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I woke up gasping for air and looking around wildly. My brain must have been working off some really old subsystems, because my first thought was, this isn’t my room, before I remembered that I didn’t have a room anymore. I was on Aerb, not Earth, and on Aerb I was an itinerant wanderer without a home to call my own.

I looked down at my shoulder, fearing the worst, but saw that it was intact, connecting my arm to my torso like it had been doing for more than seventeen years, until very recently. There was a deep red seam there, but it was only on the level of the skin, not in the flesh itself, and my mobility as I gingerly moved it was only slightly limited.

I wasn’t in the hotel; I was in the house built into a tree, inside the bottle, which was presumably inside Solace’s cloak. It was dark, but the remains of a small fire smoldered away in a little blackened recess of the tree. I got up out of the pile of furs that had been serving as my bed and went over to it to warm my hands. There was a chill in the air; I had to guess that the bottle didn’t get sunlight while in the cloak, which meant that there was no outside heat or warmth getting in, ignoring for a moment that the sunlight hitting the bottle would never have possibly been able to heat a square mile of forest and grassland. I called on the heat of my blood to give me a hand of flame, which lit my surroundings a little better.

I tried to take stock of my situation, and my mind kept going back to one thing.

One of them dead, probably the meatshield, and still no level.

It was hard to set that aside. The next level had to be close, you could slow progression as the player gained levels but you couldn’t stop it altogether, that flew in the face of too many principles of game design. It had been so close I could taste it, one kill should have been enough. That thought of addiction was still lingering, but I didn’t know what that actually felt like from the inside. Formally, addiction wasn’t just the need for something, it was the compulsion and interference with your life. Leveling up was pleasurable, last time almost achingly so, but I wasn’t sure whether my actions were being influenced by the desire to feel that again, especially since leveling up was the single most important thing I could do for other reasons as well. But maybe self-deception was part of addiction, this idea that you could stop anytime you wanted, or the production of motivated reasoning to excuse what you had done.

My messenger bag was with me, though the strap had been cut through. Ropey lay inside it, and he uncoiled at my touch, then slithered his way to the fireplace. I watched closely as he started making the shapes of letters.

S-O-R-R-Y

“It’s okay,” I replied. “You were doing your best.” He’d been turned into a weapon against me, just momentarily, when Larkspur nearly yanked my arm off. “You saved my life.” I reached out and patted him on the head, and he snaked his way back into the bag. Yup, that was me, providing comfort to a piece of rope.

I was almost entirely naked, aside from my boxers, but I had clothes sitting in a pile on the ground. Just looking at them was enough to tell me that I wasn’t going to put them back on; they were crusted with blood from the fight, which I guess is what happens when you nearly sever an arm. The clothes didn’t really bother me, since it was all stuff that Fenn had picked out, and didn’t really fit well to begin with. When we had some downtime, whenever that would be, I would go shopping on my own and find some things that I actually wanted to wear, then buy them in bulk.

I yelped in surprise when the Six-Eyed Doe stuck its head through a window and stared at me, but I recovered quickly and tried my best to look dignified. It was luminescent, making its own pale blue-white light that contrasted with the orange of the embers and the yellow of my flaming hand.

“Thanks for your help,” I said to the doe.

It nodded fractionally.

Well, at least it could understand me somewhat, that was something. I rotated my shoulder, trying to get a little bit more mobility back. The doe kept staring at me. I reached into my bag, frowning at the blood on the strap, and pulled out the bandoliers inside it, first grabbing a fairy and eating it, and then pulling out my selection of bones.

“Is Solace here?” I asked the doe.

It didn’t move or reply, which I gathered meant that it either didn’t understand the question, or the answer was no. As I munched on the fairy until it was a wet wad of marzipan, I tried to think about what must have happened. My memories of the final moments ranged from hazy to entirely absent. Solace must have grabbed me and pulled me into her bottle with her in order to gain access to better healing power. She’d clearly been the one to save my arm, and she must also have been the one to put me out. After I swallowed the fairy, my shoulder began to feel better almost immediately, and I briefly wondered why Solace hadn’t fed me one to work in conjunction with her healing magic, before realizing that we’d never told her what they did.

So now I was stuck in the bottle until someone came to rescue me, with just a sentient length of rope and a probably-sentient magical doe for company. Ropey was fine, but the Six-Eyed Doe weirded me out, not least because it kept its head stuck through the window, staring at me.

I touched one of the unicorn bones, then glanced at the Six-Eyed Doe. “We killed a unicorn,” I said. “I hope that doesn’t -- I mean, they’re evil creatures in this world, so I wouldn’t think it would, but I hope that it doesn’t bother you,” I said. “And I hope that it’s okay to be using some other kind of magic in here, but I think it’s probably fine, right?”

The only response I got was a small dip of its head.

I breathed out a sigh and looked down at the unicorn bone, an aitch bone. I gripped it lightly in my hand, allowed my flame to wink out, and closed my eyes. I was looking for a way to draw out the unicorn magic, because even a single use of its power would be enough to win a fight, if used at the right time. If I could use that power to rapidly gain skill increases, all the better.

PHY, POW, SPD, and END were all there, ready and waiting for me, but there were other things within the bones, which to my mind felt like magical strata, layered there and waiting. The existing attributes all had a specific feel to them, one that I didn’t even consciously think about when I pulled on them. All I had to do was identify that feeling in the bone, or something that approximated it, and I would be able to isolate the specific piece of bone magic I wanted to pull. I could feel others in there now, where I couldn’t before.

Spell discovered: Mental Tapping!

I learned the technique without actually using it, which was a relief, because the unicorn bones were precious. I could feel it there though, the mind of the unicorn, or at least the hint of its mind, or maybe just the echo of its soul. I prodded at the magic, making sure not to pull at it. Like PHY, it was divided up into three parts, though those three didn’t encompass everything -- was that a hint at the nature of the attributes, that the superstats were somehow more than just their components? Yet I didn’t know exactly what that part, left behind, would entail, not for PHY and not for MEN. Still, teasing apart the lump of magic was something I could do without actually pulling on it, and I already knew their natures.

Spell discovered: Cunning Tapping!

Spell discovered: Knowledge Tapping!

Spell discovered: Wisdom Tapping!

I was a bit pleased with myself at that, but I was no closer to touching the unicorn magic. There were other things in the bone, things that I thought I might be able to pull on later, but after a half hour of trying, I gave that up for lost. I was skill capped on Bone Magic, and my guess was that a 21 meant something equivalent to a graduate degree; I was more skilled with bones than someone like Bormann, who’d trained for five years at the athenaeum, but I wasn’t at the upper echelons just yet. And more to the point, I wasn’t going to get any better unless I raised my level, which I didn’t have any way to do.

No one had come for me. In the worst case scenario … well, maybe the bottle was in Solace’s cloak, and she was dead, which meant that the only way I could get out would maybe be to scale the walls. That would be difficult, seeing as it was a mile and a half climb up a glass surface without any equipment, and depending on how the extradimensional space worked, that might just leave me floating next to the bottle, still unable to leave. The other option would be to become a druid, but Solace had said that would be impossible, and anyway, I would probably never be able to leave because I would keep questioning the nature of any magic that might let me escape, thereby rendering it unusable.

Panic didn’t really do much good though, so I turned my attention toward self-improvement instead (and I’ll be honest, if I had a computer with internet access, I probably would have wasted my time on reddit, because that was what I had done with countless chances at self-improvement on Earth). The problem was, I had almost nothing in the way of resources, and I was capped on most of the skills I cared about. Engineering was the only one I really wanted to level, and I was in circumstances almost uniquely unsuited for that.

That left only one avenue of real progress, and it still had its stupid head sticking through the window, staring at me with six eyes. Six-Eyed Doe, Loyalty 0, that was a metric that I was in the right circumstances to improve.

I walked out from the tree without putting my tattered clothes back on, out into the grass, feeling it on my bare feet. It was cool, but not enough for me to quite feel a chill, because there was no breeze moving the grass around me. The Six-Eyed Doe came over to me, stopping six feet away with its head lowered to my level, staring at me.

“Hi,” I said.

That got no response.

“I don’t actually know how you’re supposed to interact with a locus,” I said. “Maybe you’re not supposed to know, and knowing would destroy that interaction. Maybe it’s like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, where you can either know the exact speed or the exact position of an object, but not both. So I could understand, concretely, how to talk with you, and be unable to actually do it, or I could be able to talk with you but be unable to understand how I was doing it.” I hesitated. “I’m from another world, one called Earth, that’s where Heisenberg is from, but my guess is that on Aerb he’s a gnome, or the name of an institution or village somewhere.”

The Six-Eyed Doe kept looking at me.

“Look, I’m not going to pour my heart out to you, because I keep worrying that you actually can talk, or you’re more intelligent than you look, no offense, and my read on what I’ve seen of Aerb so far is that I’d get done telling you a long story about something embarrassing, and you would respond by speaking directly to me, just as the world’s way of throwing me off-guard, so I’m not going to do that,” I said.

There was still no response, save for the doe blinking, which it did in sequence, one eye at a time.

“Okay,” I said. “I guess you should know that the two of us are linked together in a way that I don’t fully understand yet. I think that, at least, is something that shouldn’t be hidden away, because it concerns you, and you didn’t have any say in the matter. I don’t want to say that’s my policy for companions, because I don’t think you’re the kind of … thing? The kind of entity that would like being subject to a policy, but maybe I can just say that I chose to tell Amaryllis, Fenn, and Grak, and I think I’ll keep coming up with the same answer for companions in the future. Besides, it’s logistically easier if everyone is in the know.”

The doe bowed its head slightly, and seemed to be looking at my navel for a moment before returning its attention to my face. I couldn’t help but think about Clever Hans, though that was uncharitable.

“Did you know Arthur?” I asked. “He went by Uther Penndraig.” I continued on, not waiting for a response because I knew it wasn’t coming. “You’re the first person, or entity, whatever, that I’ve met who might have actually met him, or at least seen him once, because you’re old enough for it. I like to imagine that he came into your forest at some point and understood you on a level that I clearly don’t. He was always more about that sense of majesty and wonder.”

I paused. I’d kind of given up on actually budging the Six-Eyed Doe’s loyalty. Fenn had gained loyalty just from the things that I had said to her, but that hadn’t actually been intentional on my part, and at least insofar as the ‘I don’t really care one way or another whether you’re a half-elf’ stuff went, part of what must have made that effective was that she knew I was speaking without inhibitions and that I had come at it from an awkward angle that made her actually believe it. I had no idea what would gain the loyalty of the Six-Eyed Doe aside from telling it that I was going to restore it to a proper domain, which I had already done.

So I sat in the grassy field, with the luminescent doe the only source of light, and thought about where the two of us might intersect, what it might eventually come to see in me, if we could ever become something like friends.

“I think that sense of wonder people feel is just a more mild form of surprise,” I said. “How the brain works --” I hesitated, because that wasn’t a thing the doe would probably like to hear, but then barrelled on ahead, because I didn’t know another way to say it, “The reason children have this sense of wonder isn’t that they’re innocent, it’s that their brain hasn’t come to terms with everything there is in the world. They see, I don’t know, a tree, and their brain is processing the fact that this tree has branches that go off in different directions and subdivide into smaller branches that sprout leaves, and those leaves have similar but distinct shapes, so the kid’s brain is trying to build up this model of what a tree is, and that’s why he’s looking at it with wonder, and why he can think that a tree is majestic. But adults, or even teenagers, already understand trees, so when their eyes see a tree, their brain says, ‘oh yeah, that’s a tree’, and it never even really enters their minds. Maybe that is what we mean by innocence sometimes, maybe it’s not always about corruption or being jaded, but just about a lack of knowledge and how brains deal with that.”

I reached down and touched a single blade of grass, bending it back slightly. The doe was still staring at me, as it had been the whole time, but I was starting to get used to it. I smiled a little bit as I thought about losing my sense of wonder at the fact there was a giant glowing white doe with six eyes staring at me.

“I used to make an effort to induce that sense of wonder in myself,” I said. “I would look at a blade of grass, like this one, and just try to turn off that part of my brain that was categorizing it as a blade of grass, and then turn off all the sub-categorizations, to dump that hard-earned childhood knowledge overboard for a bit and see it as I had first seen it, when I hadn’t known what it was. Sometimes it worked and I could have this moment of relearning, of seeing without knowing.” I tried it then, with the blade of grass I was touching. It was meditation, in a sense, but in another sense it was the real mental effort of clearing every single cache away and digging deep for a mental mapping process that didn’t get used all that often anymore. Psychedelics probably would have helped.

Eventually I did get it, just for a moment, this sense of awe and realization as my brain was tricked into discovering grass all over again.

Loyalty Increased: Six-Eyed Doe lvl 3!

The doe moved forward and gave me a slow, lazy lick on the face.

“Thanks,” I said, as I tried to wipe the deer spit away. I tried my best to not think my thoughts and just feel a sense of majesty. When that didn’t work I tried to think in parentheticals as though that wasn’t what I was actually thinking about (only a sidenote, honest), but I had no idea how successful I was.

(Could the locus read minds? Was that the implication of the sudden loyalty jump? Or could it read them only in a coarse way, so as to sense that moment of wonder? Was it the moment of awe and majesty at something within the doe’s domain what I was being rewarded for, or was it the effort I had put into having that perspective, regardless of where it happened? Had the Six-Eyed Doe’s loyalty been at 0 before that, or had it risen while I was unconscious? And if I had gone to the effort of getting a proper baseline before I’d gone out to speak with the doe, would that undercut the work that I had done here, because the doe would sense that I was trying to game the system?)

So I sat in the grass for a bit more, trying unsuccessfully to recapture some of that ... I hesitate to call it magic, but calling it a circumvention of my brain’s predictive modeling functions seemed far too sterile, especially given my (debatably) psychic companion.

It wasn’t too long before there was light, and after so long with only the doe-glow, it was almost blinding. It was hard to see what was going on outside the bottle, due to the curvature, the imperfections of the glass, and a fuzziness I assumed had something to do with how light behaved at the border. There were people though, and I could see their general features; a tall, slender one with blonde hair that was likely Fenn, an unidentified shorter person, a very short woman with green skin that had to be Solace, and the familiar squat, hairy form of Grak.

One of the people-shapes, the one with green skin, vanished, and an enormous hawk came soaring down out of the sky not long after. It pulled up sharply as it neared the ground, and with a burst of feathers transformed into Solace, who strode out from the feathers as though this was completely normal.

“You’re awake!” she said with a wide smile as she approached me.

“Yeah,” I said. “How long was I out?”

“I have no idea, how long have you been up?” she asked. “I put you in the bottle some twelve hours ago.”

“I slept ten of it,” I said. “I don’t think I actually needed that much sleep though, once my shoulder was halfway healed -- we have these marzipan fairies we pull from a magic jar that heal wounds, up to and including broken bones. Your healing, combined with those, would have had me on my feet much faster.”

“I know that now,” said Solace with a nod. “At the time, I thought that I was doing you a favor by acting quickly and decisively, and once I learned otherwise, I had put you into too deep a slumber to safely rouse you from. It didn’t matter much. The fight was already over when I put you in the bottle and we’ve been in hiding ever since.”

“What was the outcome of the fight?” I asked.

“The soul-linked warrior was killed,” said Solace. “Larkspur escaped, despite Fenn’s best efforts to shoot him in the back as he fled. There was a woman with him, but she escaped as well, though in another direction. On our side, yours was the worst injury.”

“Fenn and Amaryllis are okay?” I asked.

“Fenn took a total of five arrows to the torso and two to the legs,” said Solace. “The soul-linked warrior was wearing some manner of armor that returned the damage dealt to him back to her, which was a price she was willing to pay so long as she had fairies to eat. Amaryllis was shot three times in the stomach and twice in the arm, but I managed to keep her on her feet, and after we used the teleportation key to leave, she healed the rest with fairies. I believe those are now in short supply, given how freely they’ve been consumed.”

I was wincing through most of that report, but being low on magical fairies was the really serious problem, given how much we’d been relying on them. I wished that I hadn’t eaten one while we were in the tree and used a bone instead.

“Grak?” I asked.

“He’s only recently returned to the fold,” said Solace with a small gesture towards where I assumed Grak was, in the outside world. “He came back to the hotel and got our message there.”

“Okay,” I nodded. I looked to the walls of the glass bottle and the world outside it. “And where are we?”

“Per Amaryllis’ instructions, we’re picking a new location at random every hour,” said Solace. “She believes that she knows which particular method Larkspur was using to track us, given what you and Fenn learned.” She grinned. “She’s quite irate.”

“And we have a tree to exit to?” I asked. “I’m eager to see the others.” I looked down at my nearly naked body. “Fenn has all my clothes.”

“We’ll take another way out,” said Solace. She stepped forward with her staff raised and stopped for a moment. “Do you have anything against mice?”

“Uh,” I said, thinking about the dozens our cat had brought to the back porch over the course of the years, and how it had become my responsibility to dispose of the corpses because he was ‘my cat’. “No? Let me get my things first.”

When I came out from the tree, slightly bloody bandoliers and bag around me and sneakers on my feet (a horrible look), she bopped me on the nose and with no transition whatsoever I was clinging to the head of her staff with all four of my paws. Even trying to play back the memories I couldn’t sense where the seam was, between being a human and being a mouse. There wasn’t even a discontinuity (and yes, I did feel a sense of awe at that, but in the biblical sense, the kind of awe that gets used as the root in the word ‘awful’).

With my small mouse eyes, I watched as Solace grew a pair of mighty, leathery wings from her back, gently pushing her leaf-cloak to the side, and with no apparent regard for the mouse on the end of her staff, she launched herself into the air. I tumbled off, naturally, but was caught in her fist, and suffered through the stomach-lurching sensation of rapid, rising flight, trying not to give in to my natural urge to claw and bite at her.

It wasn’t long before we were out, and I was tossed into the air, feeling myself twisting and falling before somehow, miraculously, finding myself in human form, standing on my feet with my companions around me.

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Alexander Wales

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