It took me some time to collect myself. I ended up putting two points into PHY and another one point into LUK, a balancing of short term survival against long term gains. It was a choice I had made before getting that message from above the game layer, but I was even more certain about it afterward, because I was pretty sure “pseudo-intelligence” was the equivalent of having Tom rolling a Knowledge check because he couldn’t actually be as smart as his 22 INT wizard. PHY was, at present, the more valuable superstat, and it would allow me to reach level 20 on pretty much every skill I cared anything about. LUK was mostly because I had an odd number of points and would probably have to wait until level 20 until I got another odd point, and the time-value of points meant that probably didn't make sense, especially if LUK was properly balanced around not being able to get the 2:3 discount. Besides, there was no way to get a sense of how it actually worked or scaled without spending that first point. (The mental process of deciding these things also helped me to put all the existential stuff to one side, and I won't pretend that my decision was not, in part, influenced by the desire not to revisit the existentially tricky MEN stats.)
Grak and Fenn hadn’t had much luck with the rest of the magic items. Neither the necklace nor the bracelet seemed to do anything, though Fenn’s guess was that at least one of the two dealt with poisons in some regard, since that was one of the classical ways to kill a gold mage. The pocketwatch gave the Aerbian equivalent of latitude and longitude, which was a much simpler coordinate pair given that the world was flat, but much harder to determine given that the sun had the same apparent position no matter where on Aerb you were. The watch was therefore useful, but nothing to write home about. The armchair we hadn’t figured out either; I was suspicious that it was going to whisk us away to the bottom of a dungeon, because I’d once made an armchair that did that, but it did nothing when they sat in it and a dungeon chair seemed like an odd thing to keep in a vault.
I tried to feel engaged with their discoveries, but my sense of detachment wasn’t so easily cured, especially since the news was boring.
I spent some time training, after removing my armor to make sure that I wouldn’t accidentally use up more of its ability to make hits pass through me. I didn’t really want to train, but it was something that needed to be done, and sitting around reading or moping wasn’t going to improve my expected outcomes. I tried to make the training as intensive as possible, exercising as many skills as I could.
The end result of that was me dashing across the open clearing, trailing flames from my hands, singing Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, while Fenn fired blunted arrows at me. Fenn had very quickly set up obstacles by dumping furniture out of her glove, and she’d put small targets up for me to strike with my sword. Grak stood at one end of the clearing, ready to spar with me when I looped back to him, and at the other end were a few melons I was supposed to strike unarmed.
I got sick about fifteen minutes in, but pushed through it as best I could for another few hours, until I felt like I was going to collapse. I had predicted that it would take me at least a day to get to 20 in any one of my skills, but it actually went quite a bit faster than that, and I think I knew why: the tooltip for CUN specifically said it was ‘used to … learn new things’, and it made sense that would have some real mechanical impact as far as what it took to increase skills.
Skill increased: Music lvl 6! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat CHA.)
Skill increased: One-Handed Weapons lvl 20! (Skill can no longer be increased by amateur training.)
New Virtue: Monkey Grip!
Skill increased: Dodge lvl 20! (Skill can no longer be increased by amateur training.)
New Virtue: Thaumic Dodger!
The two new virtues were relatively minor. ‘Monkey Grip’ was the ability to wield larger weapons through eliminating the penalty; I hadn’t known that there was a penalty, but holding a broadsword in one hand no longer felt awkward (the virtue had the same name as a feat Reimer used to love, which did the same thing). ‘Thaumic Dodger’ removed the supposed penalty involved with dodging magic. It seemed like the level 20 virtues were (debatably) stronger, but they weren’t at the upper tiers of what I knew was physically possible on Aerb, and I was pretty sure that at some point they would allow things that were literally impossible for a mortal man, not just improbable or difficult.
Being capped at 20 because of how I was training was shockingly bad for me. It meant that I couldn’t just train up my Dodge skill against Fenn and hope that our Twinned Souls would allow her offensive power to keep pace so that she was a challenge. The word ‘amateur’ implied that a professional could still help me train, while the word ‘training’ implied that I could still get skills from actual combat, or maybe from other methods. I tried not to dwell on that too much, but it was bad news at a time when my morale was low.
We ate from the stockpiled food in the basement, simple fare with no cooking involved, and then the sun had set and it was time for bed, because we had a long day ahead of us. We each picked a room for ourselves, from the many there were available. Grak put up a detection ward at the main entrance that would wake him if any blood passed through it, and an anti-teleportation ward in the basement where there was the traditional gap in the house’s defenses. I used six of the Lecher’s Vines that I’d tattooed on myself, one at the entrance, another at the door to the teleportation room, and then one at each of our bedrooms. It seemed like overkill but it was also one of the only times that I was likely to use it.
It was good to have something to do, but then I was sitting in my room, not really tired but needing to sleep, and trying not to think too much about the nature of my reality. I was just starting to give in to the pointless desire to dwell on those things when there was a knock on my door. There was a bit of my brain that thought that was awfully convenient of the universe to provide me with a distraction right before I was going to think those deep thoughts, but I forced that bit down like one would force down bile after almost throwing up. Besides, I wanted a distraction. When I opened the door, Fenn was standing there, smiling.
“Got some time to talk?” asked Fenn.
“Yes, please,” I said.
She followed me, past the vines around the doorframe, which gave me a twinge of alert in the one leaf of a vine left tattooed on my arm. Fenn sat down on my bed and smoothed out the covers. She had changed out of her leather armor, and was in a tank top with plain, blue shorts, which had become her standard sleeping attire after she’d agreed to ‘respect my cultural norms’. It had been a long time since I had seen her naked, and I’ll admit that there was a part of me that had a twinge of annoyance at that.
“Grak told me not to fuck you,” said Fenn with a smile.
“Were those his exact words?” I asked.
“Oh, no, certainly not,” said Fenn. “For a traditional dwarf, maybe that would have been the approach, but Grakhuil trained for like ten years to be a warder, which means that he’s had plenty of time thrust into civilized society to learn that literally saying ‘don’t fuck Joon’ is frowned upon. So he does this thing where he tries to be subtle, because he knows humans like to read between the lines, but he makes sure that the lines are really, really far apart so that you basically have to read between them.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He gave me the same talk. Did he use the phrase ‘experimental coitus’ with you?”
“What?” asked Fenn with alarm. “What does that even mean?”
“You have my copy of The Book of Blood,” I said, “I meant to ask for it earlier.” She was wearing Sable, which I thought had to be approaching whatever limits it had, because Fenn kept stuffing more and more into it. She’d stolen all the chairs from around the big table on the lawn.
“One condition,” she said, holding out her gloved hand.
“Which is?” I asked.
“Two conditions, actually,” she said. “Because you gave me time to think about it, which is always dangerous.”
“Okay,” I said, “What conditions?”
“Alright then, three conditions,” said Fenn with a laugh, “Because you didn’t learn your lesson.”
I gave her my best aggrieved sigh.
“Condition one, I forbid you from looking at the entries on elves and half-elves,” said Fenn.
“Can I ask why, or would that move it up to four conditions?” I asked.
“I don’t know what the bookkeeper told you, but The Book of Blood is somewhat notorious,” said Fenn. The book appeared in her gloved hand, with its red cover and embossed lettering. It was quite thick, though that made sense, as it was something of a reference book. She made no move to hand it over. “Alek Syfriend was this pervert of a gnome who decided that there was a paucity of information on interspecies relations, where ‘relations’ is code for having sex with one another. He was really wealthy due to inheritance, so he had the money to travel the world and see pretty much every species in it, collecting stories and paying whatever necessary to various ladies and gentlemen of the night to get an up close look. The book turned out to be the single best guide to the mortal species ever written, but it also appeals to the prurient interest, if cloaked in clinical terms. That’s part of why it’s hugely popular.”
“O-kay,” I said. “So, the reason that you don’t want me to read from the elf and half-elf sections is?”
Fenn breathed a sigh through her teeth. “It’s, ah, complicated,” she said. “You could call it something like modesty.”
“From you?” I asked with a smile that she didn’t return. “I mean, you know that when you say ‘don’t look in this book’ I have to assume there’s something in there that would be of immense interest to me.”
“It’s not a clue,” said Fenn. “Not everything is a clue. It’s personal. Alright?”
I raised my hands. “Alright, I promise I won’t look up any of the information that you made sound so tantalizing.”
My mind was racing though, trying to figure out why this would be such an important, somber thing to her. And of course it was the mind’s tendency to go to the extremes and make up the worst possible story, which in this case would be something like, ‘Fenn was the victim of female genital mutilation’, but it was much more likely that, as with her scars, she was just mired in social and cultural ideas and emotions that simply didn’t apply to me. I tried my best not to put too much thought into it, because if she had wanted to discuss it, she would have.
Fenn handed me The Book of Blood. “Alright, condition two, I want to sleep in your bed tonight.”
“Well I’ve got the book now, all your leverage is gone,” I replied. “That wasn’t very smart negotiation there.”
“Eh, I didn’t think you would actually object to having me,” said Fenn.
We had slept in the same large, plush hotel bed together, which had been fine. I had thought that I would wake up with her curled up next to me, like I had occasionally seen her do with Amaryllis during our earlier stay in the motel, but nothing like that had happened, and she’d had what were effectively pajamas on anyway. It was very studiously platonic, the kind of platonic that said, ‘do you see how platonic I’m being’?
“I kind of don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea,” I said.
“Are you so terribly concerned about what Grak thinks?” asked Fenn with a quirk of a smile.
“If you really wanted to sleep next to someone, there’s Amaryllis,” I replied.
“She’s got a creepy yellow arm now,” said Fenn. “Plus I sort of doubt her ability to defend me if we get attacked in the middle of the night. Much better for me to have the most dangerous member of our party an arm's-length away.”
On a scale of 0-9, how in love with me are you? I wanted to ask, but didn’t think it was a conversational path that I wanted to go down, not with that flippant of an opening, and maybe not at all.
“Alright,” I said, “You can sleep beside me tonight, but when we get up in the morning you have to make a point of loudly and insistently telling both Grak and Amaryllis that nothing happened between us, okay?”
Fenn watched me. “Was that a joke?” she asked.
“Well, I thought it was funny,” I said. “There’s probably some debate over whether or not that’s enough to qualify something as a joke.”
“I mean, it was really, aggressively unfunny,” said Fenn. “Like you were trying to see whether you could use a lack of humor as a weapon. Were you trying to unlock a new skill? You had Comedy and wanted Anticomedy?”
“Alright, fine, fine,” I laughed. “Two conditions down, what’s the last one?”
“Oh,” said Fenn. She put a finger to pursed lips. “Um, let me think about it.”
“Because you didn’t have a third condition, I knew it,” I said. “Well I’ve already given a lot of ground, and these conditions are bordering on becoming a favor from me to you.”
“Okay,” said Fenn, “I’ve got one. Just to be clear, we’re not going to have sex tonight? That’s off the table?”
I blushed at that. It was couched as a joke, the kind of flirty joke she’d agreed not to tell anymore, but I had the distinct impression that it also was the kind of joke where if I took the initiative, it wouldn’t be a joke anymore, or at the very least it would become funny for a different reason. (And then later on, it would become stupid, complicated drama, that much I was sure of.)
“I miss making you blush,” said Fenn with a grin. “Well since we both take Grak’s orders very, very seriously, and that’s off the table, my request,” her face went serious, “My request is, ah, that you try to lower my loyalty.”
“Um,” I said. “I don’t wanna.”
“Because loyalty makes me more powerful and easy to control?” asked Fenn.
“Because I care about you,” I replied.
“Alright, that was the correct answer,” said Fenn.
“In Trifles Tower, when you wanted to leave and the others wanted to go for the gold, I thought that was going to be it,” I said. “So it has to be worse than that, right?”
“I understand why you made that decision,” said Fenn. “I didn’t agree with it, but I’m not some bratty little girl that needs everything to go her way. Look, all I’m saying is that I want you to try to make me less loyal.”
“Seems paradoxical,” I said. “If I try to lower your loyalty on your request, then aren’t I displaying what a great guy I am, thus making you more loyal?” Fenn shrugged. “I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to betray your trust or say whatever mean things there are to say about you. I don’t want to hurt you, and if loyalty can go down, then I think that’s what it would take from me. So no, don’t wanna, can’t make me.”
Fenn stared at me, twisting her mouth into a frown. “Alright,” she finally said with a shrug, “Two out of three ain’t bad. Then I’m going to bed.”
And so I fell asleep to the sound of Fenn’s light breathing and her occasional shift beneath the sheets, as I’d done when we were at the hotel together, and when we woke up in the morning it was before anyone else anyway, which meant that there were no questions to answer about how or why we’d spent the night together.
(Fenn did loudly and insistently tell Grak that she hadn’t had sex with me, and spent some time graphically describing all the ways in which we hadn’t had sex, but she did this out of earshot of Amaryllis. The fact that she was making that joke in front of me and Grak but not Amaryllis was probably significant, but I had decided that social skills were dump stats, so there was no magical aid in unpacking that.)
(As I learned from The Book of Blood, dwarves had something called a cloaca, which was a posterior orifice that served as a universal port for urine, feces, and reproduction. They had no other genitalia. Dwarves engaged in coitus with each other via something called the cloacal kiss, which The Book of Blood described in exacting, clinical detail, but which I will describe here as ‘gross’, particularly the section on ‘cloacal winking’. It was possible for dwarves to crossbreed with a few of the other mortal species, humans among them, with different methods of intercourse depending on whether their partner was male or female. The Book of Blood also described those in exacting detail, and again I think ‘gross’ is probably sufficient. I could sort of understand just from that how Fenn wouldn’t want me to read the entry on elves and half-elves, even if it said something innocuous, because there was an undercurrent to the way Syfriend wrote that made me feel like I needed a shower.)
Under different circumstances, the teleportation key might have meant that the entire world was open to us. The teleportation key allowed you to go to either a touchstone or a place where you’d already been before, but in our case the touchstones were right out, because every place with a touchstone was likely to be guarded and warded, something that we really, really wanted to avoid, not just because Amaryllis was a somewhat recognizable princess who a lot of people wanted to capture or kill, but because the teleportation key we had was ridiculously valuable and if anyone saw us arrive they would either try to take it from us, or go tell someone who would then try to take it from us.
That meant that we were restricted to places where either Amaryllis, Fenn, Grak, or I had gone which we could be pretty damned sure wouldn’t be occupied, and which were also in a place that we could walk out of without drawing too much suspicion.
And on top of that, we wanted a specific place, one where we could do research and ask questions about the disease Amaryllis had contracted, as well as about how to fix my drained bones.
That left us with startlingly few candidates.
- Amaryllis had spent three years at the Athenaeum of Quills and Blood, and thought she knew several spots that we could enter either it (or the surrounding city of Sanguine) from. Stealth and lies would probably be the name of the game there, though security wasn’t likely to be all that tight, not for the things we were looking for. Rat rot rating: ★★★☆☆, Dry bones rating: ★★☆☆☆, Danger rating: ★★☆☆☆
- Caledwich, where Uther Penndraig had tried to pull the sword from the stone, was now home to one of the largest libraries in the world outside the athenaeums. Caledwich was also the beating heart of Anglecynn and the most likely place to run into one of the Princes and Princesses of the Lost King’s Court. Rat rot rating: ★★★★☆, Dry bones rating: ★★☆☆☆, Danger rating: ★★★☆☆, Historical rating: ★★★★☆
- Cranberry Bay was home to the Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh, and given that my personal problem was a bone one, and bone magic was the primary healing magic in the world, it seemed likely that we could find the solution to both our problems there. The catch was that we didn’t have a great point of entry; Amaryllis had visited Cranberry Bay, but she had been young and not on the lookout for hidden spots she could arrive at with a key without alerting anyone. Rat rot rating: ★★★★☆, Dry bones rating: ★★★★★, Danger rating: ★★★★★ on entry, ★★☆☆☆ after, Nostalgia rating: ★★★★★
And that was it, just those three. We could have gone to Five Spires, or any other major city, and maybe bought some books there, but one of the things the Empire of Common Cause did was enforce intellectual property laws. The athenaeums had a lot of sway within the empire, which meant that they put some restrictions in place to ensure that magical learning was centralized. This was naturally ‘for the public good’ and just happened to increase power and profits to the lobbying body, which was a complete and total coincidence.
(The empire wasn’t actually all that strong or effective, for a lot of the same reasons that the UN wasn’t strong or effective, but the athenaeums were powerful enough that they could use the empire to propagate a legislative framework that almost all the member polities had implemented, or at least put token effort into implementing.
This was then backed up by the athenaeums wielding their power against the various polities of the empire when they tried to defect from ‘sensible’ intellectual property laws and/or certification schemes. Most of the athenaeums had scholarships and departments devoted to placement of their students, which meant that there was a carrot labeled ‘we’ll pay your young people to come here’ and a stick labeled ‘we won’t send you graduated mages’, but with a lather of diplomacy on top of that basic reality. On top of that, most of the athenaeums were filthy rich and nearly nations in their own right, which meant that they could (and did) use all of the standard tactics that corporations used on Earth, like pumping money into politics, having people write editorials complaining about a politician or policy, filing lawsuits, or doing other things like that.
So if you were a prospective publisher of books, you would look at running afoul of either the governments or the athenaeums, then look at how pitifully small the target market was, and then decide to do something else with your time. And it wasn’t like someone could really be expected to learn magic from a book anyway, not when even the simplest of magics took years of intensive, guided study to wield, let alone wield effectively.
This wasn’t to say that there were no books on those subjects. After all, as Stewart Brand said, information wants to be free. However, in a world that had no global internet, information on Aerb had considerably less desire to be free than it did on Earth, and the bootleg books and underground magicians were supposedly something of a rarity.
Where were we? Oh, right, trying to pick a place to go.)
We had most of the discussion the night before we left, over our simple dinners of prepackaged foods.
“Well, my vote is for Cranberry Bay,” I said. “It’s the place I know best.”
“We still haven’t established whether we’re a democracy,” said Fenn. “I, personally, think that we should become an anarchosyndicalist commune, taking it in turn to act as executive officers.”
(That was a Monty Python and the Holy Grail reference, which I naturally recognized, but I was certain that if I called her out on it she would say that of course it was a Monty Python quote, you think that’s some Earth thing? And then she would have smiled at having succeeded in derailing the conversation.)
“We can vote,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper will break any ties. I know the campus of Quills and Blood well and have a number of contacts there, though none that I would feel safe revealing myself to. Still, I can send one of the three of you with some advanced intelligence that should make information gathering easier. Healing is a subspecialty of the blood mages. That has my vote.”
“Bone and Flesh seems more likely to help with our problems,” I replied. “We’d be banking on connections outweighing the actual proximity of information if we went with Blood. And neither blood nor bone magic can cure the rat rot anyway, so it’s better if we go for the place that has an emphasis on healing that’s not within the realm of its titular magic, right?” (I had tried with bone magic, just for the sake of it, but it hadn’t worked; diseases were, as stated, outside the wheelhouse for the two most common healing magics.)
“I vote Bone and Flesh,” said Grak. “Blood has always been the weaker healing magic. Reaching for your contacts is a risk I don’t want to take. If we go at the right time of day we can reduce the risk of witnesses.”
“Fine, I’m dying, let’s just do this,” said Amaryllis.
“Welp, looks like we’re going to the Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh then,” said Fenn. “I’ve always wanted to see Cranberry Bay.”
She wasn’t the only one. Cranberry Bay was one of the places that I created, and it was special to me, for a very simple reason: I had made it when I was nine years old, in the first campaign I had ever run. It was a simple, innocent place, and the only question was what the lens of Aerb had made of it.