Bumblefuck, Kansas was large enough that our high school offered exactly one computer science elective, and I had taken it the first semester of senior year. I’d just barely completed programming a wildly ambitious game of checkers in BASIC for my final project, earning me my only A for that semester (my grades had never been stellar, and senior year they took a turn for the worse for reasons that should be obvious to you at this point). The game had incredibly crude graphics, there was no AI so you had to play against someone else, and all input was done by declaring which of the numbered squares you wanted to move your checker to. It didn’t do kinging or bubblegum either. Oh, and there was no error checking of any kind, so if you entered an illegal move, the game would faithfully execute it, and then everything would get screwed up if the program didn’t barf entirely (which it sometimes did anyway, for reasons that I never figured out).
This is all by way of saying that yeah, I was pretty fucking good at programming.
Jokes aside, I at least understood what a null reference exception was; the program tries to go look up where some variable is, and finds out that there’s a null (empty) value where that variable's address was supposed to be. That causes the program to throw a null reference exception, which the programmer either deals with somehow, or which crashes or stalls the program.
If it was a joke, I understood it, and the game thus far had a lot of really dumb little things like that (some got a small chuckle from me, others I just rolled my eyes at). If it wasn’t just a joke, or maybe even if it was a joke, then the game was exposing its machinery to me, and that could be useful. The nameless nonanima had some loyalty to me, but it seemed that her name pointed at a null value. If it wasn’t just a joke, then what other parts of her were missing, so far as the game was concerned? What would happen to her when she reached Loyalty 10 and Twinned Souls happened, given that she didn’t have a soul? Amaryllis had already said that most types of magic wouldn’t work on her, but I wanted to know the specifics of that, and why that would be the case. It seemed important, like a lever that I could use to pry apart the different layers that made up reality.
“Why is she with you and unchained?” asked Fenn as she closed the distance between us. She had her artillery bow in hand, with an arrow nocked and aimed right at Null.
“Scenario five,” I called back. New companion, but not Fallatehr.
“Goddamn it,” said Fenn. She had been moving slowly, to keep her aim, but she dropped it and moved faster to close the distance. “Watch her, Joon!”
I turned and looked to Null, who was looking at me with wide eyes. “Uh, I’m watching?”
“They can use me at any time,” said Null, hanging her head slightly. “You shouldn’t have unbound me.”
I looked over to Fenn as she came over, raising an eyebrow. “Amaryllis said that she was only as strong as a normal human. I’m pretty sure that I can take a ninety-pound girl.”
“Wow, care to tempt fate a little bit more?” asked Fenn. Her bow disappeared into her glove and a pair of handcuffs appeared just after that. She moved over to Null, who held her hands out willingly.
“Is that necessary?” I asked.
“Come on, we’re done with this place, Mary and Grak are back there holding down the fort, two on three, let’s get going,” said Fenn.
“You’re good?” I asked Null. She nodded to me, and gave me awestruck look that immediately made me reconsider how much concern I should be showing for her. If she’d been born in this prison and locked up for her entire life, that was a recipe for her to form an overly strong attachment to me.
“Mary is pissed, by the way,” said Fenn as we moved away from the penitentiary. She pointed a thumb back toward Null without looking at her. “The woobie probably isn’t going to help matters.”
“Is woobie a colloquial expression?” I asked. I had that jarring feeling of hearing a term I thought was Earth-exclusive used on Aerb, which I still wasn’t used to. Most of the time I didn’t ask and let it roll by, but we had time, and I was more concerned about the words and concepts that I might be using wrong, instead of just the ones with parallel or convergent origin.
“Large animal,” said Fenn. “It sits in the forest crying out in pain to draw in its prey.”
“Ah,” I said. “So you wouldn’t use it as a general term for a relative innocent going through pain and suffering who you want to protect.”
“Not unless they were going to kill you,” said Fenn with a shrug. “Maybe we don’t do the cross-cultural exchange around the soul fucker?”
“Yeah,” I said as we walked. I looked at Null again, and found her staring at me in the moonlight. I thought she would look away, but she didn’t, and eventually I had to break eye contact, which just left me with the uncomfortable feeling that she was still staring at the back of my head as we walked. “Scenario five though.”
“Yes, that’s going to make our Mary absolutely thrilled, you know her so well,” said Fenn with a snort.
We found Amaryllis and Grak both holding their weapons, while Fallatehr was sitting on the ground with a pleasant smile that didn’t reveal his sharp teeth. He had his two associates remaining, exactly as many as he’d negotiated for, the seven-foot-tall woman whose species I couldn’t determine, and the elf with strips removed from his scars we’d met at visitation.
“Did any of my pelehr survive?” asked Fallatehr.
“No,” I said. I glanced at Null. “Were you expecting them to survive?”
“I was not,” said Fallatehr. “But they were ultimately doomed, one way or another, if we weren’t going to be together. We’ll speak on it more, during your training.”
I felt a moment of discomfort at that, which I tried to suppress. Whatever he’d done to those people wasn’t the sort of thing that I wanted to learn. I would learn it, if it was on offer, and turning down another tool in the toolbox would be asinine, but I didn’t want to.
“We don’t have a safe base of operations,” said Amaryllis. “Now that the danger has passed and the key should be in working order again, I would propose that half of us leave to find lodging, while the other half stay here. After two hours, I’ll come back, and after another two hours after that, we’ll regroup. As to the groups, I was thinking that we would keep even numbers initially, four and four. I’d like Juniper and Fallatehr to go with me, that way they can take some time for initial lessons during the two hours it will take for me to return with the rest of our group. Obviously we can’t take the nonanima, that means that it will be either Retha or Lehpenn.” She gestured to the tall woman and the other elf; apparently introductions had been made in my absence.
“Scenario five,” I said to Amaryllis.
She blinked at me, then stole a brief glance at Null. “Okay,” she said. “That’s ...” She paused, then stole another glance at Null, then frowned and looked at Fallatehr. “How dangerous is she?”
“Barely at all, where the border between worlds is strong,” said Fallatehr. “How far has cosmological mapping advanced in the last few hundred years?”
“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll need specialty texts to figure out where it’s safe to bring her, or at the very least, better restraints, and ideally tight earmuffs.”
“What is scenario five?” asked Fallatehr.
“Nothing you need to worry about right now,” said Amaryllis. “It’s not important in the short-term, and it will take a long time to explain. We wouldn’t want to explain in front of ears that are compromised.”
“We will speak on that matter, and others, at a later time,” said Fallatehr with a calm tone and a slight nod of his head. “I would propose that Juniper and I stay here, with the nonanima and either your dwarf or half-elf.”
“Fenn,” said Fenn, pointing a finger at herself. “Grak,” she said, pointing a finger at Grak. “If it means leaving this asshole behind, I’m all for going on a trip.”
“Fenn,” said Amaryllis, in her warning voice. I was pretty sure that tension between the two of them was going to boil over no matter what steps we took to minimize it, but I wasn’t sure what form that boiling over was going to take. I was overdue for some time alone with Fenn, and one of the things I most wanted to ask her about were her thoughts on Fallatehr. “My plan is to go to Parsmont, I guess I’ll be taking Fenn, Rehta, and Lehpenn?”
I wasn’t sure that was ideal, but I didn’t have a better suggestion. It was, in some ways, like the logic puzzle about a man trying to cross the river with a bag of grain, a duck, and a fox. He could take one thing across at a time, but couldn’t leave the duck unattended with the grain (because the duck would eat the grain) and couldn’t leave the fox unattended with the duck (because the fox would eat the duck). Similarly, the overall lack of trust, and Fallatehr’s ability to fuck up someone’s soul, meant that we needed to be careful about who was left with whom.
To me, the most worrying part of what Amaryllis had proposed was that Fenn would be left alone with Rehta and Lehpenn, and I wasn’t confident that they didn’t know soul magic too. Their combat abilities were also an unknown, which meant that I wasn’t sure that Fenn would be able to fend them off if they attacked her, even with all the tricks she had up her glove, and worse, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell, depending on how sophisticated an attack might be. That said, I still thought that it was probably the best option available to us, even when taking into account alternate initial splits of three and five -- especially given that we needed to be building trust, rather than putting up visible signs of paranoia.
Before they left, Fallatehr touched Lehpenn and Rheta, the former on his head and the latter on the bare skin of her chest. He spent five minutes with each, wordlessly touching them with his eyes closed; I saw Amaryllis and Fenn having a hushed conversation while this was happening. For my part, I mostly spent the time with Null in my eyeline, guarding against whatever it was she might turn into.
Fenn gave me a kiss before she left, a quick, mostly chaste one, which I wasn’t entirely on board with. I didn’t want Fallatehr to know that she could be used as that sort of leverage over me, but apparently Fenn did want him to know, or maybe just thought that kissing me was worth leaking information. I resented Fallatehr a little bit, for making me want to hide our relationship.
“I’ll see you in Parsmont,” said Fenn. “Don’t do anything that I wouldn’t do.” She held out her gloved hand and dropped down a large, heavy pack of supplies, then stepped over to where Amaryllis was standing and left a few seconds later.
With that, I was alone with Fallatehr, Null, and Grak. “Grak, can you set up some wards to keep her in? I’d prefer not to rely on having to keep guard.”
“Velocity wards are the only thing that will work on her,” said Grak, as he stepped over to her and pulled out his wand. “Those are tricky to do. It will take time.”
I moved over to the supplies and began pulling a few things out, first a waterskin that I drank deeply from, then a pair of folded wooden chairs, one of which I set up for Fallatehr. After a brief grimace, I pulled some rations out from the pack of supplies and began to eat pemmican, which was a poor meal even when I was feeling hungry -- despite all the physical exertion of the day, it was still a matter of forcing the food down in small bites and trying to avoid the nausea.
“Do you wish to begin your training now?” asked Fallatehr, his eyes watching me closely in the moonlight.
“Yes,” I nodded. “I’ll understand if you don’t have a lesson plan or anything like that, but whatever you think might give me a toehold.”
“And that might be enough for you?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “The nature of my prodigy is complicated, but it’s easy for me to get the very basics of something down, if I have a place to grip the topic and time to think about it on my own. Even if I can do that for soul magic though, I would expect that I would need your tutelage in order to progress beyond those very basics.”
“Fascinating,” said Fallatehr. “I watched you fight with great interest. There are a few things that might explain you, but the simplest explanation is that you’re telling the truth. Skill with bone magic, blood magic, and extensive training with the sword, all at such a young age. How old were you again?”
“Eighteen,” I replied. I put the rest of the pemmican to the side. It felt like I had been eating for a long time, but I’d barely made a dent. A glance over at Grak showed him still working on the ward. “So what can you tell me about the soul? What is the soul?”
Fallatehr gave a pleasant, musical laugh that startled me with its suddenness. The musicality of it didn’t seem like it suited him, save for the fact that he was an elf. “We’re really starting so close to the bottom?”
“I don’t want to bring my own assumptions into this,” I said. And let’s just not mention that a lot of my assumptions come from a place called Earth.
Fallatehr tapped his finger to his lips. “There is a book about a candle, written in 97 FE, which describes it in exacting detail. Each imperfection of the candle is noted, every possible measurement of it is taken, and the composition of the candle is detailed down to the diet of the hog whose fat was rendered to make it. It runs for four hundred pages.”
“Okay,” I said slowly. “So the soul is like … a list of things about a person?”
“Some of the information listed about the candle was procedural,” said Fallatehr. “There are details of how it was created, what processes were used to render the fat, information on the construction of the molds, and all that sort of thing. The soul has nothing like it. There is nothing written upon the soul that will tell you how a person came to be as they are, no history, only marks that you might use to work backwards and infer.”
I frowned. “Okay,” I said. “It’s a list -- a list, or unordered?”
“Unordered,” said Fallatehr, watching me.
“It’s an unordered collection of attributes that define a person,” I said. “And if that’s true, then all soul magic is really doing is rewriting those attributes.”
Fallatehr nodded. “There, as simple as that.”
“That’s it?” I asked. “That’s all the soul is? It’s … a collection of attributes?” I could see the programming metaphor right away, and it wasn’t like the game hadn’t had in-universe explanations that mirrored game mechanics, but … was the soul just another character sheet? I could already access my character sheet. I could already see the list of attributes that defined me, so far as the game was concerned. It wasn't anything new, and nothing that would help me to fix my bones.
“And if I told you that list went on for hundreds, if not thousands of pages?” asked Fallatehr. “If I told you that every form of magic interacts with those attributes in some way or another?” He didn’t seem mad that I was disrespecting his life’s work or the field of soul magic, only curious. I was pretty sure that his curiosity was the only reason we were sitting across from each other. He'd given up a fair amount for this, given that he didn't seem to care too much about leaving the prison. He'd thrown away a dozen lives and decades of work just to watch me. I still didn't have a good handle on who he was.
“It’s just,” I started, then stopped, frowning. “I was thinking that it would be more mystical.”
“It’s not,” said Fallatehr. “I am a scientist, not a mystic. I could dress it up, but that would be to your detriment as my pupil.”
“Okay,” I said. “So how do I access my soul?”
“It would be so easy to show you, with just a touch,” said Fallatehr with a sigh.
“No,” I replied, keeping my voice firm. He’d just given me a good reminder that he was dangerous. “Tell me how I would see or feel the soul, how I would be able to make some change, without your own intervention.”
“Imagine there exists a book, written about you,” said Fallatehr. “Not a narrative, but a catalog of that which is essential to you.”
“I mean, okay,” I said with a shrug. I tried to picture that book, starting with the easy stuff, the physical measurements, the tensile strength of my hair, the volume of blood in my body, the length of my bones -- I looked down at my deformed hand. “It doesn’t necessarily match the body,” I said.
“No,” nodded Fallatehr. “The soul has its own attributes which do not always align with what the body presents.”
“Residual self-image,” I said.
“Residual?” asked Fallatehr as he looked too intently at my face.
“Nevermind,” I said. Like in The Matrix, it’s a movie from Earth you probably haven’t seen, unless that was one that Arthur cribbed from. I kept compiling the Book of Juniper, trying to figure out a way that I could get everything into it without mentioning the past or how I was made. Not Arthur or Tiff, but the impact that they had on me, not attributes that mentioned them, but attributes that would allow you to know that they existed, if you were incredibly intelligent and could work backwards from incomplete information. “I don’t get how it’s possible,” I said. “Is memory not part of the soul?”
“It is,” said Fallatehr. “Though it’s nearly inaccessible to attempts at manipulation.”
“Then how did you change your slaves?” I asked, dropping the book metaphor from my mind for a moment. I glanced over at Grak, who had finished his ward and was eating pemmican in front of Null, his axe on his lap in front of him.
“I didn’t alter their memories,” said Fallatehr. “I altered their values to match my own, along with as many of the pathways as I could.”
“Pathways don’t sound like attributes,” I said.
“They are,” said Fallatehr. “You’ll see, when you’re further along, when you understand the feel of a soul.”
“So they’re incomplete copies,” I said. “They’re just … people with different memories from your own, who happen to share some ways of thinking.”
Fallatehr shrugged. “I never claimed that they were clones,” he said.
“And you said that they would face oblivion without you,” I said.
Fallatehr smiled, showing me his sharp teeth, in a way that I found distinctly threatening. “You’re trying to advance past your studies,” he said. “These attributes are mutable, but will revert to a coherent state, given time.”
I almost objected that that didn’t seem like oblivion to me, but then I thought about it for a bit. If I was told that I would gradually become a person who valued things that I didn’t value, who thought in ways that I didn’t think, who shared, at most, only the same memories, I might feel like that was oblivion. Actually, given that Fallatehr had altered their values, he could just make them fear the change. And then, faced with either that loss of self or becoming a monster, he had known that they would submit to becoming the pelehr.
I returned to the construction of my metaphorical book, the one that would define me down to the very last detail, so that you could clone me, if you were a better soul mage than even Fallatehr and really wanted to. Ignore memory for a moment, ignore pathways of thought (however that messy concept was pinned down), just think about everything concrete, like muscle memory, which you could do on the physical level, or values themselves, weighed and measured in dizzying arrays that wouldn’t necessarily even be coherent because people had biases, which I guessed you would have to build in too --
And that was when I felt it within my mind, like a corner of carpet had just been lifted up and I’d been made aware that the room wasn’t just carpet, there was something underneath it. So I tugged at it, this sensation that there was more to me, and my field of vision went white, with letters and numbers resolving a few seconds later.
I was looking at my True Character Sheet.
Skill unlocked: Essentialism!