Worth the Candle

by

Alexander Wales

In Which Juniper Stares At His Character Sheet, Again

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The interface was different, for a start. It wasn’t controlled by my (nominal) eyes like the other one was, it was all done by thought alone, and I spent a few moments just spinning and panning to a get a feel for it. My soul … was another character sheet, a deeper, more complex one, vast beyond what I was going to be able to see even if I had all day, but it was still recognizable as being structured data, and that’s really all a character sheet was.

To my left the skeleton of my body was displayed, with the bones of my ribs and left hand outlined in red and otherwise absent from the picture. I could change that display with a thought, putting organs in my belly and veins running through my limbs, layering on muscle, adding skin, until I was staring at myself. I barely recognized him; he was too muscular, too fit, with too determined of a look in his eyes. I always thought that I looked bored, when my face was resting.

Above that representation of the body was a massive network of points and lines, and I zoomed in closer to look at it before nearly getting lost in the thicket. Focusing on a point brought me into a moment, consuming all my senses; I was standing in my backyard, by the bushes, trying to eat honeysuckle like my dad had taught me, and in that moment I could smell the sweet, flowery scent and feel the light wind. When the moment was over I wasn’t quite pulled out, because there were other memories awaiting me, ones connected to this one in some way, but I was certain if I went down memory lane, I was going to be stuck looking at these things all day.

I pulled back out of the memory, then out of the thicket of memories, until I was back staring at the character sheet holistically. It was a complex nightmare of text and numbers … and beyond what I could see, there was more, because I could see faint lines leading off somewhere else, two of them. I followed one on a whim, trying to repeat to myself that I shouldn’t touch anything, that this was my soul, that any change had to be reverted immediately until I was certain that I wasn’t going to fuck things up by making changes.

The first thing I saw when I arrived at the other end of the line was Amaryllis, naked, and above her a floating mass of points and lines, and to the side, text and numbers. This, then, was her character sheet. Twinned Souls, that had linked us on more than just a figurative and mechanical level, it had opened up her soul to me. The other line would be the one belonging to Fenn. I backed out of her character sheet almost immediately, not stopping to look at anything there, not wanting to accidentally hurt her, or change her from the way she was.

I was slightly relieved when I went poking around in my character sheet, because so many things seemed like they were locked off to me, beyond my power to fuck things up. Unlike on my regular character sheet, here the things I couldn’t interact with were still readable, the grey of the text still dark and bold enough that I could parse it, with a fair number of other things in a dark, foreboding red, the only color in a sea of monochrome aside from a light blue seen on some of the text. What I was looking for were skills --

At the thought, my view panned and they arranged themselves in front of me, not just the ones that I had unlocked, not just the forty that were on my other character sheet, but more than that character sheet could even hold. I quickly counted the edges of the ordered grid and frowned. There were, if I was reading it right, two hundred and fifty-six skills, a little over half of them marked in red.

Some of them were presented in the same dark red I’d seen in a few other places in my exploration of the interface, and the one labeled “Ice Magic” caught my eye. I expanded it to read it closer. Instead of a number, it had a diagonal slash, and the text box beside it read “Deprecated, Exclusion #16”. I frowned at that for a moment -- I would need to cross-reference with The Exclusionary Principle, Seventh Edition, but I was pretty sure that ice magic was considered a lost art, not actually excluded. Just beneath that, there were listings for a primary and secondary attributes, Cunning and Endurance, respectively, with familiar numbers in place, and what looked like a small, greyed out button labeled “Gestalt”.

I backed out of that view and quickly went to look at others and confirmed what I’d been hoping was true; the primary and secondary attributes were exposed here, and though there was no indication of what the actual math was, that was already an incredible boon from Soul Magic (or Essentialism, as the game called it), even without being able to interact with any of it. I was still being careful not to touch anything, only to look at what I could see, but I was already starting to feel the possibilities available to me.

There were 256 skills in total, and I had only 40 of them, with just 25 of them unlocked -- 26 now, with Essentialism added to that list. Once I saw the pattern, it was fairly easy to distinguish between them; blue was the color given for the skills that I had, with a slash to mark the ones that I hadn’t unlocked yet. I looked over the remaining fourteen skills that were blue with a slash, which I presumed were the ones on my old character sheet that I hadn’t unlocked yet.

I had Shotguns, which I had never tested and would be easy enough to pick up. Four of them were arts-and-crafts skills: Alchemy, Livestock, Smithing, and Woodworking. Five were magics that I had expected I would have access to: Gold Magic, Revision Magic, Steel Magic, Velocity Magic, and Wards. Water Magic was there too, which I hadn’t expected, because it was supposed to be a bloodline magic. Library Magic I had never even heard of, and I was pretty sure that I knew all of the types of magic that Amaryllis knew, which should have been all of them. I had no clue what Spirit did.

There was a Language skill, with KNO as primary and CHA as secondary, but there was no indication what was needed to unlock it. It was while I was looking at that one that I felt a thread that could be pulled, and when I did, I dove in deeper to the skill, until I was within a cloud of words. There was data attached to each of them, numbers and sliders, with labels like “Frequency” or “Tonation” or “PoS”, all of it presumably representing how often and in which ways I used the word “venerate” or “cucumber”. They were linked to each other, in ways that I would have to untangle later, if any of this turned out to be important.

A quick look at the other skills showed something similar, now that I knew where to press, but instead of simply words, and static rules governing those words, there were pieces of procedural and declarative knowledge, displayed in either text or color-coded displays of simple, prototypical actions. Skills existed as constructs in the soul then, but they were at least in part composed of other discrete pieces.

But my attention wasn’t really on the things that my character sheet contained, or even the nature of skills, it was on all the other skills, the ones that weren’t on my original character sheet, for whatever reason. Most of the ones in red were magic of some kind or another; Glass Magic, “Deprecated, Exclusion #112”, Groove Casting, “Deprecated, Exclusion #217, Constriction Magic, “Deprecated, Exclusion #18”, on and on. Some were ambiguous as to whether they were magic or not, like Ex Nihilo, “Deprecated, Exclusion #216”, and I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to know what, exactly, a skill with that name was supposed to do.

I could see straight away that there were more exclusions than there were exclusion zones as reckoned by Amaryllis, though her definition was taken from the political terminology of the Empire of Common Cause, and there were a lot of skills that had been taken out of the running, not that I had (as yet) tried to turn them blue.

The other, mundane, greyed skills were less interesting to me, except in regards to what they said about the game. There were, as it turned out, a handful of armor skills: Light Armor, Medium Armor, Heavy Armor, Unarmored, and Shields. That didn’t make too much sense to me though, because it was clear that armor still did something for me, and I had gone through a period of acclimating myself to the armor, which meant that I should still have something beyond just no skill in it. If I were writing a book of attributes about myself, that would have to be in there, right? You couldn’t just leave a zero there, if you were trying to fully describe me.

There were other skills that I had already known I didn’t have, and which weren’t assigned, more of what I considered arts-and-crafts, the sort of thing that you took more for roleplaying purposes (and/or to piss off Reimer because they were suboptimal), things like Weaving, Foraging, Tailoring, and so on, maybe a few dozen of those. There were transportation skills, like Sailing, Piloting, and Riding, along with utility/profession skills like Appraisal, Management, Leadership, Logistics, and Mathematics, some of which did catch my eye, and a few social skills that I was missing too.

This all left me with the question of why I had those forty specific skills on my character sheet. I had long had a feeling like someone else had set the game up for me, starting back when I had first looked in the options and seen that Diamond Hardcore Ironman Mode was checked. I might have accepted it if those skills represented things that I’d known or done on the real world, but they didn’t -- as evidenced by Piloting not being one of my skills, despite the fact that I could semi-competently fly a helicopter, and all the magic I had access to.

That meant my best guess was that the Dungeon Master had set everything up, and I had no idea why he’d decided on those particular skills. Was I meant to use revision magic at some point in the future, and that was why it was listed? On seeing the other options available to me, I desperately wanted to change my skills, but if there was a path in front of me … well, then surely Essentialism was on that path, and I didn’t need to worry too much. But then why would the Dungeon Master give me specific skills that he knew I was going to drop, assuming that he did know?

I was about to move away from the skills, because there was more of my soul to explore (quite a bit more), but I stopped for a moment and looked in at Deception. As soon as it filled my view, I got an error message in red:

Error: Illegal Construction, Gestalting Deprecated, Exclusion #4

The skill informed me that it was actually a gestalt between Lying and Stealth, with two primary abilities and two secondary abilities, but gave no real information about what that meant. In the parlance of D&D, “gestalt” meant merging two things, usually classes, such that they were more than the sum of their parts, but I wasn’t sure that fully applied here. The problem with gestalting was that it usually increased the power level, and there was rarely a reason not to do it, if it was allowed. And apparently, it wasn’t allowed, except that I had been running around with it like that for my entire time on Aerb, and I wasn’t about to go changing it now if I didn’t have to.

The last skill I looked closely at was the one labeled “Custom”, which was in red. Like Spirit, there were no associated skills for it, but there were buttons where the text would normally go. It looked very much like this was a “roll your own” type of skill, the kind that you included in case someone wanted something truly outside the box. That apparently wasn’t an option for me, because it was “Deprecated, Exclusion #17”.

I backed away from the skills and continued looking at my soul, not so much as an earnest exploration to gain information as it was to get a lay of the land. I would need to come in later and look at everything in detail. Fallatehr had said that values were part of the soul, which meant that there was some way to view them, and maybe change them. I had to think that there would be something like a social network as well, some conceptualization of the internal models I had of various people, as well as physical models of various things, which would be how my brain knew that when a ball went up, it was going to come back down again.

Mostly, I kept thinking that this wasn’t how people were built.

People were really freaking complex. They weren’t a list of attributes, or neat piles of declarative and procedural memories, they were messy, complicated things that didn’t always make sense, there were contextual shifts and a plethora of messy models and hidden assumptions, it wasn’t just numbers. And as far as I could see, the soul as presented to me was missing half of the picture, which was the matter of how all these little bits and bobs actually did anything. So far as I had seen, the “soul” didn’t have all that much in the way of process or algorithms or any kind of decision-making in it, only weights that could be applied to some decision tree or neural network or whatever else it was that took this static information and let it actually do anything.

It took me some time to find the place where values were stored, which was shown as circles of varying sizes, all clustered together and packed tight. I looked over it in dismay, and not just because circles were horrible for data visualization. The biggest, by quite a large margin, was simply labeled “Level Up”. It wasn’t bigger than the next two, “Tiff” and “Fenn” combined, at least so far as I could tell, but the human eye was kind of garbage at distinguishing between surface area of circles, and it was ambiguous whether the data visualization was meant to be read as surface area or diameter.

With a push of thought, it all rearranged itself for me, abandoning the circles to show me a simple ordered list, with the highest at the top and lowest at the bottom. That was something that I was going to have to get used to, that the information as presented to me was mutable and could be rearranged as I pleased in order to see what I wanted to see, without any apparent cost. The list seemed to go on forever, but I’d seen from a quick glance at the circles that some kind of power law was in effect. I didn’t particularly like looking at the list though, since it had too many hard truths to it. Arthur was sixth, and what did that say about me as a person? What did it say about me that Tiff still loomed so large? And I could see that both Earth and Aerb were on there, enormous conceptual entities, but still below the people that mattered most to me.

I looked closer at the one labeled Aerb, because it seemed neutral enough, and got more information on it, variables like “Weight”, “Scope”, “Marginal Utility”, and “Time Sensitivity”. I backed out without reading more, then shifted my view away from the values so I wouldn’t have to look at Arthur in the number six spot.

I kept thinking that this was not how humans were. Let’s say that you actually could take someone through a trillion different tests, pairwise comparisons like “Would you rather eat a hamburger from Culver’s or spend twenty minutes playing Tetris, a year from now?”, and then you crunched that enormous amount of information, the result that you got back wouldn’t even be that sensible, because people weren’t sensible, concepts were shifting and mercurial, I could think differently about a given person based on the last word out of their mouth, or the setting I was in, or any number of things. That was, to my understanding at least, how the human brain worked.

The soul, as it was presented to me, made sense as the sort of thing you could maybe pull from a brain, if you had some hypertech and were willing to cut some corners in terms of how you were mapping out what the brain actually was. You couldn’t capture everything, not really, but you might be able to put a number on time sensitivity of value, maybe, and then make a chart that would be a little bit useful. The soul made sense as a report, or a visualization. That wasn’t what the soul purported to be though; it was meant to work as the mind, not just a report on it, and changing the soul meant changing the mind. Was there some hidden conversion process in there? Was this just a game interface covering something vastly more complex, for all the data that was exposed to me? Or was I really reducible down just this stuff and whatever sort of thing was involved in actually running it?

I felt a hand touch my knee.

I was only dimly aware of my body, and blind on top of that, but I could feel the pressure there, and I flailed my body, which was still thankfully under my control, while trying to back out of the interface -- trying.

Error: Illegal Construction, Gestalting Deprecated

I started to panic, just a little bit. I could feel my body, I could move my body, but my eyes were stuck staring at my soul, and it felt like my mind had been made to focus on the substance of the soul. Even as I was aware that I was in danger, right across from Fallatehr, I could feel that thought slipping away from me and the contemplative mood I’d been in returning. I tried my best to shrug it off -- I was standing now, I was pretty sure, and nothing was touching me aside from my feet on the ground, though the sensation was so far away it was hard to tell for sure.

I raced over to the skills and zeroed in on Deception, which I knew had to be the problem, and dove into the menu for it, where a button labeled “Divide” was available, in place of the “Gestalt” that was on the other skills. I gave it a mental push, which presented me with warnings.

Warning: Dividing skills will reset both to 0.

Warning: Skill changes can be done once per (100 levels / skill in Essentialism).

But I did it anyway, because I was blind and barely aware of my body, and the more time I spent looking at the menus the more I felt myself start to lose sight of that fact, like it was somehow unimportant that I was disabled in front of someone who really shouldn’t have touched me. So despite the warnings, I plunged on ahead.

Error: Illegal Construction, selected number of skills exceeds 40.

I went in and unselected Woodworking, which I didn’t think that I would ever use, and was about to make another attempt at leaving the soul before I stopped myself, only momentarily.

(My concern was with the warning that skill changes could only happen once every 100 levels divided by the skill ranks in Essentialism, which a quick check showed as currently sitting at 5. Depending on whether previous levels counted or not, that meant that I’d be able to change skills again at either level 20 or level 30. Obviously I would be able to level Essentialism up from where it was now, but there were rather severe diminishing returns on that math, especially assuming that rounding wasn’t done in my favor.

(A quick check of Essentialism showed that it had KNO/WIS as its primary and secondary skills, which I considered good news, given that it meant I could continue on with my dubious strategy of leaving SOC behind, if I so chose.

Either way, there was a hard cap on when I’d be able to change skills again, even with reasonably optimistic assumptions, and if changing my skills to fix the gestalt error counted as changing skills, then the next time I would be able to change skills would be in four levels or so, unless the game let me bank skill retraining from levels previously gained, in which case this was merely the squandering of an extremely limited resource, rather than a handicap that might last for as long as a few months.)

So I started in on cuts, first the things that I didn’t see the point of and hadn’t even unlocked, Alchemy, Smithing, Woodworking, Livestock, and then the ones that I didn’t have unlocked and thought were subpar, Gold Magic, Shotguns, Steel Magic, Wards, snip, snip, snip, freeing up space, and then Music and Art had to go, because they were flavor, not utility, and I watched the warning go by about them resetting to 0, not a big loss in either case. Finally, Pistols, which I hadn't been bothering to train up given that I'd almost always be using a rifle at range and melee weapons up close. Snip.

And that was ten slots freed up, and I could cut a few more, like Spirit, which had no obvious function, and Library Magic, which I had never heard of, but I was erring on the side of not locking myself out of things I didn’t yet know the function of.

(It was tempting to cut the social skills, to cut Comedy, Romance, and Flattery and make room for something else, but my social abilities were already poor, and if anything, I needed a few of the social skills that I was missing in order to shore up that deficit, assuming that I wasn’t always going to be able to rely on Amaryllis to carry me through difficult times, even if she was physically present.)

So I started adding skills back into the mix, Shields, Unarmored, Medium Armor, Heavy Armor, all to provide survivability, then varieties of magic I didn’t have, some of which were mysteries, Vibrational Magic, Still Magic, Tree Magic, Fire Magic, and then with two left I hesitated and hurriedly picked up Analysis and Debate, with little clue as to what they actually did aside from the fact that they were mental-affiliated.)

If I’m being honest, which I do try to be, I’m not sure how long I spent on all that. Maybe I came under the tunnel vision effect of looking at these things again, because I’d had that moment of hesitation when I’d been ready to move away, when the gestalt had been removed.

Either way, I came out of it slowly, feeling my pulse first and my extremities second, and only gradually regaining my sight. I was standing with my sword drawn and held in front of me, looking at Grak, who had placed himself between Fallatehr and myself. His axe was drawn and held back, ready to strike; I couldn’t tell how long he had been in that pose. As soon as he looked back to see that I was alert, he crossed over to me, putting himself so that he was still standing slightly in front of me, guarding me. I glanced over and saw Null, sitting within the box of wards that Grak had made for her.

“What happened?” asked Grak, his voice tight.

“I was going to ask the same thing,” I said, looking to him, then the Fallatehr.

“I did not believe you would actually do it,” said Fallatehr. “You understated the depths of your prodigy. There is a seductiveness to looking at one’s own soul, a seduction that is -- was, in the halcyon days of the Second Empire -- trained against, in parallel with the other studies that allow a soul mage access to their soul.”

“Who touched me?” I asked.

“I did,” said Grak. “I tried to rouse you.”

I nodded at that.

Yes, I had gone under and gotten tunnel vision, then Grak had seen me sitting there like a moron and maybe asked some pointed questions to Fallatehr, who was probably an ass about the whole thing. Grak had touched me on the knee, wanting to bring me out of the stupor or at least ensure that I was alright, and I had reacted by flailing around like a madman, which had naturally raised his suspicions.

That was certainly one plausible series of events.

Unfortunately, it also was the series of events that cast Fallatehr in the best possible light.

“Does the nonanima have a name?” I asked Fallatehr.

“No,” he said, glancing over to her only briefly.

“Nonanima, would you like to have a name?” I asked her.

She stared at me, then nodded slowly.

“What are you thinking?” asked Grak.

“One second,” I told him. I cleared my throat and looked at Null. “What would you like your name to be?” I asked her.

Loyalty Increased: [Null Pointer Exception] lvl 4!

“I don’t know,” she said in a soft voice, almost too soft for me to hear her.

“Well until you choose, I’d like to be able to call you something, so I’m going to call you --” Tiff -- no, not that, dammit, why is coming up with names on the fly so difficult? “-- Valencia, or Val for short, it means strength, where I come from. If you ever want me to call you anything else, you let me know, okay?”

“Okay,” she said.

“What are you doing?” asked Grak.

“She’s a neutral observer,” said Fallatehr. “She has no soul, and thus, she can be depended upon to accurately recount the events as they transpired without interference on my part. Not that I could have moved through the ward you set up to touch her.”

There was something I really didn’t like about having the adversary outline my plan for me, then explain how it was a good and clever plan. I could already see the hole, which was that Null -- no, Valencia now, I had named her -- that she wasn’t actually a reliable source of information, she’d spent most of her life in Fallatehr’s care, she was about as broken of a person as I had ever seen … and even if Fallatehr hadn’t thought ahead to make sure that their stories matched, Grak had already fed her the lines that she was supposed to agree with. In hindsight, I should have separated everyone and talked to all of them individually, but that level of paranoia hadn’t occurred to me as I was coming out of the fog and wondering what had happened. Worse, there didn’t seem to be any telling details that I could catch them on, especially given how notoriously bad eyewitness accounts were even moments after the event in question.

“You’re worried that I’m compromised,” said Grak,

“Yes,” I replied. I looked to Valencia, trying to make that new name stick in my brain. Null was too derogatory of a name, too close to calling someone Nothing, only Null was worse, because it was less than nothing. Valencia. I shouldn’t have been the one to name her, not like this. “Valencia, can you tell me what happened?”

She looked to Fallatehr. “It was like they said.”

Was this a matter of loyalty, or conditioning, or something else? Or was she simply telling the truth? It bothered me that I had no way of knowing, but her testimony was weak evidence in favor of the official line.

“I don’t know whether or not you’re compromised,” I said to Grak. “And I don’t know to what extent it’s possible for soul magic to compromise a person.”

I had an uncharacteristic yearning for Earth at that moment, as some leftover part of my internal programming had me reaching down into my pocket to pull out my cell phone and check the time as a nervous habit, or maybe a way to get grounding. I wasn’t even wearing proper pants, just greaves that were more white than the metallic blue they’d started the day as.

“You are right,” said Grak. “I should be quarantined from Fallatehr and everyone else.”

I looked at him, trying to judge what kind of response that was. It was true, and more weak evidence, but it was nothing that I could actually count on.

“Okay,” I said. “We’ll just keep the four of us separated for now, until Amaryllis comes back to get us.”

“He said that a soul would revert to a coherent state over time,” said Grak. “All we should need to do is wait it out.”

“Yes, but the trouble is that he said it,” I replied. “This is the same man that didn’t tell me I could get stuck looking at my own soul.”

Fallatehr’s lips twitched. “I am not your enemy,” he said. “Our relationship as teacher and student cannot survive if you continue to think of me that way.”

I shrugged. “In the future, if there are risks like that, even ones you don’t think that we’ll run into, I need to hear about them before experiencing them firsthand with no forewarning.” I didn’t say it, but if it happened again, I wouldn’t think too hard about killing him. I picked my folding chair up from the ground and propped it up, then sat down in front of Fallatehr. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s continue the lesson.”

“Are you serious?” asked Grak.

“Yes,” I said. “We still have time left until Amaryllis comes back, and the more I know about the soul, the better.” Fallatehr knew that I had seen my soul, though I didn’t think that our views of the soul were the same, given how steeped my view of the soul was in game mechanical terms.

“I think I am done with lessons for the day,” said Fallatehr, looking me over. “I will need to think on what other pitfalls might await you, in your accelerated journey to become a magus of the soul.”

“My hand,” I said, holding it up. “That’s the thing that we need to fix.” I still hadn’t told him about my ribs, but that was something I was going to keep under my hat for the time being.

“You saw the soul,” said Fallatehr. “I wouldn’t imagine that most of it made sense to you, but there is a portion of it devoted to the bodily self.”

“Yes,” I said. “And how do I fix this, exactly? How do I translate the existence of the soul’s image of the body into actually fixing the damage that was done?”

“You want me for more than this?” asked Fallatehr. “You have uses for me as a teacher, beyond this simple repair?”

“Yes,” I said, hoping that I was a bad enough liar that he would believe me when I told the truth.

He watched me for a moment with narrowed eyes. “You will need training in how it’s done, but you have two hands,” he said, holding his hands out in front of him, palms pointed to the night sky. “The bones of the right provide a blueprint that can be mirrored.”

I looked down at my left hand and the way the skin didn’t quite fit around bones that weren’t quite the right length. I frowned at it. “My hands aren’t symmetrical,” I said. “I mean, even before this, they weren’t.”

“They will be,” said Fallatehr.

I was about to object that the veins and arteries wouldn’t line up properly, that there would be nerve damage … but the soul already contained all the information about those parts, it was the bones that were missing as what I thought of as a local copy of that information. I wasn’t even sure at what level the soul actually stored that information, because it seemed like at least some of it could be assumed from basic knowledge about the human body, and if you were building efficient data structures, you would be better off with just having a diff between some ur-body and the individual body in question.

“And if I didn’t have a right hand?” I asked.

Fallatehr pursed his lips. “It takes quite some time for the soul to recognize substantial damage to the body,” he said. “It can be years before scars become marked on the soul itself, and sometimes the soul will persist in its counterfactual conception of the body forever.”

“Hypothetically,” I said. I was giving something away to him, providing him with leverage, but I was thinking about my ribs, the anemia, the loss of appetite, and the fact that I had used the rib bones on both sides, meaning that there was nothing to easily copy and paste with a little bit of mirroring on the z-axis.

“Hypothetically, you would have to take from the soul of another,” said Fallatehr. He watched my expression, and the grimace that I didn’t try to hide. “‘Take’ is an approximate term,” he said. “The term ‘copy’ might be better. But for that, you would need access to the soul of another, either one whose body is compatible with your own, or with the delicate power necessary to alter those conceptual bones prior to insertion. The process would be much more difficult and prone to failure, especially without my guidance.”

Amaryllis appeared some distance away from us, more than a hundred feet away, with a soft pop and a brief bit of light that was startlingly bright in the middle of the night. She was in full armor, helm up, and with her sword out and ready as soon as the teleportation key was safely stowed. She looked toward us, hesitant. “Status?” she called.

“Grak should be assumed compromised,” I called back to her.

“Fuck,” I heard her mutter under her breath as she walked toward us. She stopped some twenty feet away, sword still in hand. “You know that means that you’re assumed compromised too,” she said.

“That’s -- yes,” I said. “In theory, we should assume that everyone is compromised.”

“Such distrust,” said Fallatehr, making no attempt to hide his amusement.

“I know a little bit of soul magic now,” I said.

“Enough to fix you?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I said. “Working on my own, it’s a possibility, but I’m not there yet, and even the process of looking at my soul makes me far more vulnerable than expected.”

“Ah,” said Amaryllis. Her helm hid her eyes, but I could guess that she was looking between us, thinking. “The nonanima is an unreliable eyewitness,” she said.

“Yes,” I replied.

“What about the Eternal Golden Braid?” she asked.

I froze at that, because the thought hadn’t even occurred to me. I reached into my pack and took Ropey out. I was almost certain that he didn’t have a soul, which meant that he would have made a really good lookout. Overlooking him was almost inexcusable, but I was fairly sure that Amaryllis hadn’t thought of him either, because otherwise we could have used him as insurance against malfeasance in the first place. “He was in my pack from the time we scaled down the wall.”

“Suspiciously inconvenient,” said Amaryllis. Her sword was still in hand.

“Poor planning,” I said. “On both our parts.”

Amaryllis sighed. “We have time, two hours until the key is ready again. We’ll stay quarantined from each other until then.”

“We had already decided that,” said Grak.

“Soul magic is not so powerful as you believe,” said Fallatehr. “If it were, the Second Empire would not have crumbled as it did.”

“We don’t know what your further research might have produced,” said Amaryllis. “I’m sure that you understand our perspective on the matter.”

“Yes,” nodded Fallatehr. “It is somewhat amusing, to know that nothing was done and see all this effort going to waste.”

“I’d like us to talk to Valencia,” I said, nodding at the nonanima. “I picked a more respectful name for her.”

Amaryllis frowned. “She is unreliable.”

“Yes,” I said. “But,” I struggled with how to phrase it, conscious of Fallatehr listening in. “I doubt that she’s a perfect liar, and I was hoping that I might be able to gain her loyalty.”

Amaryllis nodded, the metal of her helm clinking once against her breastplate. “Not a perfect solution,” she said. “But one worth pursuing.”

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Alexander Wales

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