aerb, but aside from that, she seemed to take some real pleasure in a little bit of frivolity, and some time spent in each other’s company without any real point to it.
The others filtered back in after some time, and we had a feast together, all the best junk food that Earth could offer, complete with a tasting of eleven different varieties of canned pop, which were far too sweet for all our palates, even mine, since I’d spent long enough on Aerb that my tastes had changed to suit the cuisine. It was as much like a family as I’d felt since playing my custom tabletop game with them a few weeks prior, and I sent a little token of thanks the Dungeon Master’s way, even though he was a prick.
In the morning, we teleported to Cranberry Bay, where we boarded a train that would take us along the Lion’s Mane until we reached the Boundless Pit.