We separated Grak from Fallatehr, putting both of them one hundred feet away in opposite directions. Fallatehr was downright cheery about it, either because he was legitimately amused by the paranoia we were displaying, or because he knew that what we were doing didn’t make a bit of difference, or possibly as a bluff.
“I agree with sequestration,” said Grak. “If I have been altered, we don’t know how long it would take to wear off, if it will at all. We should think of a long term solution. My wards are untrustworthy to you now.”
“You’re being very good about this,” I said to Grak.
“It’s the standard we need to have,” said Grak with a sniff from his wide nostrils. “It needs to work without trust.”
“Or rather, trust, but verify,” I said with a nod.
Grak frowned at that formulation of it, since apparently that wasn’t an expression here, but nodded.
“Tell me what happened,” said Amaryllis, as soon as he was far enough away that he couldn’t hear us. All the principal players were some distance apart from each other now, aside from Amaryllis and I, who stood beside each other. She took off her helmet while waiting for my response, and I could see the fatigue on her face.
“Fallatehr gave me a good enough description of soul magic that I was able to access my soul,” I said. “There’s apparently a compulsive effect associated with it -- like a siren song, if that’s an expression here.”
“We have sirens on Aerb, yes,” said Amaryllis.
“Fallatehr didn’t tell me about the effect ahead of time, so I got sort of … in the zone, I guess, wrapped up in exploration. I guess I would call it a zen state.” Amaryllis shook her head marginally. “Oh, um, it’s … that feeling when you’re going with the flow unselfconsciously. Anyway, that went on for an indeterminate amount of time, until I felt someone touch my knee. I was still in a condition where I could react, but I was blind, and it took some work to leave my view of the soul, again, an indeterminate amount of time, but I think probably less.”
“Shit,” said Amaryllis. She looked over at Grak. “So it’s either him alone, or both of you.”
“Both?” I asked, furrowing my brow. “Ah, because you think that if we were both in his thrall, his strategy might be to have suspicion cast on Grak in order to make me appear clear. Seems a bit complex, when he could just have directed both of us to act natural.” I supposed that good cop/bad cop had its charms, but it seemed like an over-complicated scheme to me.
“Agreed,” said Amaryllis with a weary sigh. “I should have asked Fenn for stimulants before I left. Let’s go talk to the nonanima.”
“Everything went well on your end?” I asked. “Fenn is alright?”
“We have a place to stay in Parsmont,” said Amaryllis. “Purchased at unreasonable expense, but with all the amenities we need to bunker down, and without much in the way of neighbors. I was counting on wards from Grak, but those aren’t reliable anymore. We’ll have to make do.”
We reached Valencia, who looked between the two of us with wide eyes. I lit my hand on fire with blood magic in order to give us a bit of light.
“It hasn’t been read in?” asked Amaryllis, looking at me.
“She, not it. And no,” I replied. “We haven’t had any time alone.”
“She could be possessed, even now,” said Amaryllis. She seemed heedless of the fact that Valencia was standing in front of us, watching us, listening to what we said.
“I’m not possessed right now,” said Valencia.
“The only information that statement conveys is that you’re not a demon,” said Amaryllis. “Congratulations on that.”
“Don’t be a bitch,” I said. I regretted that after it came out of my mouth, because Amaryllis and I didn’t have the sort of relationship where she would take that as chiding. Maybe I was more tired than I’d thought I was.
“Sorry,” said Amaryllis, rubbing her face. “I’m tired, this is …” she gestured at Valencia. “It’s a bad idea.”
“She has an affliction,” I said. “I’m not going to devalue her over something that’s completely beyond her control.”
Loyalty Increased: [Null Pointer Exception] lvl 6!
Her loyalty was climbing fast. I was hoping that giving her a name would have given her a name on the game layer, but no such luck. I was also a little bit worried about what was going to happen when she hit 10 Loyalty. Amaryllis and Fenn had Twinned Souls with me, and Valencia didn’t have a soul to twin to. I didn’t think that it was possible to crash the game, but I was still a little leery.
(I didn’t actually think that the null pointer exception was ‘real’, given that the simulation displayed startling sophistication in almost all other regards, and I would have thought that to get something like this running, writing pristine code would be a must … but on second thought, there was nothing to say that the various layers of the game hadn’t been cobbled together by different agents working on different goals, and it was entirely possible that I was living in the equivalent of a triple-A game that someone had downloaded a lot of half-baked mods for.)
“Besides,” I continued, “It should be easy enough to tell whether she’s possessed, all we need to do is pre-arrange some codewords.”
“Possession implies access to memories,” said Amaryllis.
“Um,” I said. “Shit. For just a nonanima, or for anyone?”
“From what I know, it’s very difficult for a devil that’s taken possession to comb through the memories of the possessed, especially if they have to do it while maintaining a conversation,” said Amaryllis. “For a nonanima, it’s as though those memories were their own.”
“Shit,” I said again, looking at Valencia. “Meaning that we can’t use codewords, because they’d be instantly compromised.” I met Valencia’s eyes. “Do you have any ideas for how we could get around that?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I replied. “We can work around it. Can I ask, are you aware of what happens when you’re possessed?”
“Yes,” nodded Valencia. “I wish so much that I weren’t.” I opened my mouth to speak, but she rushed on. “It’s like I’m a glove that someone is sticking their hand into.”
“I’m going to figure out a way to stop that from happening,” I said.
Loyalty Increased: [Null Pointer Exception] lvl 7!
“On to the interrogation,” said Amaryllis with a short yawn. “Joon, you realize that if she’s possessed by a devil, that devil will give us the exact wrong answers?”
“Yes,” I said. “And if it can read memories like they were its own, then that’s a serious problem. I was thinking that we could just re-ask over and over, but that doesn’t actually work, because a second devil could build off the story the first one told, and a contradiction doesn’t actually mean that much, because devils could contradict each other just to reduce trust.”
“You’re not treating her like enough of a problem,” said Amaryllis. “You’re being academic about it. Demons and devils exist almost purely to cause pain and suffering.”
“Almost?” I asked.
“They’re as imperfect as people are,” said Amaryllis with a shrug. She turned toward Valencia. “Isn’t that right?”
Valencia nodded slowly.
“So tell me what happened while I was gone,” said Amaryllis.
“The dwarf, Grakhuil, put up a ward around me,” said Valencia. “He sat in front of me, watching me while he ate. He didn’t offer me any food. He was listening to Fallatehr and Juniper. When they stopped talking, he went over to see why. Fallatehr kept saying that Juniper had fallen to the soul trance and would need to be pulled out of it sooner than later. Grakhuil kept asking questions that didn’t go anywhere. He went over to try to bring Juniper out of it, and Juniper got violent at the touch. Grakhuil and Fallatehr both talked a lot after that but they didn’t really say anything. It was all about the soul trance. Then Juniper came out of it on his own. Fallatehr didn’t touch either of them.”
Amaryllis rubbed her eyes for a moment and took a breath, then looked at me. “Well, that’s not helpful. On a scale from one to a supposed maximum of twenty, how much should we trust her?”
“Seven,” I said. “Conditional on her not being possessed at the moment.” Loyalty was a less valuable metric than normal here, given the circumstances.
“That high?” asked Amaryllis.
“Yes,” I nodded, then turned to Valencia. “But … no offense, Valencia, but you’ve been with Fallatehr your entire life?”
“Yes,” she said. “I was born in the prison.” She looked around her, then toward the walls of the penitentiary. “This is my first time seeing the rest of the world.”
That one hit me hard, because we were still on the same small, flat, mostly featureless island. We hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards from the walls of the penitentiary, and that was further than she’d ever been in her life. Unfortunately, I was pretty sure that the next bit of her life wasn’t going to be me showing her around Aerb and having a good time. We couldn’t even safely remove the manacles from her, not without wards, and we couldn’t trust the wards anymore.
“Either she’s lying to us, possessed by a devil that’s lying to us, or we’re legitimately in the clear,” said Amaryllis.
“So, two in three chance,” I said. Amaryllis frowned at me. “That was a joke.”
“Yes, I’m well aware,” said Amaryllis.
“The question is what we do,” I replied.
“That’s not something that we’re going to discuss in front of her,” said Amaryllis. She started walking away without asking my opinion on the matter, and I shot an apologetic look at Valencia.
Loyalty Increased: [Null Pointer Exception] lvl 8!
Her Loyalty was going up frighteningly fast.
“Okay,” said Amaryllis, when we were out of earshot. “Our biggest problem at the moment is that Grak has to be assumed compromised, which means that we’re going to have to sleep in shifts, because we can’t just put up wards to protect us from Fallatehr and his people.”
“And they aren’t going to need to sleep in shifts, so they’ll get an edge on us that way,” I said. “Minor, maybe, given that we have no pressing issues beyond my education.”
“We’re all run down,” said Amaryllis. “You less than me, it seems. It’s three on five, and we can’t leave Grak with them, which is a complication that we might not be able to afford.” She looked over at Fallatehr, who was sitting in the lotus position far away with his eyes closed. “Smug fuck. Fenn is of the opinion that we should kill him as soon as you have the skill unlocked, and I’m inclined to agree.”
“But I already have it unlocked,” I said.
“Yes,” said Amaryllis, not taking her eyes from Fallatehr.
“More importantly, I’m not sure how easily I’m going to be able to raise the skill above the soft-cap of 20 without someone to teach me,” I said.
Amaryllis turned her tired eyes toward me. “You understand how that sounds to me?”
“Oh,” I said. “Ah, yes, it sounds like I’m offering up a defense of him because he got to me.”
I rubbed my face. I was starting to flag too, though I thought I still had reserves left. “I do think that I might be able to heal myself without any further aid from him, because Essentialism -- that’s the skill name -- went up just from poking around and changing a few things --”
“You what,” said Amaryllis.
“I had to,” I said. “I didn’t have any choice in the matter. Essentialism is a second game interface, or maybe third depending on how it’s counted, and there were game messages that prevented me from leaving until I fixed something that had apparently been there since the start. While I was doing that, I made a few very minor changes, because the interface told me that I wasn’t going to be able to alter them again for another few levels, at the very least. The skills are what I had to fix, and they’re all that I changed. I’m not limited to the grid of forty, it’s two-hundred and fifty-six.”
Well, it was actually 257, since I had split Deception and Stealth from each other. My guess was that it was two to the eighth, plus Custom for any number of skills I might have wanted to create on my own. But Custom was excluded, as were a whole host of others, so that was somewhat moot. I was going to have to compile all the new information and figure out how it lined up with recorded history. It was already my guess that the exclusions were in numbered order of when they’d been applied and would match up with what was laid out in The Exclusionary Principle, but I would need to check -- and there were a whole lot more skills listed as excluded than there were exclusion zones.
“Okay,” said Amaryllis, shifting uncomfortably and breathing out with clenched teeth before becoming calm again. “Can I ask you nicely not to touch your own soul again, not under the guidance of Fallatehr, and not until we’ve had a chance to talk it over?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t feel like I really had an option, and the game itself informed me that it could be undone later, if we really need it to.” I was more worried that the specific skills I’d started the game with were going to be vital somehow and I’d run into their hidden purpose before getting another chance to rearrange my skills.
“Any other surprises I’d find unpleasant?” asked Amaryllis.
“Our souls are linked, probably by the Twinned Souls thing that powered you up at Loyalty 10, given that it’s only a connection to you and Fenn, not Grak and the locus -- or Valencia,” I said. “I can access your soul at a large distance.”
“Fuck,” said Amaryllis. “Meaning that if you’re compromised, then Fenn and I are too.”
“Meaning, I guess, that you have to assume that I’m not compromised,” I said. “Because if Fallatehr had gotten to me, there wouldn’t be anything that you could do about it.”
“I could kill you, I suppose,” said Amaryllis, looking me up and down. She didn’t seem serious about it, not like she was issuing a threat, more like she was publicly contemplating alternative courses of action.
“You could try to kill me,” I replied. (I couldn’t imagine that it was going to come to that, but I wasn’t just making a boast. She had better armor and a better sword, but I had far more magic than she did, and from what I could tell, superior melee skills.)
“Alright, fine,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t think that Fenn and I could have kept you and Grak quarantined from Fallatehr and the others anyway, not if it’s the two of us against the six of you.”
“Unless I’m lying about the link,” I said. “In which case I just told the right lie to let me into the henhouse.”
Amaryllis nodded. “True. I’m starting to think that this Fallatehr plan was a mistake.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Do you want to know everything that I know about the soul, the things that I learned from looking at my own rather than what I have to take Fallatehr’s word on? My guess is that what I see is different from what he sees, and that might give me an edge.”
“Sure,” said Amaryllis. “But you’re probably going to have to repeat it all for Fenn and Grak -- you haven’t told Grak?”
“No,” I said. “He’s assumed compromised.”
“Just checking,” said Amaryllis. She stifled a yawn. “You’re going to have to repeat it for them, assuming that we want their help, once we’ve cleared him. And I’m not in the best condition for listening.”
I told her everything anyway, in part because there wasn’t a lot else we needed to be doing, aside from maybe cross-referencing Grak’s story with Valencia and Fallatehr’s, but I had no faith in eyewitness accounts, and even a contradiction wouldn’t help us all that much. There was no way that anything they said would exonerate Grak, meaning that we’d need to keep all our precautions in place anyway. Besides that, I was operating under the assumption that if Fallatehr might have had up to a half hour to work on Grak, and some level of complicity on the part of Valencia, he wouldn’t have made any incredibly stupid mistakes.
When I was done, Amaryllis sat in silence for a moment. I could see from her posture that she’d locked her armor in place, saving her the trouble of using her muscles to stand up. “Assuming that he’s got a view remotely similar to your own, values seem like the quickest way to bring Grak to his side,” said Amaryllis. “All he would have to do is find Fallatehr on the list of values and increase the numbers.”
“I’m not sure that he gets to see numbers,” I replied. “He hasn’t given his own description of the soul, only an analogy. But yes, I think that would be the first thing that I would look at if I can get a view into Grak. And that is the fastest way to clear him, not to mention that he shouldn’t have any legitimate reason to object.” I frowned slightly. This could all have been avoided if he was more loyal to me. Twinned Souls would remove the need for his informed consent.
“We’ll have to take a look at your complete list of options later, when we have time to write everything down and make a catalog of what we know. I’m sure you’ll agree that you made some mistakes there?” Amaryllis raised an eyebrow, and I grudgingly nodded. I wasn’t confident that I actually had made mistakes, given the short time frame, the pressure, and the missing information, but I was pretty sure that when I was next able to change skills, it would be with a concrete plan and optimized build.
Amaryllis pulled out the teleportation key and turned it over in her hands. “We still have a little bit of time,” she said. “Have you checked yourself over?”
I shook my head. “The soul trance scares me. I mean, I think that it probably wouldn’t be optimal for me to try again, in addition to being scary.”
“You came out of it once,” said Amaryllis. “More time in it means higher skill in Essentialism, given what you said, and that should be the skill that governs your ability to escape from it.”
“I already know that I wasn’t affected by him,” I said. I didn’t care whether he lived or died, save for his ability to help me.
“I’d like you to check for subtle signs,” said Amaryllis. She hesitated biting her lip hard for a second. “I don’t know how much you looked at my soul, --”
“I left as soon as I realized what it was,” I replied.
“Thank you,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll … I don’t know what’s written there, but we might have to have a talk, just to clear the air. And if you have time, checking Fenn and I over for a baseline might be wise.” She grimaced as she said it, not trying to hide her distaste.
I set Ropey as lookout, then looked toward my soul once more.
I loved books. Of all the forms of mass media, books were the most personal and the most intimate, not just because they took longer to consume than anything except maybe a season of television, but because reading was something that you did in private. And maybe more than that, reading had an element of interpretation that was rare in film and television, because prose was meant to be evocative rather than strictly literal, abstract by the very nature of the medium.
So the first time I went to Tiff’s house, months before we started dating, I paid special attention to her bookshelf. We were working on our half of a group project together, just Tiff and I, alone in her bedroom together but with the door open, and I had gotten bored enough that my attention was drifting.
Most of what was on her shelf was nonfiction, and most of that nonfiction was in the form of popular, layman’s level explanations of a field or subject: books like The World is Flat, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Guns, Germs, and Steel. Mixed in with those were older classics, Wealth of Nations, The Origin of Species, Plato’s Republic, and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. A section of books caught my eye, The Second Sex, Sexual Politics, and The Delta of Venus, all feminist works, judging by their titles, all well-read, judging by their spines. Her fiction section was less interesting, given that it held few surprises, and almost no fantasy or science fiction beyond the staple series of The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Harry Potter, none of which really counted, since I considered them part of standard cultural literacy.
But none of that interested me as much as a set of ten slender moleskine notebooks, each one embossed with her initials.
“Let me know if you want to borrow anything,” said Tiff. “It’s not really a lending library, but I’m always happy to talk about books.”
“Those?” I asked, gesturing to the embossed moleskines.
“Ah,” said Tiff, sitting up a bit. “I’ve been keeping a diary since I was twelve. Decidedly not for lending, but you can take a look if you’d like.”
That felt like a trap to me, but I had no idea what kind of trap. I reached over and pulled down one of the notebooks and opened it to a random page. Instead of text, I was greeted with lines and dots in different configurations. I stared at it for a moment, trying to see a pattern, then gave up and looked at Tiff.
“It’s a cipher!” she said with a smile. She bit her lip as though to stop her smile from growing too indecently wide. “I made it when I was eleven, after I found my mom snooping, prior to the start of the diaries proper -- got them from my aunt, best present ever. Totally uncrackable.”
“That’s … not likely to be true,” I said.
“It was a joke,” said Tiff with a frown. “You remember us talking last week about how you don’t roll your own crypto?” We’d had a long discussion on the topic after the party had broken into a mausoleum and blown through five of my six prepared puzzles in the space of an hour. It was a conversation that I was sure would have made someone actually knowledgeable on the subject facepalm. (They’d gotten stuck on the last puzzle for about an hour, to the point where they were getting bored, which made it a bad puzzle.)
“Right, sorry,” I said. I looked down at the book in my lap and flipped through it, looking at more of the dots and lines. It took a bit to see the first pattern, which was that you could sort the dots and lines into glyphs, no more than four lines per glyph, no more than four dots per glyph. Line position seemed to matter, as did dot position, not just whether there were more or fewer of them. “Still, having a custom cipher like this means security through obscurity, and given that it’s on paper in your room, you’re probably safe.” I looked through the pages some more. “There are more glyphs than letters.” Meaning that it wasn’t a simple substitution cipher. There weren’t spaces either, which meant that one of the glyphs indicated a space, which I didn’t think would be too hard to figure out, but it strangely wasn’t visible at a glance.
“Well, definitely not letting you borrow it,” said Tiff. “I know you’d be overcome by the urge to crack it.”
“Is there anything in here that I’d be interested in?” I asked, leafing through it again. Here and there I saw pictures, small little doodles that were set within hand-drawn boxes separate from the ciphertext itself.
“Eh, it’s personal stuff,” said Tiff with a shrug. “Most people don’t care about personal stuff, except because it’s personal. Like, most of your life you don’t pay that much attention to anyone else unless they’re a close friend, and even then, probably not.”
“I think I pay attention to you,” I said. “I mean, the appropriate amount of attention.”
“Are we close friends?” asked Tiff with a raised eyebrow. “Not that I’m saying you’re not --”
“I mean, you’re part of the group,” I said. “We spend something like, I don’t know, ten or fifteen hours a week together outside of school, plus another few hours at lunch, plus more hours in class. It’s part-time job levels of friendship.”
“Yeah,” said Tiff, straightening up somewhat. “I just sometimes feel like I’m the fifth wheel.”
“Arthur, me, Reimer, Craig, Tom,” I said, counting quickly on my fingers. “You’d be the sixth wheel.” We had other members who only showed up inconsistently or for special occasions who made for seventh, eighth, and ninth wheels too.
She reached over and grabbed a pillow from her bed, which she flung at me. “It’s an expression, you dolt.”
“Just joking,” I said, batting her pillow aside. “And we do think of you as one of the guys.”
“Blegh,” said Tiff, briefly sticking out her tongue. “I hate that.”
“‘Guys’?” I asked.
“No, ‘guys’ is normally fine,” she said. “Except in that context, where it’s clearly gendered.”
“Ah,” I said. I set the diary to the side.
“It’s like saying that I can be part of the group, so long as I pretend I’m male, or masculine, it’s an implication of or suggestion towards tomboyism, which is fine, if you’re a tomboy, but I’m not,” said Tiff. I didn’t have much to say to that, except ‘sorry’, which felt too weak, so I kept quiet. “Arthur would have jumped at that bait.”
“Would he?” I asked. “And was it bait?”
“Arthur bait,” said Tiff with a shrug. “See, this is why I think I’m not a part of the group. Just ... makin’ things weird.” She folded her arms across her knees. “That’s the hardest part about finding new friends, you don’t have all those grooves worn into place. You don’t know how to talk to each other, not really, not about things that are outside the bounds of the everyday normal-person back-and-forth.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, I don’t really know, because it’s always been other people coming into our group, not me trying to -- infiltrate is the wrong word.”
“Like I’m a spy?” asked Tiff, smiling at me.
“Hey, I said it was the wrong word. Integrate?” I asked. “Brings up too many associations with Jim Crow to me.” I tapped the diary. “I sometimes wish that it were possible to data dump. I mean it would be, in a sense, possible for me to get to know you really well by reading through four or five years of diaries, but then you’d also have to do the same for me, and I don’t actually think that we’d get those grooves worn into each other.” That sounded a little too intimate to me, as far as imagery went, with the suggestion of friction, and I regretted it immediately. “And anyway, a diary isn’t really a record of who you are, it’s a record of who you’ve been, it’s the component elements that served to make you, not the actuality of you. It might be helpful for a reconstruction of Tiffany, maybe.”
Tiff was watching me, in a way that made me feel self-conscious. “What?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said Tiff. “Have I ever told you that I find you interesting?”
“Literally no one has ever told me that,” I replied. “They used to call me the default character.”
Tiff laughed, covering her mouth. “I am so sorry, but I can completely see that.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“But that’s not who you actually are,” she continued. “I think that’s what reading the diary would be like, maybe, you would see all this stuff in there that was totally typical of someone my age, the kind of things that are completely innocuous and interchangeable, and then packed there in the middle you’d find these little revealing sparks of me. And that’s why I don’t feel like I’m really one of the guys, because you’ve all known each other long enough that you’ve seen those flashes of truth in each other.”
“It’s like a signal to noise thing, sure,” I said. I looked down at the enciphered diary again, one of many up on the shelves. “And you’re sure that you don’t want me cracking this?”
“One hundred percent,” said Tiff. “Top secret, eyes only. If you want to get to know me, it’s got to be the hard way.”
There was a little game I played, later on, where I tried to figure out whether she had been flirting with me, or saying things that were meant to have double meanings. She was self-confessedly bad at giving signals, and in that heady state of infatuation (and later, love) I kept seeing strands of it in every interaction we’d ever had. It was hard to know whether I was just making things up, when I played back those memories over and over.
She was right about the diaries. I didn’t think that they contained anything all that important, because my own diaries would probably have been equally uninteresting, and she was ready and willing to tell me anything that I wanted to know about her. But because there was a puzzle sitting there waiting to be solved, and because it was information that I wasn’t allowed free access to, my eyes were drawn to her neatly ordered diaries every time I came over.
I looked to my values first, because from what I knew about the soul, that was the first thing that I would change if I wanted to quickly manipulate someone. The list could be dynamically reordered based on the parameters that each value had, but it was easier to just think in the direction of a concept and see its place on the list. “Fallatehr” was on there, with a negative value attached to him, and I felt like that was probably enough to clear myself of suspicion. Just to be safe, I went after a few related concepts, like “Soul Magic” and “Elves”, but neither was terribly high in the rankings, and certainly not higher than I thought they should be in principle, nor were those values in conflict with my memories of how I had felt about those things.
I had to assume that Fallatehr wasn’t all-powerful, because if he could rewrite all my values, and my memories and expectations of those values, then there was pretty much nothing that I could do to detect him or counter his ability in any way.
I was already expecting him to be stronger than soul mages were historically considered to be, but there had to be limits to that. Historically speaking, a soul mage needed minutes of contact, but those were workmen soul mages, not an elite like Fallatehr. If he could affect someone through incidental touch, then we were already fucked, and had been back when Fenn put him into her glove, not to mention the fact that the teleportation key required direct contact. So we had already pinned our success on the idea that he wasn’t possessed of godlike power. Now, “that shouldn’t be possible” wasn’t exactly the more reassuring line of thinking, especially when dealing with unknowns, but that was what we had.
I went looking at other parts of my soul, trying to keep half my attention focused back on the real world. I had Amaryllis out there, and knew that she wouldn’t fuck around (whatever her other flaws), plus Ropey wrapped around my arm and actually keeping guard this time. I was still trying to go fast and look things over, rather than trying to learn about the soul itself, or look over any of the presented data too carefully. I briefly found what appeared to be social modelling, and checked in only long enough to see that Fallatehr was there and nothing about the tags and data fields looked too suspect, especially since none of them painted a flattering picture of him. There was nothing that I liked about him, and apparently his lisp mattered more to me than I was willing to admit, even though it made me cringe at how shallow I was.
Everything seemed to be in order though, or at least as in order as I had expected it to be. I wasn’t going to rush on making changes to my soul’s conception of my body, nor my values, because that seemed like exactly the sort of thing that might hide a technical trap that would make things worse for me. I didn’t trust Fallatehr not to screw me over like that, given that it was in his interests to make himself indispensable, and having me screw up was probably his fastest way to get access to my soul.
So with that, I followed the thread to Amaryllis, to see what her soul had in store.
I ignored her body, as best I could, even though I could feel a visceral reaction at seeing it, my heart beating faster and my chest seeming to constrict, even against the deadness of my senses there, even through the muddling that the soul trance was inflicting on me. Amaryllis as she was in the world was clad in thick armor, sweaty, tired, and run down by the fighting, but as seen by her soul she was simply perfect. I felt guilty about looking at her, and turned to other corners of her soul instead, checking her over.
Her skills were more general than I had thought they would be, though not quite so generalized as my own. I was mildly surprised to find that she had skills, since the soul seemed perfectly capable of including skills outside of the organized system that my own soul had. She didn’t seem to have the same limits as I did, since there were more than forty skills with explicit values attached to them, which raised questions for another day. I had so many questions; if the soul could mark down a prototypical defensive maneuver with a sword, why even attach numbers to it? There was this entire system that the game level seemed to have been slapped on top of just for the sake of being more like a game.
I tore myself away from the skills before I could get too wrapped up in looking them over, moving on to her values, which I still thought were the most likely place I would see an alteration. It was also the place I thought would sate my curiosity.
Sorted by weighting, “Amaryllis” was at the top of her own list of values, and in second was “Autonomy”, then “Power”, then “Life”, and it wasn’t until I got to the tenth on the list that I found something that wasn’t either personal or abstract (or both): I was there, as number 10. I wasn’t quite sure how to take the list of values, given that they had different variables attached to them which I assumed altered how they were processed; my actual, experienced values only vaguely aligned with the list I’d been shown. I was hoping that it was the same for Amaryllis, and that what I was looking at was some redundancy within the systemization of concepts. At any rate, I checked for Fallatehr on there, and saw that he had a negative value, which to me was sufficient proof against tampering.
I hadn’t felt anyone touch me, and I still felt confident that I could pull myself out, so I moved back down the line to my own soul, and then up towards where Fenn’s soul awaited me, separated by thousands of miles though we were.
I was surprised to see the scars on her arms, along with the thin one that ran across her body from the bisection, but they made sense, because magical healing hadn’t wiped them away. I moved away from her body quickly though, not because I was embarrassed or ashamed of my reaction toward seeing her, but because I wanted to make sure that she was okay in the ways that mattered more to me. I missed her, and wanted to spend some time alone. We hadn’t had enough of a chance to talk since coming to the prison, and though it had only been a day, it felt like longer.
Her skills were more narrowly focused, but I didn’t look at them for long except to boggle at the fact that her Bows skill was in the low 50s, and to see a general pattern of specialization that either implied a weird stat distribution for her abilities or something else entirely. The few things that she was good at, she was really good at, but it seemed to go contrary to the design principles that ensured lower values due to multiple ability dependence. That wasn’t the purpose of my visit though. I was trying to make sure that she hadn’t been touched by Fallatehr or his cronies, that nothing had been obviously altered, and that we’d been, at worst, subtly altered.
Her values seemed to be the place to go for that, and I looked at them with a little more trepidation than I’d looked at Amaryllis’.
Where Amaryllis had a large number of abstract or high-level values, at least by naive weighting, Fenn’s looked more like my own, focused on the people close to me rather than on concepts. She was at the top of her own list, which seemed sensible enough to me -- between the three of us, I was the odd one out on that count, as I valued myself less -- and after that was “Nellan”, then “Juniper”, then “Amaryllis”, “Solace”, “Grak”, and “Six-Eyed Doe” (but who the fuck was Nellan?). I reordered the list to bring up Fallatehr, whose value was listed as not just negative, but at such a high negative number that I was almost alarmed by it. If I was reading the collection of values right, there were a number of things that Fenn would have given up in order to kill him.
I reordered the list, this time sorting from low to high, and saw a field of names, the majority of them typical of the elven names I had encountered thus far. I grimaced at that. Her companion quest was to go to the Isle of Eversummer, and my best guess was that it wasn’t going to end nicely for them. What I was seeing was just confirmation of that, but it was unpleasant nonetheless, because even if Aerbian elves were universally assholes, a part of me rebelled against the idea of slaughtering a village.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and instantly dropped out of my view of her soul, extending my sword from bladed ring into full-fledged sword in an instant.
“Time to go,” said Amaryllis.
“Ropey?” I asked the length of rope that was wrapped around my arm. “Anything I need to worry about?”
One end of him curled up toward me and made a loop that shook from side to side. I looked around me, toward Fallatehr, then Valencia, then Grak, all in the positions that I had left them in, then back to Amaryllis.
“I hate this,” I said.
“It’s necessary,” said Amaryllis. “Demons and devils, a close friend we can no longer trust, and a man who would tear apart our souls in an instant. They’re not the best bedfellows. As soon as I’ve gotten some sleep, I might try to renegotiate with Fallatehr. If we can jettison Rehta and Lehpenn, we might be in a better position.” She hesitated. “Was there anything in my soul that we need to talk about?”
“No,” I replied. “Nothing that I saw, anyway. You were just about what I expected.”
“Alright,” said Amaryllis with a frown. “Good,” but I got the distinct impression that she had been hoping for a different answer. Before I could ask she turned aside and called over to Grak, then to Fallatehr, and whatever it was she had been concerned about, I decided that it was a thread that I could pull on later, when we were both in better condition, or I could simply search through her soul until I stumbled upon whatever it was she thought I would find there.
With some deliberation about positioning, Valencia returned to manacles, and a good deal of wariness on our part, we left for Parsmont, the City of Equal Standing.