I came to in a warm bed. The last thing I remembered was planting my mouth on a unicorn wound and sucking out its blood. No, there was something after that, Fenn putting her weight on my chest and smiling, that was it. When I looked over, I saw her in bed beside me, curled up and looking content.
We were back at Weik Handum; I recognized my room. I was out of my armor, which was piled on the floor beside me, along with the rest of my gear. I couldn’t help but notice that I was in just my boxers, and when I pulled back the covers, I saw that Fenn was topless, which set my heart beating faster. I looked at her, trying to work out what had happened in the gap between drinking the unicorn blood and ending up here, and then just looked at her without thinking too much in particular.
When she began to stir, I averted my eyes. I could see through the light in the hallway that it was just barely sundown.
“How are you doing?” she asked, slurring her words slightly as she woke up. “What time is it?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “I think maybe you just went to bed?”
“Seems right,” said Fenn. “It took us some time to deal with the unicorn, Grak and I. Too big for the glove by about a foot, and that’s not including the horn. It’s got white guts, come to find out.” She sat up and stretched out, then looked down at her chest. “Does this bother you?” she asked.
“Not really,” I replied, but I could tell I was blushing, and that ‘bother’ wasn’t the right word. “I’m going to have to adapt to the cultural norms of Aerb sooner or later. It’s no big deal. I’ll get, um, desensitized.”
“You and Amaryllis both said some things,” said Fenn.
“Oh?” I asked. I rubbed my head. I wasn’t feeling at all hungover. Whatever the effects of unicorn blood had on my mind, it didn’t seem to have any aftereffects at all, aside from the blackout.
“I mean obviously I’m not going to tell you what those things are,” said Fenn with a laugh. “Grak might tell you, I guess, even though I swore him to secrecy. He did not, not at all, like being tasked with caring for Mary. Eventually he just put up a ward around her to keep her from running off, and then another ward to muffle the sound.”
“And me?” I asked.
“You seemed happy enough to be sat on,” said Fenn with a grin.
“Um,” I said with a swallow. “Did we …” I trailed off as I looked at my clothes on the floor.
“Did I rape you while you were high on unicorn blood?” asked Fenn with a scowl. “Come on, you know me better than that.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Sorry, I just … I never got drunk, back on Earth, the feeling of blacking out is unsettling. I always thought it was conceptually unsettling. Not knowing what was said or done by this person who wasn’t really me … and I mean, I thought maybe that if I had said something to you, or tried something, and without knowing what the Aerbian cultural norms even are in that, ah, regard --”
“Not something I really want to talk about right now,” said Fenn. “Let’s just say that I’ve been on the other side of that fence once or twice, though gladly never to the extent I couldn’t handle myself.”
“Ah, so you’ve gone unicorn hunting before,” I said.
Fenn gave me a weak smile. “It’s been a long day for me. Lots of talking to Grak, which takes its toll, and lots of talking to, let’s call him, Kuniper. We’ll move a letter down the alphabet every time you get hopped up on the blood of a different animal.”
“And you won’t tell me what I talked about?” I asked.
“Honestly, you mostly talked about things that didn’t make any sense to me,” said Fenn. “A lot of it was about Dungeons & Dragons. You spent twenty minutes delivering this monologue on something called a candle of invocation?”
“Huh,” I said. “That doesn’t sound so bad. I mean, boring for you, but not actually that bad.”
“There were other things,” said Fenn. “Little tidbits.”
“Tidbits you’re going to torture me with?” I asked.
“Tease, not torture,” Fenn corrected. “What else are companions for?”
“Ah,” I said. I prodded at my left hand with the index finger of my right. “The unicorn blood did nothing for me, by the way.” It hadn't even topped me up on blood.
“Well it was still a fun time for all involved,” said Fenn. “Look, can we talk about this in the morning? As much as it’s good to have my Juniper back, I really do need the sleep.”
“Sure,” I said, feeling my cheeks grow warm at the possessive, ‘my Juniper’. “I’m going to go grab some food.”
Fenn laid back and closed her eyes, while I threw on some clothes. As I did, I noticed that all of my snake tattoos were gone, another apparent casualty of whatever Kuniper had been thinking. I looked back to Fenn before I left the room, and wondered whether her state of undress was because of something I’d said to her. Had I told her that I missed seeing her naked? Had I said that I missed when she was more flirtatious? Those both seemed like things I would plausibly say if I were deprived of my inhibitions.
I tried to think of the bluntest possible true thing I might have said, and then winced, because it would be something like a breathless, “I think you’re pretty and sexy and fun and I am sort of a little bit in love with you, and I asked the One True God of this place to make you real in case you weren’t already because you’re also my best friend”. I wasn’t sure whether it would be better or worse if I had then added any qualifiers or clarifications. But that wasn’t even the worst case, because it might have been that I’d said something false, and that was a problem space too large to bear thinking about. I would have to talk to Grak and get him to break his silence; I didn’t actually believe that Fenn had sworn him to secrecy.
When I came into the main room, the fire was crackling away. Amaryllis was sitting on the couch next to it with her legs tucked under her. All traces of blood had been washed from her face, and from her damp hair I gathered that she’d recently taken a shower. She was barefoot, wearing shorts and a simple t-shirt, with a mug of something steaming cradled between her hands. She really was shockingly beautiful, almost enough so that I might be able to forget that I needed to call her out on a few things. I sat down across from her, which drew only a brief glance before her gaze returned to the fire.
Then I read her shirt and started laughing. It said ‘Born to Bone’ on it, with the crest of the Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh beneath the lettering.
“All of my clothes are in Fenn’s glove,” Amaryllis explained. “She got this for me while we were in Cranberry Bay. I knew that I would rue the day I gave that glove over to her.” She turned to me with a small smile, but I was still laughing, because Fenn was in charge of her wardrobe and I had to believe that this was just the opening salvo. “Alright, settle down.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Just thinking about what else she has in store for you.”
Amaryllis nodded in acknowledgement, then was silent for a moment, long enough that her smile began to fade. “I’m given to understand that I kissed you. I apologize for that.”
“No worries,” I said with a wave of my hand. I remembered that kiss with a slight unease. It had been the wrong moment, and she’d kissed me frantically, sloppily, like I was the first person she’d ever kissed and she wanted it to be the kiss to end all kisses. I hadn’t enjoyed it. Maybe the taste of mingled human and unicorn blood had something to do with it. “You actually said that you were sorry right after it happened, that’s one of the last things I remember.” But what had she said? She’d said that she thought I wanted it, not that she wanted it.
“How was it?” she asked, keeping her tone light.
“Er,” I said, not sure where this was going, and feeling uncomfortable. “It kind of reminded me of my first kiss.” The silence stretched, and I rushed to fill it, as though that needed explanation. “Freshman year I went to this party and sat next to Alicia Aaron for like three hours, and then she offered me a ride home with her parents. When we got to my house I leaned over and … yeah. It was … I don’t know.” Not great? Good only because I’d been lusting after her for a few months? And then we had one date, and she told me over the phone that she didn’t want to go out with me.
Amaryllis turned to the fire and watched it for a bit as it crackled away. “We need to talk about the future.”
“The future of you and me?” I asked.
She turned to me and raised an eyebrow, like I was a complete idiot, which might have been fair. “I meant the future of this group,” she said. “Fenn tells me that you want to go find the Lost King.”
“Ah,” I said, feeling my cheeks flush. Of course she didn’t want to talk about our future. I felt like when I had seen her I’d had a plan, and now that plan was melting away. What was it? Oh, yes, she’d just said, the Lost King. “Did you know that Uther Penndraig was dream-skewered?”
Amaryllis was never terribly expressive, unicorn blood aside, but now her face set into almost complete blankness. “I suspected,” she said. “Even before I met you, I suspected. The Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny has seen perhaps a thousand of the dream-skewered, but that doesn’t mean that there were only a thousand. If a thousand ended up cataloged, how many died before anyone figured out what had gone wrong with them? And more rarely, how many ended up being good enough at hiding their unfamiliarity with the world to scrape by, build a life here, and never reveal what they remembered of Earth to anyone? There are theories, in the athenaeum, about how one of those people might be spotted. Those who are familiar with the phenomenon have theories about what historical figures might have secretly been dream-skewered.”
“And something made Uther stand out,” I said. “Words he said, idioms he used, something like that? Or was it the songs, plays, novels, all with a peculiar variety of themes and ideas, as though he was plagiarizing from a whole culture?”
“Once you have the idea in your head, it’s hard to get out,” said Amaryllis. “Everything starts to look like evidence of it. Foreign ideas about how a people should be governed, the very occasional misstep that looks really odd if you don’t have the ready explanation that he went in blind, bits of language that don’t match his contemporaries … it was, in a way, obvious.”
“But it’s not accepted,” I said. I felt my fist clenching. She had known, and decided not to tell me. “Was it swept under the rug by the athenaeum, or his heirs, or what?”
“There were too many holes in the theory,” said Amaryllis. She took a sip from her drink. “I made myself a buttered coffee, did you want one?”
“No,” I replied. No, I don’t want a diversion.
“There were too many coincidences,” Amaryllis continued. If she saw my tenseness or heard the edge in my voice, she wasn’t reacting. “It would be one thing to say that a genius at magic, combat, politics, science, and the arts was dream-skewered, that might eventually happen given enough time. But he wasn’t just that, he was the secret heir to a kingdom, last of a line everyone thought was wiped out, and if he was dream-skewered, then it seemed awfully convenient that everyone who had known him in his old life and could give him away was wiped out by the Dark King. And of course, he would have had to go his entire life without letting on to anyone, even those close to him. He would have had to be a nearly perfect liar.”
“And then you met me,” I said. “And you realized at some point that the explanation for what happened to Uther was standing right in front of you. History was repeating itself. You must have figured it out when you saw my reaction to hearing his story, when I asked you what the Lost King’s name was. You knew then, and you didn’t fucking tell me.”
“You’re angry,” said Amaryllis, keeping her voice mild and light. I felt the urge to go over and slap that serene beauty right off her face.
“I had a right to know,” I spat. “He was my best friend in the world. He was everything to me.”
“I … I didn’t know that,” said Amaryllis, for the first time seeming somewhat fazed. “I thought there was a connection, but --”
“So you said nothing, because you wanted me to be easier to control,” I replied. “You wanted me to be without my own stake in the world, tied to you and your quest to regain power. Or, or you wanted something to dangle in front of my nose at the right time, a hint at the truth if I ever pulled too hard on my leash.”
“Is that what you think of me?” asked Amaryllis. Her mask was breaking now, alarm and surprise seeping out from behind it, but I couldn’t trust that either, because maybe it was just part of the ploy, part of her plan to get me back on track.
“I asked you about luck and you told me only half of what you know,” I said. “Why? The only reason I can figure is that you wanted to make the option less attractive to me.”
“Have you stopped taking anything I say at face value?” asked Amaryllis. Her voice was still mellow, but she was speaking faster and louder than before. “Revealing state secrets is a crime punishable by death in Anglecynn, and there are already solid grounds for a conviction on that count given that I told you about a strictly confidential research facility. There are enough things that I’m going to have to sweep under the rug already, and --”
“And you didn’t think that luck was worth it,” I cut in. “You wanted me to pick wisdom.”
Amaryllis calmly and steadily set her mug on the arm of the couch. “Joon, did you save my life less than twenty-four hours ago just so you could yell at me?”
“I’m not yelling,” I said. I made a conscious effort to lower the volume of my voice. “I need you to tell me everything that you’ve been holding back until now, state secrets or not, even if it’s embarrassing, even if it makes you look bad. Start with Uther Penndraig.”
Amaryllis looked me over. “I didn’t know that he was that important to you,” she said. “You never said a word about this friend, and you never mentioned the connection between the two of you. Communication happens between two people, not just from one person to the other. What would you like to know?”
“Did he ever mention me?” I asked. I wanted her to stop being so damned reasonable. I had puffed myself up, and I could now feel myself deflating. It was easy enough to be angry, I had more than enough experience with that, but not when she was sitting there and calmly answering my questions.
“He planted a number of juniper trees,” said Amaryllis. “So far as I know, he never uttered or wrote down your full name, and I haven’t been able to think of any cleverly coded references hidden in his deeds or works. If you find one, will you trust that I didn’t know about it?”
“No,” I said. “Why would I?”
“Joon, there are things that I didn’t tell you, but I have never, to my knowledge, lied to you,” said Amaryllis. She unfurled herself from where she sat on the couch, the first time she’d moved since I sat down. “You have a number next to my name that displays my loyalty, don’t you?”
“I do,” I sighed. That was the biggest point in her favor, the one that I had been ignoring in order to keep the flame of anger lit. “The problem is, I don’t know how loyalty is defined within the game, and it’s possible there are hidden loyalty numbers for other things. Maybe your loyalty to the throne of Anglecynn is at a twenty, and until your loyalty to me passes that, I’ll always come second.”
“Is that something that you would want?” she asked, gently placing her hands on her knees.
“No,” I said. “Maybe. It depends on the nature of the conflict. I wouldn’t want the game to overwrite your values, but I’d want you to … I don’t know, to not stab me in the back.” I paused. “I’m sorry I yelled earlier.”
Amaryllis shrugged. “I’m surprised that you’d be willing to offer an apology at all. You were right to be upset, I haven’t been forthcoming. There’s one more thing.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the teleportation key. “Do you know how a teleportation key actually works?”
“In what sense?” I asked. “The fact that I’m asking probably says that I don’t know.”
“Most people assume that you think about a place and then you go there. That was the assumption you made. I never corrected you. What it really does is show you a green line, that traces through every place you’ve ever been,” said Amaryllis.
“Okay,” I said slowly. “Oh. You didn’t want me to see the places that I had been, in case it would give me some clue as to the person I had been before the skewer. That’s underhanded, but I don’t really have any connection to, um, whoever that person was. It would be interesting, I guess, but,” I shrugged. I was missing something, I could see that, but whatever her perspective was, I wasn’t able to see it. “Did you think that it would show Earth?”
“I thought there was a chance. The Athenaeum of Mathematics and Metaphysics teaches something called conditional probability,” she began.
“We have that on Earth,” I said. “So, multiply the chance that the teleportation key actually shows my worldline as tracing back to Earth by the chance that I would choose to use the key to return to Earth … and then I suppose multiply that by the teleportation key’s value to you, which has to be stratospheric, and yes, I can see where you would think of that as an unacceptable risk.”
“‘Worldline’,” said Amaryllis. “You have that on Earth?”
“As a matter of theory, sure,” I said. I had used it in a game once, as a novel form of scrying where the people were represented as days-long fleshy snakes.
“Well, it wasn’t just the chance that you would leave,” said Amaryllis. “If you saw a line leading back to Earth, however the key would display that to you, then it would always be at the back of your mind. Even if you chose not to abandon me, then you would have made that choice, and in your mind I might owe you something for it.”
“So you’re saying that you thought a lot about it,” I said, shifting in my seat. “I mean, at least you’re not just casually lying to me, at least there’s some thought being put into when to lie.” She had the good sense not to point out that it wasn’t technically a lie. I frowned. “That doesn’t actually make me feel much better.” I looked at the teleportation key. “Did you think about the other possibility? Or, I guess, the more interesting of the two other possibilities? Either the worldline starts in mid-air, right when I came to on the plane, which isn’t very interesting at all, or it traces back whoever this body belonged to. I don’t necessarily want to know if I replaced some poor idiot who was going to be executed, but --”
“But Uther Penndraig was the secret heir to the throne of Anglecynn, and if your life is a mirror of his, then who might you be?” asked Amaryllis.
I hadn’t actually thought of that.
“You thought that was a possibility,” I said, “But you kept it from me.”
Amaryllis handed the teleportation key over, and I took it from her, turning it over carefully. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you understand how nervous I am to see that key in someone else’s hands? I don’t understand how you don’t feel raw terror at the sight of me holding the key. It would be so easy to just leave, to put everything behind and abandon it.”
I shrugged. “I’m more trusting, I guess. Or maybe more accepting of my fate. If you left us here in Weik Handum, that would be horrible, but I would figure something out.” Or maybe I’m not more trusting, just less afraid of being abandoned. Amateur psychology powers, activate!
“Are you going to see where it points you?” asked Amaryllis, studiously not keeping her eyes locked on the teleportation key. “Don’t push too hard or you’ll leave me. Us.”
“Sure,” I said, though I wasn’t at all hopeful that it would take me back to Earth, if I even wanted to go there. The life I’d left back there wasn’t all that great, though it did have the benefit that no one was trying to kill me. If I saw a worldline that led back to Earth, back to fifth-period English, what would I even be going back to? Tom and Reimer were the only people left in our D&D group, mostly because I’d fucked things up with pretty much everyone else. I’d been trying to mend things with Tiff, and it had almost seemed to be working, so I guess there was that.
And if I did get back to Earth, it would almost certainly be just a simulation of Earth, but then I had to start thinking about whether or not it was likely that I would keep my powers, and what my life would be like if I did, and all sorts of other considerations like whether magic would work there too, and in the end it made a lot more sense to just check whether any of this actually needed thinking about.
When I closed my eyes, the teleportation key presented me with a field of small yellow dots, and littered among them, a handful of green ones, with a single green line. I waited three seconds for the character sheet to pop up, but apparently the game was smart enough to not interrupt me (or possibly, this was the same interface that the locked-away fast travel system used, which was how I might have done it). I almost asked what the yellow dots were, but I figured it out on my own; I had seen a map of Aerb’s forty-four continents, with all the major cities marked, and it was clear that the yellow dots would overlay the cities almost exactly. Those, then, were the touchstones.
That meant the green line there -- and when I looked at it, the view zoomed in. With a thought I could rotate it, not just on the x and y axes, but on the z axis as well. I started looking at it from one end, what I thought had to be Sorian’s Castle given the vertical distance it traveled. The interface had no legends, and didn’t show any buildings or terrain. All there was to go on was the worldline, the path that I had traveled along in what I decided I was generously going to call my adventures. Down the elevator, wandering through the city, into the sewers, then across the Risen Lands on soulcycle, moving back in time along the worldline.
I could tell the places I had spent any amount of time, because there the line got knotted up, tracking me as I stopped to go to the bathroom, or scrounge around for food, or sat and talked with Amaryllis. The teleportation key had a frankly absurd interface from a usability standpoint, but once you knew about it, I was pretty certain that there were steps you could take to make sure you got where you were going. Find an obscure spot, then walk around in a spiral, and that would serve you well enough as a marker.
I finally found what had to be Comfort, and the looping line that traced my path through it, with more squiggles at the mechanics and the clothing shop where I’d met Poul. And then I moved backward again, until I got to the gas station and the sight of my first kill, and back more, until I was tracing the line up into the air, a nearly vertical drop. I backed up the view and followed the mostly-straight line until it touched down on the ground, and here there were unfamiliar squiggles that must have been when I was loaded onto the plane. I stopped and paused there, because I wasn’t loaded onto any plane, someone else was, which meant that all that thinking about a return to Earth was moot.
I kept following the worldline though. There was a pattern to it, with long, mostly straight lines, then lines overlapping each other but always on a grid. Institutional living? Had this body belonged to a criminal in prison? If so, the pre-Juniper had been moved around a few times, because the pattern was largely the same three times in a row.
And then I got to the other end of the green line, to a place I imagined was probably on the scale of a small town, where the lines were so thick it very nearly traced out a full-fledged map. A single place dominated all the others, a cluster of lines, no, the same line, traced over the course of a decade and a half. This was where he lived.
Quest Accepted: They Say You Can’t Go Home Again - He had a life, before you, and you had a life, before this.
I stared at the words, then opened my eyes. Amaryllis was looking at me.
“You were in there a long time,” she said. She shifted slightly. “May I have the key back?”
I handed it back to her. “No Earth,” I said. “I did find his home though, the person who got dream-skewered. I got a quest to go there, I think.”
“We can’t,” said Amaryllis. “You know that it’s too dangerous.”
“I know,” I said. “I don’t want to go there. I don’t know what the point would be. If his parents still live in his childhood home … it seems cruel to me.” I looked down at my hands, then at the freckles on my arm. I’d had those freckles for as long as I could remember. I had a memory of Tiff touching them one night while we were on her rooftop looking at stars, telling me that they were like Orion’s belt. This body had those same freckles.
“Are you okay?” asked Amaryllis.
“Yeah,” I said, “Just thinking.”
She nodded and gave me some time, which I mostly spent on thinking about the simulation and what it was trying to tell me, if anything. Was it admonishing me for being here? I hadn’t chosen to replace this random guy, none of this could be laid on my feet. And if we shared the same body, down to the placement of random hairs, then wasn’t that what he was destined for? Or were my memories only dreams, built to conform to the body I was placed into? I wanted to scream at the Dungeon Master and tell him to just stop fucking with me already.
“Are things going to be okay between us?” asked Amaryllis.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll get over it. Unless you’re hiding other things.”
“I was fairly high up in our government,” said Amaryllis. “I have a lot of secrets. There’s nothing that I think you need to know though, and no place where my silence would be damaging to our partnership, at least to my knowledge. I do, honestly, want to rebuild from here.” She paused. “And I’m loath to do it, but we will need to talk about the future and what our next steps are going to be. In the morning might be best, with the others around. We can bring it to a vote.”
“Sure,” I replied. “I’m going to try to get some sleep so my schedule isn’t thrown completely off. We’ll talk in the morning.”
I wandered back to my room, feeling a little bit out of sorts. I hadn’t handled that conversation well. I kept replaying it in my head and thinking of what else I should have said, how else I should have phrased my displeasure. Maybe it was the fact that it was Arthur at stake, that she had known he was in this world and kept him from me. There was a part of me that distrusted her for how she had handled me, as though a fight where we’d both been yelling would have been more honest. That was how my parents had always settled matters. I felt like I was the bad guy, and she was the one that had been trying to control and manipulate me from the start.
I was mildly surprised to see Fenn in my bed and remember that she was sleeping there. I took off the clothes I'd put on and climbed back in next to her, then spent a long time staring at the ceiling, thinking.