Skill increased: Parry lvl 20! (Skill can no longer be increased by amateur training.)
New Virtue: Prescient Blade!
Prescient Blade: You take half the normal penalty to parry bullets, arrows, or other missile weapons. These attacks still do damage to your blade as normal.
I was happy to get that one in the course of my training, since I’d had Parry hovering close to the soft cap for quite a while, but while it was a good one, I did find it a bit puzzling, because I had gotten the ‘Nascent Blade-bound’ virtue when Parry had hit tenth level. My confusion was cleared up a few hours later.
Skill increased: Two-Handed Weapons lvl 20! (Skill can no longer be increased by amateur training.)
New Virtue: Lunge Striker!
New Virtue: Neophyte Blade-bound!
I stopped our sparring practice and stared at the messages. I had been dueling both Fenn and Amaryllis, though we were all using blunted blades; Fenn wasn’t terribly good with a sword, and Amaryllis was noticeably worse than I was, but together it was a losing battle for me, which seemed to suit them just fine. I closed my eyes and went to the screen to read what the virtues did.
Lunge Striker: Eliminates the maneuverability penalty for all reach weapons. Eliminates the penalty for striking at close range with reach weapons. Allows you to more quickly cover ground when moving in short bursts and in a fighting stance.
Neophyte Blade-bound: You have unlocked the ability to bond with a melee weapon, given a few minutes of meditation. You may only bond with one weapon at a time. When wielding a bonded weapon, double your effective skill with it, double your chance to parry, and you may cut with it as though it were twice as sharp.
The second level of the blade-bound virtue seemed really, really good to me. I had gotten the original Nascent Blade-bound virtue from increasing Parry; I frowned for a bit trying to figure that out. The best I could come up with was that it took some combination of skills raising above a certain amount to get the blade-bound virtues. If I was remembering correctly (and at 8 KNO I had better be), then Parry had been one of the last melee skills I had trained when I was getting everything across the lvl 10 line. Now it was Two-Handed Weapons that I was training up last, so logically if multiple benchmarks was the condition for a ‘free’ virtue then I wouldn’t have hit it until now. I filed this bit of trivia away in my notes.
(This also opened up the possibility that there were other virtues to be had from synergistic skill ups. I didn’t know how many skills were part of the blade-bound package, but two was the minimum, and it seemed likely that it was more on the order of three or four, based on what I knew blade-bound could do.
The problem was, blade-bound were a known quantity in this world, and I hadn’t heard of something similar for someone who excelled at the arts in combination with each other, or the synthesis of different types of magic.
My best guess was that the bone magic, skin magic, and blood magic might all synthesize into something, but they hadn’t yet, which meant that there was either a fourth or fifth out there, or no synergy incoming. The logical one to round out that group was pustule magic, a path I was understandably reluctant to go down.)
We did spar for a bit more after I had bonded with the Anyblade, and the jump in skill was apparent to all of us; I could pretty comfortably hold both of them off at once, unless they got tricky. Granted, neither of them were proper swordsmen, but if lvl 20 represented something like a graduate degree, then an equivalent of lvl 40 in Two-Handed Weapons was well into whatever the postdoc equivalent of hitting people with a sword was.
I think that of all the skills I was trying to blast through during “vacation”, Gem Magic was perhaps the worst, mostly because it left me with the feeling of being mentally drained, like I wanted to zone out and just watch some television, except that television hadn’t been invented on Aerb yet, and anyway, the signal inside of a bottle at the foothills of the World Spine would be, I was guessing, terrible. So instead, after I was done draining my mental reserves by knocking cans off a stump at fifty paces, I would go seek out my party members and do my best to listen to them, mostly to let their words wash over me, often with Fenn cuddled up beside me.
Solace liked talking the most out of any of us. I thought that was probably because she’d lived so much of her life with other people around her in a tight-knit community, and once that community was gone, she’d been left all alone. She was also four hundred years old, and had all sorts of stories about the way the world had been. I don’t know if it was just her outlook, or deliberate effort on her part, but she rarely mentioned the bad stuff that was lurking in her past. She revealed in an off-hand comment that she’d had children, but she didn’t say what had happened to them, and I didn’t have the heart to ask.
We tended the garden together during the day, but it really didn’t need all that much, and I had no real hope of getting Horticulture to the lvl 20 mark, where a virtue was presumably waiting for me. While the seed I planted did sprout by our last day of rest, it was going to take weeks at the earliest before I had my first bit of flower magic -- hopefully.
She spent most of her time outside, and much of it with the Six-Eyed Doe, though she could often be seen fully nude, splayed out on the grass to soak in the sunlight for photosynthesis.
At our D&D games she played Case, a defector from the evil scurrilies, whose overarching goal was to lift the curse that the God of Scurrily put on her race.
I took more language lessons from Grak, mostly because I couldn’t think of a better way to get one-on-one time with him without being horribly awkward about it. I think I bothered him by going off-topic too many times, but the great thing about language was that it was inherently cultural, and that gave me plenty of opportunity to ask him about what it had been like at Darili Irid.
This did lead to a thirty-minute lecture from him on dwarven self-insemination, which I was about 60% sure he went into in order to get me to stop asking questions. Unfortunately for him, I found the whole thing to be fairly fascinating, if gross. I eventually had a fairly mediocre command of Groglir, enough that I could stumble halfway through a conversation before falling flat on my face. My first guess had been that I would need to learn a hundred words before I got a pop-up, and when I crested firmly into a vocabulary of one hundred and fifty words, my next guess was that I would either get it at five hundred, a thousand, or just not at all. A real-world guy named Charles Ogden had created something called ‘Basic English’, which had a basic list of eight hundred and fifty words that he thought would be enough to speak ‘in a normal way’, and if I were making some arbitrary cut-off for language learning, that would have been it -- but learning eight hundred and fifty words of Groglir, along with all the variations on them, was still going to be a time sink, and I would arguably not get too much out of a potential language skill if I had to do that for every language that I came across.
I gained a single point of loyalty from him, bringing him up to 7, when I apologized if my relationship with Fenn made things awkward, but that was about as much as I got for my efforts. I’d had this idea of ‘grinding loyalty’ with him, but it didn’t really pan out like that, no matter how much we talked. He had, apparently, made up his mind about me and trying to budge him wasn’t easy, especially since he knew that I wanted him to be more loyal. I’d tried telling him the same thing I’d told Amaryllis, that he would become more powerful, but that didn’t sway him like it had swayed her.
Grak played Bachewin for our tabletop sessions, a stout young woman trying to reclaim the honor her family had lost. He wasn’t very good at roleplaying, though he did learn my (entirely homebrew) rules system quickly, and after our second session he had some very specific ideas about who Bachewin was, which he shared with me at length. (He shot down all my attempts at contribution, and his loyalty still didn’t change.)
I spent the most time with Fenn, naturally. It was almost like the ‘cursed lover’ thing wasn’t looming over us, though she left the room whenever Amaryllis wanted to talk about it with me, and sometimes I felt her clinging to me when we lay together. We didn’t discuss it, because she didn’t want to, and not talking about it really did help her mood to improve, so maybe that was just how Fenn dealt with things. If we’d been on Earth they would probably have said, “Oh my god is that an elf?”, but after they’d gotten over the half-elf thing, they would have said it wasn’t a healthy way of dealing with problems. The problem was, I knew as much as anyone that you couldn’t drag someone, kicking and screaming, to confront things that needed confronting.
(At the end of our week off, the narrative theory was still looking inconclusive, and even if it hadn’t been, the ‘dead lovers’ pattern was also inconclusive. The problem was, nothing actually seemed like it was dictated by narrative, it all seemed like just a natural consequence of what had come before, and that was even more true with the women in Uther’s life than with the threats he faced down as King of Anglecynn.)
Eventually, I grew to value how Fenn walled things off. As much time as I was spending on training, reading, and discussing theory, it was nice to have someone who at least put on a front of not caring about what was going on. My time spent with her was largely time not spent thinking about serious things, and with the ward against noise around our alcove we were able to have some fairly intimate talks.
Fenn’s side of it was mostly relating stories of her times in the Risen Lands, occasionally interspersed with the colorful characters she dealt with in the course of selling off what she looted. These weren’t necessarily the happiest times in her life, but they were the safest, because while they had happened to her, they weren’t actually all that personal. That’s not to say that they were vapid or content-less, but Fenn was sharing without actually sharing, talking without revealing herself. (It took me a damned long time to actually realize that, and several false starts when I’d asked her about her parents, or what it had been like to grow up split between those two worlds, questions that she diverted away from pretty quickly.) So I heard a lot about killing zombies, wall crossings, shady merchants, and nothing that told me anything about Fenn I didn’t already know.
When I shared, I tried to keep it away from D&D. I never mentioned Arthur, even when he had been a part of the stories, partly from my usual aversion and partly because he was real, in this world, and talking about him meant talking about Uther. So instead I mostly told her about Earth, describing all the wonders that she would (probably) never see. All of it paled in comparison to Aerb, but that was because all the pieces of Aerb that showed my hand were exaggerated or magnified versions of the things and places I had seen. The one exception was the technology, but while technology and its effects on society were a hobby horse of mine, and she seemed willing to listen, I didn’t really think that was why she liked me, and felt awkward going on about that kind of thing. I told her as much, while we were resting together one night.
“I like all parts of you, Juniper,” she said as she gave me a pat on the chest. “If you want to talk about the Eisenhower interstate system, I’m happy to listen.” She gave me a contented sigh. “I think I would like Earth, even if parts of it seem lame, and even if you have nuclear weapons all over the place. We could go to a McDonald’s together.”
“Please let McDonald’s not be the only thing that you’ve taken away from what I’ve told you,” I murmured to her.
“Juniper, they have a hundred billion served, you have to respect that,” muttered Fenn. Her conversation always turned to muttering as she was falling asleep, and sometimes she would go minutes without saying something before lazily picking a thread of conversation back up again, only to fall asleep in the middle of it.
During our tabletop games she played Adnarim, a slink-thief and assassin who had accidentally found herself in the semi-reputable business of taking on odd jobs from people. (Fenn had made herself the identical twin sister of Amaryllis’ itinerant scholar, Miranda, which had initially drawn some complaints from the princess but ended up being a lot of fun.)
And that left Amaryllis, first of my companions, and by far the one I’d fought the most with. Our time was mostly spent focused on one thing or another, either with sparring, training, our work going over the so-called narrative patterns, or giving each other overviews of the things that we’d been reading. I was almost never alone with her, and even when we were alone, it was never private, because the house was so open. I had things that I wanted to know but which I didn’t want to ask about.
I woke up one morning and climbed out of bed to see her sitting at the desk, using colored pencils on a revision to the map of Uther’s life, which consisted mostly of arcs as various conflicts sprang into being and were later resolved. We had both taken note of the largest thing that stood out: there were precious few ‘plots’ or ‘narrative arcs’ that Uther had left behind when he’d disappeared, but the reason for that eluded us. She had been gearing up for us to move on to the next part of our adventure since the day before. This, then, was her final map of Uther’s life, the one that she could carry with her and consult, the distillation of several days of research.
“Looking good?” I asked after I had passed through the invisible sound barrier. I usually woke with the sun, but Fenn stayed in our bed for another hour or two after I’d gotten up.
Amaryllis glanced at me and frowned. I was in my boxers, and behind me Fenn was naked. “You’ve lost weight,” she said.
“Have I?” I asked, looking down at my bare chest. I could tell at a glance that she was right, but I didn’t really need her to confirm it for me, because I had noticed it myself two days ago. Losing weight, in this context, was not at all a good thing. Leveling up had reset me to essentially the best physical condition of my life, and the weight that was coming off was, almost by necessity, all muscle.
“Have you been eating?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied, hearing how defensive I sounded even as I said it. “You hear Fenn coaxing me at every meal, even when I’m eating.”
“She’s worried,” said Amaryllis. “I worry too.” She looked back down at her colored map of Uther’s story. “If I had no desire to eat but it was necessary for the survival of myself and my party, I would endure the unpleasantness and force the food down.”
“Not very subtle,” I said.
“What?” asked Amaryllis, looking up at me with a furrowed brow.
“Sorry,” I said. “I thought you were … making a reference.”
“Oh,” said Amaryllis. “That. No, I was just saying that … you can’t depend on a level up again,” she said. “Unless we face a rapid series of substantial threats, or a number of quests that are easier than they appear but still rewarding in spite of that, we’re probably looking at weeks, not days until you get another one. You’re losing muscle mass, which means that you’re losing combat ability.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll … have you considered that it might be that my digestive system is malfunctioning and I’m just not taking in nutrients? I feel like I’ve been eating a lot.”
“Then it’s worse than we thought,” she said with a mild tone. “We need someone who can repair the damage you did to your soul, but it’s a profession far more heavily regulated that most. More to the point, we need to find someone trustworthy. Unless we can stumble our way into another companion whose specialty is exactly the thing that we need, we’re left with either going to someone reputable and hoping that we can bribe them into silence, or going to someone disreputable and hoping that they don’t fuck us over.” She was thinking of the tattoo mage, I was sure. “Of course, if we find someone that we can bribe, that means that they’re inherently untrustworthy.”
I glanced over at the blue amulet laying on the table next to her. She normally kept it tucked away. I had seen her in conversation with it a few times now, a process that, from my end, looked like her zoning out with glowing blue eyes while the temperature in the room dropped a few degrees.
“Any answers from your great-grandfather?” I asked.
“He’s very frustrating to speak with,” said Amaryllis. “Actually ... he’s an asshole. The relationship between us is not of an ancestor helping his descendant, but of a man attempting to exert his values on the world from beyond the grave.”
“Are those values terribly at odds with your own?” I asked. I’d been under the impression that the ghost of her great-grandfather was being overly cautious, rather than that they were adversarial.
“He was a supporter of the Second Empire,” said Amaryllis.
“Ah,” I said. “Yes, I can see how that might complicate things. Did he have any advice though? If they were known for their soul work, then maybe he has something worth sharing?”
Amaryllis frowned and looked down at the amulet. “If I tell you, and it appears as a quest for you, then can we agree that we will have a long conversation with the others and not decide on it as a good course of action simply because the game said so?”
“Were you planning on not telling me?” I asked.
“No,” said Amaryllis. “I’m trying my best to be an open book. I just wanted some time to mull it over before presenting it, ideally to everyone.”
“Okay,” I said. But she still wanted to control the information. Was that bad habits dying hard, or something else? “Alright, out with it.”
“The Second Empire collapsed in 324 FE,” said Amaryllis. “It had been limping along for some time, largely as a result of its economic policy. Military integration and reform schemes were bleeding the budget, but the deathblow came when the capital city became the center of an exclusion zone.”
“That would be Manifest, right?” I asked. I had read through The Exclusionary Principle, Seventh Edition, and in the process picked up all of the outstanding quests that fell under The Slayer of Horrors. It was, to not put too fine a point on it, pretty fucking daunting. Manifest was an effectively immortal man who had the ability to puppet people on a mass scale, and the fact that he was limited to those within his exclusion zone was the only thing that made him a major threat rather than a world-ender.
“Oh,” said Amaryllis. “Right, yes. There were counter-imperialists in most of the member nations, and with the Empire effectively decapitated, and many of the imperialists crudely enslaved by Manifest, there was a rapid shift in power. My great-grandfather managed to hold on and avoid any of the criminal trials that Anglecynn went through, but others weren’t so lucky. One of them was Fallatehr, a soul mage, who was imprisoned with a few others on the smallest of the Zorish Isles -- technically not part of them, but under their dominion. He was an elf, so he should still be alive, but the prison is abandoned.” She paused slightly. “Obviously it would be suicidally stupid to stage a prison break in order to gain his expertise.”
Quest Accepted: Crimes Against the Soul - Journey to the autonomous prison on Sulid Isle and retrieve the criminal Fallatehr Whiteshell from his confinement there.
“Do you actually believe that it would be suicidally stupid, or were you just saying that to help trigger the quest?” I asked. “I did get the quest, by the way.”
“I think it’s ill-advised,” said Amaryllis. “We still need to find out what the national apparatus of Anglecynn and international systems of the Empire think of us, but … if we were implicated somehow it would almost certainly cement our reputation. I think the risk of implication is low, but it’s still a consideration.”
“What about as far as feasibility?” I asked.
“We have a teleportation key,” said Amaryllis. “That’s the only reason I think it could work. The penitentiary on Sulid Isle was built by an architect under forge frenzy, it’s a treacherous place with dangerous, unknown magic. The only people sent there were sent for life. Once Anglecynn began the program of final trial by adversity, it stopped being used entirely.”
“But it’s still there, and still functional,” I said. “The quest called it autonomous.”
Amaryllis nodded. “Sentient.”
“We’ll stick a pin in that then, and get input from the others,” I said with a frown. Short of going to one of the Empire’s licensed soul mages though, I didn’t see that questline as having many other promising avenues. “I don’t feel like Solace will be happy about it.”
“She will, if it’s the path to saving the locus,” said Amaryllis. “Happy is probably the wrong word. She’ll accept it, I think, if we decide that it’s the best path forward. We’ll have to talk about it with the full group.”
I stepped toward the papers she had laid out. “I wish we had more to go on,” I said. “More of substance, anyway.” I looked back toward Fenn. “How much danger do you think she’s in?”
“I have no idea,” said Amaryllis. She laced her fingers together and stretched them behind her head. “There was always a reason it happened. There were three of the twenty that we might chalk up to bad luck, but for the others, there was always a reason, it wasn’t obviously supernatural. You keep asking how he could keep putting people in danger, and it just doesn’t look like fate to me. Elf luck at its upper extremes is visible, it’s almost tangible, one in one hundred odds happening nine times out of ten. This,” she gestured to the papers, “This is just people inexorably following their beliefs and incentives, coming into conflicts that are predicated on and resolved by basic facts of reality. It’s not about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s just … how things had to happen.”
“That’s what makes it so insidious,” I said.
“I don’t like it,” said Amaryllis. She brought her arms down and crossed them. “It implies omniscience, or omnipotence, or both. If the Black Expropriates embedded an agent within the Milue parliament for internally coherent reasons, then how can that all be a setup for Uther’s arrival three years down the line? How can that be a planted romance subplot that naturally results in her death?”
“I’m more surprised that it’s exposed to us,” I said. I looked back at Fenn, who was still asleep, slightly slack-jawed. “Though maybe it’s meant to be a warning, or a lesson, or a clue. Or maybe there’s nothing to the narrative theory, and Uther just,” I threw my hands up, “Maybe this was all just a result of his beliefs about narrative.” Ironically, that would be a pretty ironic twist.
“Maybe,” nodded Amaryllis.
We both looked at the paperwork in silence. Today, it would all be packed up and then stuffed into Fenn’s glove, most likely never to be seen again. We’d spent time and effort on it, but it all seemed like it was essentially for nothing, because if there was such a thing as a proper narrative, then we had no idea how to defeat it.
“We could try manipulation,” said Amaryllis. “If we assume that narrative is desired from us, we could act in more dramatic ways.”
“We’d be acting,” I said. “It would know.”
“You think it’s that powerful?” asked Amaryllis. There was something different about her, and it took me a while to realize that it was the touch of fear.
“No,” I said, “I don’t know,” I added, because I was a terrible liar. Obviously the Dungeon Master was that powerful. “Trying to avoid destiny never works out in stories. At best, you can subvert it, but this isn’t even destiny, because it’s not diegetic. Or, it is now, now that we’ve noticed it, but I don’t know if that counts. No, we’re going to continue on and not try to game the narrative.” I looked to Fenn again, like something might have happened to her in the five seconds I had looked away. “If it were me, I wouldn’t want someone trying to game the story I was telling.”
Amaryllis nodded. “Was that why you killed me last night?”
It took my mind a moment to jam up in confusion and then switch gears; she was talking about our tabletop session from the night before. “Was that why you put Miranda in harm’s way?” I asked. “I thought that was a character moment, showing that you really loved your sister, that kind of thing.” Amaryllis was really good at getting in character, which at first surprised me, until I thought about it for a bit.
“It was both,” said Amaryllis. “I thought that I would get some leniency for it.”
“That death was kind of a result of how I set up the rules,” I said. “Normally the GM can roll some dice behind a screen and then fudge them if he really, really has to, but we only had the deck of cards, and it was split with a suit for each of you, meaning that I had to make it so that you were flipping cards against a static number for attack and defense, which … I couldn’t change the outcomes in a clean way.”
“You could have,” said Amaryllis. “You said that Rule 0 was that the Game Master superseded the rules. You could have said that the mortling missed.”
“It would have been obvious,” I said. “The game has rules, everyone had read them, so violating them would be violating this sacrosanct contract between gamemaster and players. It would be saying that grand gestures matter more than reality. I would have fudged it, if I could, but ...”
“But it was important that the cards dictate what happened,” said Amaryllis. “Or else the illusion would be broken. Thank you, I think that was enlightening.” She looked back to the papers.
I wasn’t sure quite what enlightenment she was talking about, but part of the reason we had played those games was so that I could explain to them how tabletop narratives were different. I might have asked what she was thinking, but Fenn finally got out of bed, and that was more or less the end of talking about narrative.