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I’d had other things on my mind when I got the achievement “Tutorial Complete”, but what little attention I’d devoted to it had been to wonder how in the hell you could have a tutorial section that took three days to clear and featured something like a dozen perilously close brushes with death. Unless the game was meant to be played with a much more generous number of deaths, or it was supposed to be brutally difficult (the Super Meat Boy of RPGs?), everything from when I’d fallen out of the plane to when I’d left Silmar City being a tutorial didn’t make too much sense.

(There was a rabbit hole that I was trying not to distract myself with: the question of what would have happened if I had done things differently. I had been branded a coward by the game for not coming to that nameless girl’s rescue right when I’d first landed. If I had gone over and pulled the zombies off her, rescued her from her predicament … what would have happened then? Or when I’d left the gas station, what would have happened if I had gone away from Comfort instead of towards it? What if I had killed Amaryllis instead of accepting her quest? What if I had somehow convinced her to go toward the Host’s outpost instead of accepting her notion that we should go away from it?

Videogame designers couldn’t actually create that many multiple paths, because there was diminishing marginal utility on each branching path, especially considering that the bulk of players would only play through a game once. In a videogame, there were lots of ways to try faking the element of choice so that the player felt like what they did actually mattered, but generally the changes were cosmetic until it got to the end, where you’d get different endings, or there were two different paths through the game that hit all the same areas and saw you speaking to all the same people.

So in a videogame, trying to go down the road to somewhere unknown when I was meant to go to Comfort would probably have run me into some kind of unstoppable wall, to force me to go where the game wanted me to go. I don’t know quite what would have happened, but it would have been something like the Fuchsia Coterie showing up, or a mass of zombies that I couldn’t beat, or if the game designer were really lazy, then just an invisible wall that broke suspension of disbelief.

But in a tabletop game, it was easy enough to just improvise things. If the party doesn’t want to go to Comfort, then sure, you can take that long road and they’ll think up something for you at the end of it. If I were the GM, I would have planned for Amaryllis to be in Comfort, and if the party didn’t want to go there, or they killed her when they met her, or something else like that, then whatever, she would be dead and I would come up with a new lead-in for that quest, or I would take the hint the party was giving me and figure out a totally new quest.

Or, if you were a sneaky GM, you could do the same thing that game designers did and take away a little bit of choice by making some choices not matter. If the player decides that he wants to go away from Comfort instead of toward it, eventually he’ll find himself in the town of Amenity, which has the same basic design and all the same quests, NPCs, and enemies. Heck, if the player never saw a sign saying “Comfort” then you didn’t even need to rename it.

But what really fucked with my head was that you could do the same thing with people. Let’s say that you wanted the player to meet an important princess from Anglecynn, the recent victim of something sort of like a coup and the main driver of the plot. What I would do is place her down right next to the player at the very start of the game, surrounded by zombies and yelling for help. If this whole thing was like a tabletop game, then a clever GM could have planned for me to see that first girl, and for that girl to have been Amaryllis. After I had ran away instead of helping her, I’d been slapped with a penalty, and since I never knew a single thing about her, a different girl could have become Amaryllis instead, with the whole universe rewriting itself around that change. Come to think of it, I had been slapped with the second cowardice penalty after not running to help a different girl, and it was entirely possible that if I had raced after her and fought her attackers she would have, in time, revealed herself to be Amaryllis Penndraig. And actually, Amaryllis had given me a fake name when we’d first met, so if she’d died, or I had decided not to go back to her, there was still a chance for a rewrite up until the point where I returned with Poul and he recognized her.

In the right kind of tabletop game, reality warped around the player and bridges were built as they were needed.

The length of this digression is why I called it a rabbit hole, and the depth of paranoia and thought I could sink into the idea was one of the reasons I was trying not to question the nature of this reality too much, at least not unless I could come up with something testable, and I had nada thus far.)

When I got out into Barren Jewel though, covered in a hooded white robe that hid the worst of my injuries, I was struck with what the achievement “Tutorial Complete” had meant. Before, I’d been running from one place to another, with clear goals and relatively few metaphorical side streets to check out. Walking (to be honest, hobbling) through the streets of Barren Jewel though, I was enraptured by the sights and sounds, and more than that, by the possibilities.

We passed a creature with chitinous plating and mandibles, walking upright like a person, with a long polearm on his back. Three elves with pursed lips went by us, all a head taller than me, dressed in red cloaks with golden trim, and Fenn cinched her hood to hide her ears from them. I watched a turtle-like creature buying a jar of red powder from an otherwise-normal woman with leathery wings folded across her back. There was a gap in the crowds that I thought was open space, but when we got closer I saw that they were dwarves , not little people but thick, burly, blunt-nosed dwarves with elaborate braids and ornate armor. Most of the people I saw were human, and most were in white, black, or blue robes, but there were also these weird and thrilling things. I wanted to shrug off my wounds and follow the toaster-sized cyan crystal that was floating down the street with purpose, or a lanky man who was still eight feet tall even though he was walking with a stoop to keep from hitting the power lines that criss-crossed above us.

And yes, Barren Jewel was kind of a shithole. All the color seemed to be reserved for the people, with the buildings being a rather uniform off-white color, mostly free from embellishments aside from signs and lettering. There were gutters that stunk more than I did, with the occasional heaped up pile of something rotting. The wires overhead were what my dad would have called an eyesore, and they weren’t up to American fire codes. There were beggars, dirty amputees holding their hands up and small children who raced after me asking for coin I didn’t have until Fenn gave one of them a clap around the ear.

But there was so much to do and see, and it wasn’t like I was playing a videogame where the NPCs were basically just obstacles that would path around me, or where the buildings were just facades with doors that could never be unlocked, this was viscerally real. The world of Aerb had never felt like it was forcing me to do anything, not really, but before there had been a progression and now … I was free to chart my own path through Aerb and decide on what was important to me.

The bone mage’s den was somewhat typical of the architecture I’d seen in Barren Jewel thus far; it was the same off-white material that the walls here (and in Silmar City) had been made from, with a rectangular doorframe that had an ill-fitting door in it. There were multiple holes by the hinges, and I gathered that the person installing it had either botched the door or it had been replaced a few times before. It was recognizably a shop, in that there was a crude logo of a bone on a sign above the door, with another hand-lettered sign on the door saying simply “Kindly Bones”. There were windows, but they were high up, allowing in light but not giving a view to what was inside.

Fenn entered without knocking; Amaryllis and I followed after. There was no proper second story to this place, though it was tall enough for it. Instead there were two long ladders allowing access to the ceiling, where thousands of bones hung down like cloves of garlic in an Italian kitchen. There were bones on the walls too, set in little racks there, and then on the ground there was a wall of cabinets with small drawers, each individually marked with handwritten slips of paper. Atop one of those cabinets was burning incense, which filled the room with a slightly floral scent that didn’t quite cover up a deeper chalky smell.

Aside from that, there was a chest-high padded bench with rotatable arms, and a pale woman with black spots running from her ears down to her collar, where they disappeared beneath her robes. She sat behind a small desk with some papers.

“Welcome to the Kindly Bones, I am Magus Bormann,” said the woman with a short bow, palms pressed together. “How may I serve you?”

“We’ve come for some healing,” said Fenn. “My friend here was accidentally shot with a number of arrows by a party who shall remain nameless.”

“It was you,” I said. “You were the one who shot me.”

“Disrobe and let me see,” said Bormann. Her eyes went to Fenn. “Consultation is free, but can I assume that you will be the one paying?”

“Grudgingly,” Fenn shrugged.

I took off my robe, revealing my torn up jeans, shredded shirt, and bloody wounds. We had discussed it, but elected not to change me out for something else, in part because I was certain to get anything I wore bloody.

“Fully disrobe, if it’s not too painful,” said Bormann. “Have you taken healing from a bone magus before?”

“No,” I replied. I looked to Fenn and Amaryllis (amusement and apathy, respectively), then began taking off my clothes, wincing when dried blood pulled away from my flesh. I sat up on the padded bench and removed my jeans as well, cursing as I pulled the cloth away from my thigh. I was somewhat gratified to discover that my body had undergone changes for the better; I wasn’t exactly ripped, but I had visible abs when I wasn’t sitting down. I hadn’t been fat or paunchy back on Earth, but my dad had some cause to use the word “scrawny”.

“Hrm,” said Bormann. She briefly poked at the wound in my stomach, then at the one in my leg, and after that went to the lacerations I’d taken from the arrows that had mostly missed me. “Was the intent to treat only the most serious of wounds, or all injuries sustained?”

“All,” said Fenn. “Again, grudgingly.”

“Then I think it can be done for half a million tcher,” Bormann said, speaking to Fenn. “He’s in good health, aside from his wounds, no obvious complicating problems, no other visible magics that might interfere.” Fenn grumbled, slipped a hand into her purse, and pulled out a handful of paper notes that Bormann took and counted swiftly. “Lay back and we’ll begin the work. It should take roughly two hours or so.” She looked to Fenn and Amaryllis. “You may leave and come back, if you have pressing needs." Fenn left quietly, while Amaryllis stayed.

“That,” I began, seems long. But I was comparing this woman against Tova, an intimidating woman working under pressure and presumably with vast resources.

“If you have a question, I am free to answer,” said Bormann. “This type of work does not require terribly much attention at this point in my career.”

“I was wondering what it took to learn bone magic,” I said. “Or … anything about it, I guess. I’ve seen it performed once, in an emergency, but beyond that …”

“Let me get the bones first,” said Bormann. She went to one of the cupboards and withdrew a number of bones, which she laid down on a tray table beside the padded bench. She held them up, one by one. “The chief aspect of healing is vitality, so for that we select from resilient creatures. In this case, the Eastern carrier gull, and more specifically, his ribs, which will correspond to your torso, and his leg bones, which will correspond to your leg, plus a few others for the more minor injuries.”

She took a narrow rib not much longer than a finger in one hand and placed her other hand on my stomach, right next to the wound. The bone glowed, very faintly, and a tiny odorless curl of smoke rose from it as she did her work. Eventually she set the bone to one side and picked up another, identical one to repeat the process. I could feel something happening in my stomach, but it was slow going.

“I had five years at the Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh,” said Bormann, “That’s about the minimum required to call yourself a proper bone mage. Study mostly consists of understanding skeletal structures of various animals and how it relates to their aspects, along with the study of aspects and the mortal form. We don’t learn how to pull from the bones until the second year.”

Three more bones had been used while she spoke, and the pain from my stomach had subsided somewhat.

“Almost done with that section, we’ll do your leg next,” said Bormann with pursed lips. “Is my talking calming to you?”

“Yes,” I replied. “So, ow, so you pull aspects of creatures from their bones?”

“Just so,” said Bormann. “Vitality is the most widely useful, because the effects fade as soon as the bone has had its essence pulled from it. With vitality, the concentrated healing remains. The other four aspects are swiftness, strength, focus, and intellect.” She said that last as the wound on my stomach finally closed completely; she wiped away some dried blood there with a stained washcloth and moved on to my leg.

Vitality, swiftness, strength, intellect, and focus. Or, rearranged, strength, swiftness, vitality, intellect, _______, and focus. Which is really close to power, speed, endurance, cunning, knowledge, and wisdom, which appeared in a neat little column by my character sheet.

“What about knowledge?” I asked.

“Ah, you’ve heard stories,” said Bormann. She had the leg bones in hand and was looking over my arrow wound some. “Bone mages sucking the memories out of a person’s skull, that sort of thing?” I nodded cautiously. “Well, it’s not so dramatic as all that, if you pull deep it’s too many memories all at once, disorganized and opaque, and if you take a shallow pull you get pieces too disparate to make sense of. And either way, it needs to be written down or dictated quickly before it fades, which creates its own problems. People always think of it as having their secrets scooped out of them, but that’s not how it works in practice. Either way, it’s not really an aspect as such, and rarely studied.”

Amaryllis spoke up for the first time. “Juniper, if you have further questions, I think it would be better for you to hold off on them until we’ve had a chance to talk.”

Bormann raised an eyebrow at that, but she was enough of a consummate professional that she didn’t question someone coming in with multiple arrow wounds, and she continued on about her work without further comment.

Amaryllis was probably right to keep me from asking more questions, because for all I knew I was three seconds away from asking a question that would expose me as either not knowing things that everyone knew, or knowing things that no one was supposed to know. The former wasn’t that much of a problem; I was fine with being branded an idiot, if less fine with raising eyebrows. The latter could get us killed, especially given how scarce our resources were.

So instead, I sat silently and did some thinking about bone magic. The aspects that Bormann described pretty clearly mapped to the attributes on my character sheet, minus the social attributes, the umbrella attributes, and luck (maybe, unless they categorized those differently). That made bone magic really easy to graft onto the game layer; all you’d need is some logical rule that said “when you pull from a bone, choose an attribute that animal had in life and add it to your own”. I was guessing it was more complicated than that, but I would have an incredible advantage in bone magic even above and beyond my ability to skill up, because I would be able to actually see the mechanical changes.

“Are there other ways to learn how to become a bone mage?” I asked. I caught Amaryllis giving me a slight frown, but she didn’t so much as give me a small shake of her head, so I figured I was on safe ground. “Are there people who train outside the athenaeum?”

“It’s illegal under imperial law,” said Bormann with a grin. My blank face must have given away that I didn’t get the joke, because her grin fell away.

“The argument goes,” Amaryllis began, “That there is a limited number of good, useable bones in the world, and though new bones are being made all the time, that still leaves a limit on how many are created a year, both through natural processes and on farms. A lackluster bone mage pulls less from a bone than a superb one, which means that a weak bone mage goes through far more bones, depleting a scarce resource and overall increasing the price of much-needed healing in the long term. I’m sure that the players in that game are transparent to you,” Uh, no? “The Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh gains in power if they’re the only source of accredited bone magic, existing bone mages get to take out the competition and keep their prices high, the Athenaeum of Quills and Blood sits on the fence for a bit because on the one hand restricting healing to accredited bone mages means that blood mages have some benefit from decreased competition, but on the other hand it lowers the relative prestige of blood mages and those who teach it because now there’s this bottleneck of privilege, and then there are all the farmers, hunters, trappers, et cetera who make their livings, in part, off providing bones, and they’re of course staunchly against this change in imperial law because of how it affects their bottom line, on and on until you have hundreds of voices arguing with varying strength that the imperial law is either good and bad, and eventually the vote gets decided by some combination of money and influence rather than whether it’s actually good policy.”

I could practically hear Reimer with his refrain of “blah, blah, blah, politics”. My problem was, I didn’t actually have the context for most of this to be that meaningful. At a best guess, the athenaeums were like super powerful universities with alumni at high ranks in various companies, political fields, and probably militaries. The empire … was a thing? Actually, all I knew was that there was a thing called imperial law which Bormann found funny for some reason.

That was when I realized that Amaryllis wasn’t feeding me information, she was covering for me. I hadn’t interpreted Bormann’s joke in the right way, Bormann had noticed, and Amaryllis had both offered a distraction and an explanation for my confusion. I wasn’t some idiot who didn’t know why imperial law deserved a smirk, I was obviously confused about the political reasons behind the ban on unlicensed bone mages.

“Are you one of those I should go to if I have problems with political solutions?” asked Bormann. “Most of my clients are involved in a skilled trade, it’s not often that I meet someone who understands what actually goes on in the empire.” She continued with her work, sealing the wound on my leg entirely until there was only a small pink mark where the arrow had entered, then moving on to the minor wounds. “Though to be frank, one of the things that I’ve missed least about the athenaeum is how invested everyone was in imperial goings-on.”

And with that rather diplomatic end to the conversation, we were again silent. I was feeling much better, though still a little light on blood, and I was content to just keep my mouth shut instead of asking more questions. It wouldn’t be too long before I would have some time alone with the rest of what I was starting to accept as my party. Rather than doing nothing, I closed my eyes and looked at my character sheet, but none of the numbers seemed to be changing with the application of bones. With my eyes open and on my hitpoint total, I could occasionally catch it ticking up if I was paying attention, but that was a digital representation of an analog process, or maybe the hitpoints were just a best guess at how healthy I was. (I hadn’t increased my END since turning hitpoints on, but I was going to pay attention when I did.)

“Looking much better!” said Fenn as she sauntered in. “Though I suppose you should be, for half a million tcher.”

“He was lucky,” said Bormann. “The arrow in his leg just missed his femoral artery. The one in his stomach managed not to pierce any internal organs. Whatever you were doing, I would highly suggest that you not do it again … though if you do, I hope that you remember me.” She laid a bone down on the metal tray, then dipped her hands into a small bowl of water and began rubbing them. “The work is done.”

All my wounds had been sealed, now leaving only small pink areas of new flesh. So far as I could tell, what the bone mage had done wasn’t so much magically knitting my flesh back together, she was accelerating the process of natural healing by a few orders of magnitude.

“The girl too,” said Fenn. “She has some cuts on her hand, and a burn, I think.”

Bormann went over to Amaryllis and looked at her hands with a frown. “This burn … blood magic?”

Amaryllis shrugged.

“It’s important that I know, so that I can properly heal you,” said Bormann.

“What exactly would it cost to eliminate your need to know?” asked Fenn.

Bormann frowned. “Double the rate, if you want me to pour more magic in and hope for the best. I also won’t make any guarantees about the quality of the healing.” She looked at Amaryllis’ other hand and stifled a sigh. “You took these wounds earlier today, by the look of them. Were your nails yellow then?”

Amaryllis looked closer at her hand. “No,” she said cautiously. “Infection?”

“It might be rat rot,” I said. The three of them looked at me. “I had it once. That’s what I was told it was called.”

“I’m unfamiliar with it,” said Bormann. “Fifty thousand tcher for your wounds, half that if you tell me more so I can make an assessment. And if rat rot is a disease, I don’t know what it would take for me to burn it out of you. It would be a good way for me to line my pockets, if I was the sort of healer who liked to string people along.”

“Do we have your confidentiality either way?” asked Fenn.

“No,” said Bormann. “If the city guard comes knocking and asking about people who were involved in something they shouldn’t have been, besides just shooting each other with arrows, then I’ll tell them what I know with only the slightest pushback.”

“Then we’ll pay the full rate,” said Fenn. “Better you not know, if you’d be obliged to tell. And we’ll deal with the rat rot later, if we have to.”

Once we were finished, Fenn pulled some clothes out of her bag for me and I put them on. It was nothing special, just a t-shirt and some ill-fitting pants, and it was all somewhat loose, but my robe went over the top of it anyway. Bormann graciously offered to toss my old clothing and then we were on our way.

“So,” said Fenn once we were outside. “I’m thinking that a bathhouse is the next thing on our list, some place that we can wash off the stink of our misadventures.” She yawned, stretching out briefly touching the bow on her back, as though to reassure herself that it was still there. “Also, Juniper, you’ll be glad to know that I found out why we’re really here. No friends, but no enemies either, that might have applied to a dozen places that we could have gone. There’s a deeper meaning to why Barren Jewel was so very, very non-negotiable.” She smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes, and there was no humor left in her voice.

“We should keep our voices low,” said Amaryllis. “We can discuss this in private. I had planned to, after we’d gotten some rest.”

“Suit yourself,” Fenn shrugged. She cast me a raised eyebrow just before she turned away.

We had a very silent walk back to the inn, and though I was no longer limping, the sudden tension between the group was doing its own job of sapping the wonder from me as we walked the exotic streets.

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Alexander Wales

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