I stared at the six-eyed doe as Amaryllis approached it. It was massive, for a deer, though showed no signs of giving a crap about the square-cube law. I mean, I also didn’t give a crap about the square-cube law, but it was one of those things that you needed to think about when designing creatures, because someone like Craig or Reimer would start questioning how a fly as large as a house was able to generate lift, and “it’s magic” only worked as an explanation a limited number of times before people started thinking that you didn’t know what you were talking about.
I stayed back. I wasn’t actually clear on why Amaryllis was going toward the thing. There were definitely cultural assumptions and pieces of history that I was almost completely ignorant on, given that “magics that were previously considered dead” weren’t high up on my reading/research list (though when I phrased it like that, it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world was to go after specifically those kinds of magic, because that was plot-bait incarnate). I couldn’t tell whether Amaryllis’ obvious affection and wonder for the locus was being faked for some reason, or stemmed from the place of the druids in the cultural canon of Aerb. Had she been faking those emotions outside the bottle, then dropped them as soon as Solace was gone, or had she been actually feeling those emotions, then suppressed them when it was inconvenient to be having them? I had been traveling with Amaryllis for quite some time, and didn’t actually understand her very well.
I wouldn’t say that I hated deer, but a lot of my time with deer had been spent looking at them down the barrel of a rifle, and I considered venison to basically be the only reason that it was worth suffering their existence. Hunting aside, almost all my interactions with deer had been negative, either because they were eating things from the garden or they were narrowly avoiding an accident because they were too dumb to be sensible about roads.
(And was the Dungeon Master trying to say something, by having this creature be a deer, rather than something else? If half the stuff in Aerb was built to my specifications, from things I had dreamed up or reflections of my life, then why a fucking deer of all things? Was this just on the level of “hey you used to hunt deer”, a stupid surface-level reference, or was it actual commentary of some kind? There was a point to asking questions like this, which is that eventually I might be able to figure the Dungeon Master out, but I was pretty far from solving that puzzle.)
“Do they all look like that?” I asked Solace.
“Yes,” said Solace. “Because that is the only one there is.” She gave me a smile as I opened my mouth to try smoothing things over. “It’s okay,” she said. “And no, they didn’t all look like that, back when there were hundreds.”
I almost said that seemed like a lot, before remembering that Aerb was ten times as large as Earth, and having tens of them on Earth would have placed them on the far side of the critically endangered species list. Even at their peak, they had been really rare.
“I don’t know much about druids. Or loci,” I said.
“That’s okay,” Solace nodded. “Not many do, these days. Being absent for three hundred years will do that. Druids were never ones for knowledge anyhow.”
“Huh,” I said. “And, is there a reason for that?”
Solace shrugged. “Knowledge is detrimental to the art,” she said. “I gave you wings so that you wouldn’t die from the fall, but that might have been impossible for me if I’d had any concrete ideas about how wings actually work. It used to be a somewhat common occurrence for druids, to go off in pursuit of better understanding only to lose their intuitive connection.”
“So, like a piano player who can only play when they’re not thinking about what their fingers are actually doing,” I said.
“What’s a piano?” asked Solace with a raised eyebrow. Amaryllis had come back to join us, her time nuzzling the deer apparently complete. I assumed that she’d been listening in on our conversation.
“Uh, it’s a musical instrument that you play like this,” I said, holding my hands out as though I was about to type something, “You press black and white keys which raise hammers that hit against strings, which then make sound?” (SOC, dump stat, etc.)
“He means a clavichord,” said Amaryllis with a smile. She turned to me. “The tangents are actually blades, not hammers.”
“Right,” I said. “But druids must have some limits, right? I was just wondering what those limits were.”
“Would either of you wish to become a druid someday?” asked Solace. “It might be possible, once this task is complete and the locus can induct new members.”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “I think I would like that.” And there I knew she was lying, because the thought of Amaryllis making a commitment to a forest, or the spirit of a forest, or whatever, sent up a bunch of error messages. (To be clear, these were non-literal error messages. I was at a point in my life where I needed to start making that distinction.)
“Then I will choose to demur on that question, Juniper,” said Solace.
I tensed for a moment before some remote part of my brain told me that Amaryllis had already said my name in front of her. “I’m sorry, we never did make our introductions,” I said. “I’m Juniper, this is Mary.” There was a little twist of Amaryllis’ lips at the fact that I hadn’t used her real name, only enough that I knew she got it.
“And who are you, at a deeper level?” asked Solace, still with her kindly smile. “I, again, know almost nothing of you. Three races among the four of you, magic items to spare, and a warder of some skill? There are not terribly many conventional arrangements of people who would suit even that bare bones description. If the four of you really do have a teleportation key, then … well, I don’t know what that would make you.”
“Joon?” asked Amaryllis. I could read the implied question in her voice. Can we trust her?
“It’s complicated,” I said.
I turned to look at the locus. The Six-Eyed Doe, as the game termed it, that was my actual companion, not Solace. And if I were a game master who had a player with the ability to literally see the loyalty levels of everyone on the team, you had better believe I would give them someone their power didn’t work on. The question was whether that meant Solace was meant to betray us, or whether it was a red herring, or whether I was trying to read far too deep into what little of the Dungeon Master’s machinations I could actually, visibly see.
I had made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to treat people like that, that I wasn’t going to throw anyone under the bus because I doubted that they were real. I had read those kinds of stories, and they almost never worked out right for the protagonist, but it wasn’t just that, it was the idea that if I discounted things as ‘not real’ then I would have to discount my entire life, because I couldn’t trust any of that either, not even the vividly real ones.
So on her merits, could we trust Solace? No, absolutely not. If I had known that she wasn’t a companion, then I probably wouldn’t have gone into the bottle to begin with. She was a companion’s -- servant? secretary? hand? -- something like those, but that was introducing trust chains into the mix, and I didn’t particularly trust or understand the Six-Eyed Doe as yet either. Solace seemed nice enough, but I wasn’t about to live my life on Aerb on the basis of how nice people seemed when I first met them. That wasn’t to say that I was going to reject the quest, or even reject having her as a traveling companion, but trust had to be earned, if the game wasn’t going to just cough up that information.
“Complicated?” asked Solace. She gave me a small grin. “I’ve been the only druid left on Aerb for the last thirty years. I survived the extermination efforts of the Second Empire. I understand a thing or two about complicated. I won’t ask you to break any silence you feel you need to keep, and Mary, I will confirm that you’re right; I can hear anything that’s said within the domain of the locus.”
“Wait, are you saying that you’re at least three hundred years old?” I asked. “How is that possible? Did you know the Lost King?”
“This body is forty years old,” said Solace. “Young, by crantek standards. When I grow too old I perform the rite of Yaxukasu Axud, which allows me to be birthed again. I have lived for four hundred and eight years, across a number of bodies. The Lost King was before my time, sadly.”
I sighed. “Well, that at least explains how you can be here if the locus couldn’t induct anyone into the grove.” That also meant that she was a source of valuable knowledge, but perhaps not the kind of knowledge that was of immediate use, especially if they were anti-knowledge. “Is healing within the realm of what a druid can do?”
“Of course,” said Solace. “It was what we were most known for. Outside the bottle I am considerably weaker, but inside I can heal almost any injury and cure almost any disease, so long as it’s not too far progressed. Before the Second Empire, people used to bring their sick into the woods in hopes of finding a druid they could plead their case to.”
I frowned at that. “Okay, but wouldn’t it have made more sense to just set up a station where people could come and get a hearing?” I asked. “Why should they have to wander into the woods? I mean why would the druids want totally ignorant outsiders coming in and bumbling their way around?”
“You were right that you don’t understand druids,” said Solace. She gestured to the locus. “It’s order that rankles. Systemization and understanding are anathema to a locus. This world in a bottle has just enough that’s wild and free to sustain the locus, and even then it bucks at me when I go about my work of keeping this place functional.” She ran her hand through her hair. “Do you know your history?”
“I think I can safely say that I don’t,” I replied.
“What you’re suggesting?” asked Solace. “That was how the Second Empire started. They saw the loci and the druid’s groves as resources to be exploited, the domains as places to be penned in and contained. That is fundamentally not how a locus behaves. To study it is to weaken it. To enumerate a druid’s powers is to cause them to fail. That was always what the loci and their druids butted up against, the desire of the mortal species to know and the nature of the locus, which is not to be known.”
If a druid couldn’t use their powers if they understood them, then the first thing I thought about doing was going up a level and trying to figure out what ‘understanding’ meant in that context, and to test what various things would trigger this anti-understanding mechanism. Obviously going up a level was, to some extent, allowed, right? Otherwise Solace wouldn’t be able to tell us that actually understanding druidic magic would kill it, and she knew enough to know that she would lose power if she actually understood the mechanics in anything other than an intuitive sense. And yet, I was pretty sure that I was edging around something that would be forbidden, or at least that I would be told was forbidden.
“That’s always been my biggest gripe with D&D,” said Arthur. “The magic almost never feels magical, and that’s because it’s bound by rules. Joon solves a lot of that by just giving us weird stuff --”
“It’s the ‘Keep Magic Weird’ initiative,” I said.
“Is that a reference?” asked Tom.
“‘Keep Portland Weird’, right?” asked Tiff.
“Yeah,” I said. I gestured to Arthur to continue. We had seven people for the session, including Craig’s kid sister Maddie, which made it a bit of a madhouse, especially when Arthur was trying to talk seriously about something.
“The problem is that there are rules, and once you know those rules, you can’t be surprised by them,” said Arthur. “It’s a map that has all the lines drawn in, with nowhere left to explore. Wizards are supposed to be magical, but they just boil down to a list of a few hundred spells to choose from. You get the buzz of magic from those spells when you first read them, but after that, it falls flat.”
“You can’t fix that though,” said Reimer. “Not unless you want to go full freeform roleplay without any rules, and that always sucks.”
“That was basically what we did for Actual Cannibal Shia Labeouf, and it worked great,” said Tiff.
“Shia Labeouf?” asked Maddie. She was three years younger than us, not really a kid, but that was how I had always thought of her: Craig’s kid sister.
“No talking when it’s not your turn,” said Craig. She pouted at that. “Whose turn was it?”
“Oh,” I said, looking down at my turn tracker, which was a mess of dry erase marker. I had horrible handwriting. “Tom, you’re up.” (And, as usual, the conversation continued on while I tried to deal with combat and Tom’s questions. I listened in, splitting my attention, unable to contribute without bringing an already-slow session grinding to a halt.)
“You could totally do a purely DM-mediated magic system,” said Arthur. “The player says what they want to do, the DM places a difficulty on it, and then the player rolls some dice. I thought of that in two seconds, I’m sure there are better ways.”
“But the DM is just arbitrarily assigning difficulty?” asked Reimer. “And the player just has to take a guess at how hard it is to actually cast a spell or do whatever unstructured thing it is you want to do? I mean, you’re going to have to introduce rules at some point, even if they’re just meta-level rules like Wish or Miracle, and it’s the rules you dislike.”
“If you had a good DM, I think you could do it implicitly,” said Tiff. “You could do like a social contract type thing, develop an understanding, and then build from there. You’d basically be praying to your god, but the god would be the DM, and maybe he would have his own rules, but you’d never know them, and you’d be discouraged from knowing them.”
“Wanna homebrew it?” asked Reimer with a grin. “If you pitched it, I think Joon would go for it, and then I can cheese the shit out of it.”
“I heard that!” I called out to them. “Tiff, don’t you dare go over to the dark side, stay over in the light with Arthur.”
Nothing ever came of that homebrew plan, which I was thankful for, because I liked the rules. Arthur was right that magic seems a little bit less magical once you stuck everything to a cork board, but it wasn’t less magical for me, because everything I thought up I could make a reality, and that process of making these ethereal ideas into something concrete was one of the things I loved most about tabletop.
I was certain that I was never going to be a druid, and that I would never want to be a druid, and that even if I did want to be a druid, I would probably be powerless within the week because I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from investigating what limits the power had. But there was a bigger problem than that.
“Can I hurt the locus by thinking the wrong thoughts?” I asked. Like, say thinking about the fact that as size increases, volume increases faster than surface area, and the doe just looked like a normal doe without the structural changes necessary to have legs that supported it, and it had six eyes that would require an almost totally different skull from what an actual deer had, and six eyes didn’t really seem like they would help much given the configuration on the head, except maybe for added parallax, and oh god am I killing this deer just by thinking these things?
“No,” said Solace. “You’re trying to pin down what can and cannot be pinned down?”
“I’m just, maybe not suited to this place,” I said. “Or, this variety of magic. I’m a guy who pins things down, by my nature, and if you tell me that it’s mystical, which you seem to be doing, I start to think about all the properties of that mysticality.”
“You would make a bad druid,” said Solace with a laugh. “But no, the things you should be most worried about are telling me how or why something I have done, or am about to do, cannot possibly work, or openly questioning how it did work given some piece of knowledge available to you. As for the locus, it matters more what is done within its domain, and how you see it. It is a thing that values friendships without structure, rather than written or oral agreements. It would never, for example, induct either of you as druids in exchange for your service to it, your service must be given without any preconceptions of trade. If your service is so given, then the locus might take to you, or it might not.”
I looked to Amaryllis, wondering whether she knew that. She seemed like she would make a bad druid too, at least to my eyes, but maybe she was better at the whole gift economy, spiritual guidance, it’s-just-a-show-I-should-really-just-relax thing than I suspected.
“Okay,” I said, “But the upshot is that you’re offering us aid? With no strings attached?”
“Hrm,” said Solace. “I wouldn’t go that far. I will say that my intention is to help you, and it is my hope that it is your intention to help me. I will give you both the material aid and personal effort I believe you require in the pursuit of your goals.”
“But,” I said. “Should you believe that you’re not getting closer to --”
“We’ve accepted already, Juniper,” said Amaryllis. “Or rather, if I understand Solace right, we have already declared our intentions and she has declared hers. I don’t know that there’s more to say on the matter.”
“Mary is in charge of diplomacy,” I said to Solace with a small smile.
“And that’s something that the four of you do together?” asked Solace. “Diplomacy? If I’ll be traveling with you, will it be to places where diplomacy takes place? I have to say that you seem exceedingly well-armed for diplomats.”
“We’re on our way to the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny, to learn more about the dream-skewered,” said Amaryllis. “Any assistance in shortening our journey would be much appreciated.”
“And there’s another thing,” I said. “I’ve been having a medical issue with my ribs and my left hand that I’d like your help in fixing,” if you can.
(I was trying my best not to tell the druid what she could or could not do, and why it was probably impossible. This wasn’t a test, per se, though I was expecting that it would give me data either way, and that wasn’t my fault, was it? I was also hoping that there wasn’t a placebo requirement; would druidic magic work less well if I thought it wasn’t going to work? Was I allowed to ask whether there was a placebo effect?)
“Remove your shirt,” said Solace.
I did as she said, with only a little bit of hesitation. The spell that had given us wings had ripped two holes in the back anyway. I noticed a slight change in Amaryllis' expression as she looked at me, a shifting under the mask of good humor she was currently wearing. I was sure that I looked different from the last time she’d seen me. I was quite a bit more muscular now, having gone from 5 PHY to 7 PHY. I didn’t have any dysmorphia from it, none at all, which in itself was odd, because I would have thought there would be little moments throughout the day when I would look down and be shocked by the changes my body had gone through. The game layer, or the simulation, or whatever, had been kind enough to monkey with my perception of self (which, yes, was disconcerting, but I figured was better than feeling like I had been trapped in the wrong body).
Solace placed a hand on my bare chest. She had a pleasant smile, most of the time, despite being four hundred years old and having apparently suffered through the fantasy equivalent of the Nazis, along with the deaths of everyone close to her and a life of hiding. That smile began to fade as a look of confusion came over her green face.
“You’re perfectly healthy,” she said, not removing her hand from my chest. She frowned. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Oh,” I said, “Uh, that would have been … yesterday morning.” I hadn’t touched the pancakes, bacon, or buttered coffee in the morning. I had woken up from bed to eat something and then gotten sidetracked with Amaryllis. And before that, I’d been high out of my mind on unicorn blood, then passed out, which meant that it wasn’t a great day for remembering to eat.
“Well, that explains the malnourishment. But I don’t fully understand this,” said Solace. She moved her hand, touching me, first pressing her fingers firmly against my side, then going for my arm. She grabbed my left arm, in her hand and peered down at it. “Your body thinks that it’s healthy, but it’s wrong. This is --” She stopped and pulled her hand away, then looked at Amaryllis. “What happened to him, exactly? Does he know?”
Amaryllis looked bewildered at that, and I hoped it was authentic. “I don’t know what you’re thinking,” I said, “But I’m a bone mage. I used the magic of those fifty-one bones in a time of need and whatever it is you’re seeing, that’s the result.”
“Oh,” said Solace. She calmed down somewhat. “I knew that it was your soul, I just thought … I hadn’t considered that you had done it to yourself. I assumed that she was a bone mage, and they can touch the soul ...” She stopped and looked at me. “The things the Second Empire did with the soul are one of the reasons that they aren’t looked upon fondly anymore, if you’re really so ignorant of history as you claim.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but what’s wrong with you isn’t something that I can fix.”
“Okay,” I said, “I need to put a history book on my shopping list or something.” I paused. “I should warn you that fixing this problem of mine is on our list of things to do, and it’s very possible that meddling with the soul is going to be how that gets done.”
Solace blanched, her light green skin going a shade of lighter, making her look sickly. “I was afraid of that,” she murmured. “But yes, that does make sense.”
“It makes sense in terms of the Deep Searching and why you were brought here,” said Amaryllis. “You think salvation might take dealing with the soul of the locus.”
“Does a locus have a soul?” I asked. “Or, sorry, is that one of those things that I’m not supposed to ask?”
“They do have souls,” said Solace. Her face was set in a frown. “The Second Empire was fastidious in its attempts to understand the world. Never let a death go to waste, they said.” She glanced over to the six-eyed doe, which was still standing close by. “I’d prefer that we speak of this elsewhere.”
I looked up at the top of the bottle. “Is there a better way out, or are we going to grow wings again?”
“I’ll admit that was mostly for effect,” said Solace. “I didn’t have the measure of you as well as I do now. I wanted to show you this place, and its majesty, which is just a scrap of what the locus once had, and will have again.”
(I found it odd and somewhat off-putting that everyone just called “it” “the locus”. Were names too much of a constraint? The game called it Six-Eyed Doe, and that was what I was going to go with, at least within the privacy of my own head. It also seemed dumb to call a doe an “it” instead of a “she”, considering that it was already gendered, but whatever.)
Solace stepped over to the tree-house, which I took an opportunity to glance inside as I followed. It was more ordered than I had expected, given what Solace had said about the nature of druids, but the order was organic, with little out-of-the-way cubbies, stacks of fruits and furs, and nary a straight line in sight. Solace went up next to the door and took her staff in hand, then tapped twice on the wood. It split along the grain, revealing a long tunnel through the wood that extended, fourth-dimensionally, straight through the entire width of the tree.
“Down the rabbit hole then,” I said with a breath.
When Solace started walking down the dark tunnel, I followed after, with Amaryllis right behind me. As soon as she was past the entrance, it sealed shut behind me, leaving me with a claustrophobic feeling and a sudden spike of panic. I was about to light my fingers on fire when I saw a swarm of yellow-green dots appear in front of me, which at first reminded me of the fireflies I’d tried to catch with Arthur when I was little, before I realized that they actually were fireflies. As more of them appeared, I could see by their light that they were coming out from Solace’s long, leafy cloak. They kept on coming, flying up and around us, some of them landing on the roof of the tunnel, until there was enough light to see by.
(I was fairly sure that this was also meant to impress us with a blatant display of magic, just like the winged glide down into the bottle, and I have to say that it was working on me.)
We went what felt like a hundred yards before a shaft of light opened in front of us, which eventually resolved itself into an ordered row of flowers once my eyes adjusted to the light. Solace stepped out into it as the fireflies swarmed to her and made their way back under the leaves of her cloak. When I stepped out of the tree after her, I looked back to see the long tunnel seem to emerge from a tree that couldn’t possibly contain it. When I looked at the field, I saw Fenn and Grak standing there over the bottle. Fenn had spotted us, and was giving us a wave.
“Can you go ahead to the others?” asked Amaryllis. As soon as she stepped out of the tree, it folded itself back up, looking no different from all the others. “We’ll be along in a moment, but there are a few things I’d like to discuss in confidence.”
“Certainly,” said Solace. The crantek gave us a short bow and strode back to her bottle without a look back.
“So,” said Amaryllis. “It’s complicated?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “The locus is the companion, not Solace herself. Grak’s glasses show her as purple, which I have to take as a good sign, but I would be more confident that we could trust her if she weren’t a minion.”
“She has power,” said Amaryllis. “Her needs are straightforward, and she’s not making many demands. Actually, her goals for the moment are directly aligned with our own; she wants you to be stronger. If it’s alright with you, I’ll probably reveal my true identity to her when we make camp for the night.”
I startled at that, because the idea that Amaryllis was asking me was a little bit odd. “Sure,” I said. I hesitated. “How much of that was true?” I asked. “About you wanting to be a druid? Any of it?”
“The things I want and the things I can have are very different,” said Amaryllis. She reached back to feel the holes in her shirt. “I would like to have a new shirt that doesn’t make me look like an ass, but I doubt that Fenn will be able to resist the urge to show off to our new travelling companion.” She sighed. “I would like to be a druid, to wander the woods in solitude, to have that simple, uncomplicated --” she looked at Solace, “That’s not right, looking at her, I didn’t meant to diminish her sacrifice and struggles. Druids in the fairy tales are different. Maybe that was a safe dream because it was unattainable.” She looked to me, staring at me with those pretty blue eyes, perfect lips slightly parted. “Are you worried that I’ll let thoughts like that get in my way?”
“No,” I said. “The opposite.”
“Oh,” said Amaryllis. She turned back toward the others. “Come on, I don’t want them to think that we were conspiring.”
“We were conspiring against you!” Fenn said to us as soon as we rejoined the others. “Grak started it. Do you know what he said as soon as you left? He said, ‘Now we finally have a chance to speak freely’! His first joke!”
“I understand jokes,” said Grak. “It was not my first one.” He looked at Fenn with a frown. “I regretted it immediately.”
“Solace was just telling us what a wonderful time you all had in the bottle,” said Fenn. “We’re all still friends, right? Everything is copacetic?”
“Right,” I said. “We are, uh, not at full disclosure though, regarding the two major things we’re keeping under our hats.” I paused and realized that I could potentially have been talking about a few different things. “One regarding me, one regarding Mary.”
“Trust takes time, I understand that,” said Solace. “Mary, you were asking if I could assist in travel? How would the four of you feel about being birds? We could be at the athenaeum before nightfall.” Solace scooped the forest-in-a-bottle up and put it in her cloak, a process that seems to be governed by a flourish of sleight-of-hand more than magic.
“That sounds lovely,” said Amaryllis. She turned to Fenn. “Fenn, my shirt was ripped, and I would like a new one, please.”
Fenn broke out into a grin, which she tried and failed to suppress so she could make a serious face. “Hrm,” she said, wiggling her gloved fingers, “No, no, no -- hah, that’s the one, perfect for our circumstances.” A folded pink shirt appeared in her hand, which she tossed to Amaryllis.
I watched closely as Amaryllis unfolded the t-shirt to get a look at it. It was a single word with an exclamation point, in bubbly, curled writing, with sequins and glitter on it. ‘Princess!’, the shirt declared.
Amaryllis stared at it with a blank face for a few seconds before bursting out laughing.