When I returned to my soul as I knew it, the creepy black umbilical cord that had led to the Dungeon Master’s void was gone -- and somewhat distressingly, so were two of the white lines that I’d been assuming would reveal the other two companions. Had he changed something? Had I changed something in the course of that visit? I felt a hand slapping my thigh and remembered about the time limit, and tried my best to put off all my questions, all the second-guessing I was sure there was to do, until later. I was, after all, on a mission.
I pulled out of my soul entirely and was shocked by the world around me. My companions were limned in light of different colors, red for Fenn, white for Amaryllis, purple for Grak, and green for the locus, whose color extended beyond its mortal form to the grasses around us, and even beyond that, to the trees at the edges of the bottle. Valencia was without a color, and that was what jogged some part of my memory that I’d never used before -- I was able to see souls.
“Joon?” asked Amaryllis.
“I got screwed on this deal,” said Fenn, folding her arms across her chest. No Symbiosis effect for her from the points I'd shifted over.
“Working,” I said. “Two minutes per point, 102 right now.” I closed my eyes, waiting three painfully slow seconds, and looked down the list of virtues.
Soul Sight: Grants a visual representation of souls, each with a unique color, which can be distinguished with acuity beyond the limits of the eye. Applies to both the soul and any magic which interfaces with a soul in some meaningful way.
Soul Saturation: Knowledge of your soul allows it to fully suffuse you, giving a number of benefits to a wide variety of magic. Your blood works as an infusion for the purposes of pustule magic. You can use your blood as though it were magical ink (4 ζ /mL) for the purposes of ink magic. Your bones are considered wood for the purposes of wood magic. Required connective power for plants is reduced by half. You may retract your soul from your extremities for the purposes of bypassing wards. Any magic items or magics which limit projection or application to your eyes, hands, feet, or mouth, can instead be projected or applied from any part of your body. Your skin and/or carapace is treated as though it were skin and/or carapace for the purposes of skin magic and carapace magic, whichever is more beneficial. Runes may be written on your skin as though it were prepared vellum. More benefits apply in specific exclusion zones: consult the manual for more detail.
Soul Scaphism: You can carve out parts of other people to use for your own purposes. Any benefits are temporary; any costs are permanent.
Soul Symbiote: Double your effective skill in Bone Magic, Blood Magic, Skin Magic, Carapace Magic, Pustule Magic, and the flower magic aspect of Horticulture, up to a cap of 75. Double your effective connection to any magical item which interfaces with your soul, unless doing so has associated maluses. Increase your skill with any specialty or subschool of magic that uses the soul by 20 points, up to a cap of 50.
I didn’t spend too much time staring at those; there was nothing immediately useful that I could see, and I wasn’t going to try Scaphism without having any good idea what direction I could put it toward. The idea of scraping out the druidic connection from Solace’s soul and attempting to use it to fix the problem with some combination of druidic powers and super-buffed Essentialism was tempting in some respects but utterly horrifying in others.
I snapped out of the menu and looked around, noting some of what Soul Sight had been talking about, not just in the unique colors of the people, but in the magical items they wore, most of them tinted with the white of Amaryllis’ soul. Each of the bottled souls we had set out showed their own colors, each utterly unique and identifiable as such even though my sense of color had never been that good.
“I might be able to bring Solace back,” I said. I turned to Valencia. “Can you and the locus fake a druidic connection, maybe?”
“I-I would have to hurt it,” said Valencia.
“What are you thinking?” asked Amaryllis.
“I -- shit, I think I’m back below 100 again,” I said. “Yaxukasu Axud, the rebirth ritual, I thought that I might be able to do it. I had some insight into it, it’s a subschool of druidic magic, which isn’t actually a listed skill per se but counts as close enough for the capstone ability. I don’t have an actual druidic connection though, and I think that I might be able to temporarily take Solace’s, but I think we’d get her back as a non-druid, if I read all the things right. Sorry, trying to move fast, I have other skills that I can give up to stay in the zone.”
“You can do it with just a soul?” asked Amaryllis.
“That’s how it’s done,” I replied, reaching down to pick up the jar that had Solace’s soul within it. “We could do it, now, I think, if Valencia can take on a bit of the locus’ power to cast the spell.”
“I don’t want to hurt it!” said Valencia, raising her voice.
“Hurt it to save it,” I replied. “I’m fading fast, a point every two minutes, from what I can see, and I didn’t really have enough time to look around, but it seemed like Yaxukasu Axud was our best option.”
“It creates more problems,” said Grak. “And it’s not a solution to the locus being stuck in a bottle.”
“We could bring Solace back,” I replied. “It’s a fix to the current problem, which is the bottle being out of balance, and I have to say that without her, I’m not actually sure that I can solve the bigger picture problem, and certainly not in the time we have left, which is,” I looked around at the stifling heat and partially dying grass, “Days or weeks.”
“But … it’s a full birth thing, right?” asked Fenn. “Like, one of us would have to get pregnant with Solace, and, you know,” she squatted slightly and made a gesture with her hands, the universal sign for a baby falling out.
“I volunteer,” said Amaryllis. She turned to Fenn. “I’ll need The Book of Blood, please, I need to check for compatibility with crantek in case that’s an issue. Continue without me, I’m with Juniper, and time is short.”
Fenn popped the book out and handed it over. “Pretty sure that even Amaryllis can’t make a baby in a matter of days, and even if she did, a newborn Solace would still be a newborn, not the master druid that we knew and, debatably, loved.”
“There have got to be solutions to that problem,” I said. “Something like the opposite of a revision mage? Toss the bottle into the looping exclusion zone as a way to buy time?” I saw Grak’s face go sour at that suggestion, and barrelled ahead with more half-baked ideas. “Some kind of Narnia effect somewhere? A hyperbolic time chamber?”
“Kuum Doona has one,” said Amaryllis, glancing up from the book only briefly.
“The place that we have a quest for has a hyperbolic time chamber?” I asked, staring at her. “And it’s literally called that?”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. She slammed the book shut. “I can’t guarantee that it’s charged, though it should be after such a long time, and that’s another problem that we can find a solution to later if it’s actually a problem. Crantek and human are cross-compatible, if it matters for the ritual.”
“We’re rushing this plan,” said Grak.
“We have to,” I replied. “Unless you want to wait another handful of days while I train up skills to pour into Essentialism again, time that we’re already short on?”
“I vote against,” said Grak.
“I vote for,” I replied.
“I vote for,” said Amaryllis.
“I vote for too, so long as I don’t have to be the pregnant one,” said Fenn.
“Good,” I said. I turned toward Valencia, to tell her to get ready, and saw tears streaming down her cheeks. Fuck. “Hey, are you okay?” I asked, still speaking a little faster than I would have liked, not quite controlling my tone.
“I don’t want to hurt it,” said Val, looking over at the Six-Eyed Doe, which was standing nearby, not seeming to grasp the importance of the task.
“I honestly think that the locus is going to die if you don’t,” I replied. “Sometimes we have to do things that we really don’t want to do, because that’s the right thing to do. You can complain, and vent to us, and voice all your objections, but even if it’s hard, you still have to do the right thing.”
Val nodded and said “okay” in a small voice.
“I’ll tell you when, and what to do,” I replied. I reached down into my soul and was almost about to start giving up points when I snapped to my senses and retreated from my soul entirely. “Fallatehr’s soul, please,” I said. Fenn frowned and handed over the bottle; I was extremely grateful that we’d had the foresight to give him his own small bottle, something that I was guessing would become standard practice from now on.
I’d tried tapping into a raw soul before, and had no luck, even with 24 Essentialism. You’d think it would be easier, rather than harder, but touching a soul was all about following connections, most of which came in the form of magic emanating from the soul, creating conceptual threads that I could tug on. The raw soul, the anima exa, as Fallatehr had put it, had almost no connection to the world, and that connection consisted only of its pure physical form, one which wasn’t as easy for me to grasp -- had, in fact, proven impossible at 24 Essentialism.
At 91 Essentialism, the connection was almost instant.
I did hesitate, just a little bit, before scraping all of his skill at Essentialism out from him. It seemed evil, to take his life’s work like that, and was certainly the sort of thing that the classical D&D alignment system would consider to be necromancy -- but logically, it couldn’t be worse than letting his soul fade away, could it? According to Fallatehr, souls never actually left Aerb for the hells, which made a certain sort of sense given that bone magic worked even when the soul was no longer around, but I wasn’t sure that I actually owed anything to a soul that would never have a body, especially not if that soul belonged to Fallatehr.
(I would be destroying all future use for Fallatehr. Radically altering his soul and then stuffing it back into a body had been on the table, and maybe still was with the right combinations of magic … but I had been looking for those possibilities within my new understanding of Essentialism, and had found a half dozen pathways toward bringing someone back to life, all of them blocked by one exclusion or another. I was a little bit grateful that the logical thing to do wasn’t just to mindrape Fallatehr and stitch his soul back into a corpse; it would have felt a little bit too evil.)
With Fallatehr’s Essentialism scraped out of him, a curiously sensationless feeling for how momentous and final a thing it seemed to be, I was up in the 180s for Essentialism, which helped the rest of the process go much smoother, especially since I didn’t need to stop to recharge. Scaphism came with another affliction as well, a point lost every ten minutes until they were gone, which meant that I had four afflictions eating away at my points at once, Skilled Trade, Overcapped, Double Overcapped (a larger penalty for being more than twice the cap), and Scaphism. I’d still have hours of time above 100, thanks to Fallatehr.
Yaxukasu Axud was complex, and worse, ever-changing. I didn’t have a set list of instructions to work from, only a vague sense of what to do next, which would shift and warp as we went through them. Ingredients were simple enough, mostly available from the land around us, and those that weren’t we could pull from the clonal kit with a little bit of coaxing. I instructed Val, who did most of the work, with some preparation (stripping bark from yew branches, brushing dirt off stones, that sort of thing) from Fenn and Grak. It was a frustrating process, and took far longer than I felt it should have, in part because of how the ritual kept warping and changing, necessitating that we undo work we’d done more than a few times.
Valencia cried through most of it. Her hands shook, which didn’t help with the ritual. The Six-Eyed Doe cried too, and occasionally let out a bleat of pain, which almost always caused Valencia to stop what she was doing and whisper a strained apology -- and sometimes, whether because she’d stopped what she was doing, or because too much time had passed, the ritual would require something different from us, a new set of flowers picked from the far reaches of the bottle, or circling the soul three times widdershins, or something else equally asinine that seemed all style and no substance. Amaryllis was the one charged with soothing the Six-Eyed Doe, and she did a fair job of it; we briefly tried to have Grak put up a ward that would silence them, but that only caused Valencia to look over every few minutes.
I felt terrible about it. Whatever quasi-mystical thing was happening between the two of them, the Six-Eyed Doe was hurting, and it was hurting Valencia to know that. And that said, it was still what we had decided on doing, and a part of me was getting angry that it was taking longer because of the pain, and there was a chance that we might fail simply because of that distress. I didn’t express that anger, largely because it would have been completely counterproductive, but also because it was another part of myself that I hated. I wanted to be a being of pure, perfect empathy, and instead I had to fake it.
It took us an hour and a half to finish the ritual of Yaxukasu Axud. When it was complete, or at least, complete according to the understanding that I was granted, Valencia collapsed to the ground and the Six-Eyed Doe rose to its feet. The locus trotted over to the area we’d used for the ritual, which was filled with a variety of upright sticks and arranged stones we’d formed into circles, covered with the ashes of innumerable burned herbs, the grass and dirt flattened by how many times we’d moved over it, either getting things into position or as I’d guided Val through the movements the ritual required. The ritual site didn’t look mystical or grand -- it looked like something that Arthur and I might have done when we were kids, if we’d spent more time playing outside.
The Six-Eyed Doe went to the center of the concentric circles and used its mouth to gently take the glass stopper out of the bottle, using more grace than it should by rights have possessed. Then it used its lips to grab the bottle, and lifted it into the air, tilting its head back until the soul within disappeared into the doe’s mouth. The Six-Eyed Doe let the glass bottle fall from its mouth, and looked around at each of us in turn. My understanding of the twisting, warping ritual had come to an end; if there was another step, I didn’t know what it was.
Amaryllis stepped forward, and the Six-Eyed Doe went to greet her. They shared a kiss, Amaryllis tilting her head up, and the locus bowing its head down, and where their mouths met was, briefly, a brilliant light that shone with every color -- I was seeing a soul, more raw than the anima exa, Solace stripped down to her very essence, and though I was, for the time, a master of Essentialism, I couldn’t come close to explaining what had actually happened.
Loyalty Increased: Six-Eyed Doe lvl 5!
When Amaryllis pulled away, she looked light on her feet, as though she’d lost a gallon of blood, and I caught her before she dropped. I’d forgotten how light she was. Her color and vigor returned quickly, and in a matter of seconds she was trying to push me away to stand on her own. Fenn popped an armchair out of Sable and gently pushed Amaryllis down into it.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
Amaryllis touched her stomach. “Fine,” she said. “Good.”
“I’m really, really glad you were the one that jumped on that grenade,” said Fenn. She turned to me. “Do you think ‘Pregnant Virgin Princess’ would make a good band name?”
Quest Accepted: Pregnant Virgin Princess - Amaryllis has accepted the gift of Yaxukasu Axad. In nine months, she will give rebirth to Solace, and the world will once again have a druid -- if there’s a locus to provide her a grove. (Companion Quest)
I had another few hours with increased Essentialism, and didn’t want to waste it. A fair chunk of the time I spent trying to figure out how we were going to get the locus out of the bottle. The big problem was that the locus simply didn’t have enough reach and power to push itself out of the bottle; when it had gone into the bottle, it had been hundreds of miles across, and the prepared interior space was almost its own by default, simple to slip into and claim as part of its domain. Now that the bottle was its only domain, it was trapped, unable to project out because it was too weak. Solace had been able to make tunnels into the locus’ domain, one that was like walking through the center of a tree, the other that was like slipping through a hole bored in rock, but she’d likened those to a straw so thin that you couldn’t drink through it.
With my Soul Sight, I could see a slight glow to the land, a particular shade of green that indicated the locus, the same kind of tint that was on Amaryllis’ magic items, though her shade was a very specific white. Its domain was linked to its soul, somehow, and all we’d really need to do in order to get it growing its domain was to somehow get it to recognize the area outside the bottle as also being part of its domain. Per what Solace had told us, when laying out the problem, that wasn’t going to be so easy; the domain followed ‘natural’ boundaries and out in the wider world that had meant stopping at mountain ranges, at river banks, or where a forest came to an end (all of which were very definitionally fuzzy). So far as the bottle was concerned, it was a very, very steep boundary, not just in the literal sense, but as far as marking where one thing ended and another began.
Solace and the other druids had tried to solve this problem in a variety of ways, none of which had yielded any success, and it was difficult, because “rules” weren’t really a thing that a locus adhered to all that well, so you’d expect munchkining definitions to either fail or succeed pretty much at random -- except that everything they’d tried to mystically attempt to coax the locus back into the world had failed, unambiguously. Solace had often talked in metaphor or with mystical overtones, but she’d been very clear on that last point; her special ritual had led her to us, but nothing else that they had tried, over the course of hundreds of years, had showed any promise.
Essentialism hadn’t helped. Solace had thought that it might, but she’d been led to us by a mysterious, precognitive ritual that hadn’t specified the actual mechanism by which we would be able to help her. Did I need to become a druid and then maximize Essentialism again? I had seen in Solace’s soul well enough to be able to see the druidic connection, but moving it would be destructive and impermanent; I would risk ruining the last druidic connection on Aerb, which was not a risk that I was willing to take, especially because I thought I would make for a terrible druid.
And what did that leave? Something to do with the bottle itself? A massive portal of some kind? If we could dump the entire contents of the bottle out somewhere, maybe that would work, but I didn’t know how we could actually do that, and based on my understanding of the rite of Zorisad Yosivun that Solace had used to find us in the first place, it had to be something to do with the game, or with my ability to learn magic fast, or something, because otherwise her mystical precognitive spell would have found someone else. The solution couldn’t just be going to a specialist in magical glass bottles, because otherwise Solace would have found them, right?
We hadn’t even gotten a quest update; Taking Root was still the same as it ever was, and said that we needed to remove the locus and transplant it. After the conversation I’d had with the Dungeon Master, I didn’t think that meant we were doomed to failure, only that perhaps Solace wasn’t the right direction to take things. The quest descriptions were hints, leaked information that had been leaked to us on purpose, and what they weren’t saying right now was pretty telling. Still, from the heat inside the bottle, it seemed like a stopgap measure was probably the right call, unless there was a clue that we were all missing.
Having not found much in the way of answers to the locus problem, which seemed intractable, I returned to the group and pulled Fenn aside. Amaryllis had her hand on her stomach and was engaged in low conversation with Grak; to my relief, Val was curled up on top of the Six-Eyed Doe.
“Okay,” I said, low enough that the others couldn’t hear. “I have an idea. Do you trust me?”
“For you, my love, anything,” said Fenn. She glanced over at the others. “Also, you’re going to have to talk to Mary about the whole pregnancy thing, she was way too enthusiastic about it, like whatever the baby equivalent of suicidal is. Also, I love secrets, is this a secret?”
“Kind of,” I said. “There’s a thing that I want to try that might be a little bit dangerous. I’d need your consent, and don’t really want the others weighing in.”
“Whatever you want, do it,” said Fenn. She stared at me, glancing briefly down at my lips. “My soul is yours.”
“No,” I said. “That’s creepy, your soul is your own.”
“You’re no fun,” said Fenn. “Just do the thing. Surprise me.”
I touched her chest and closed my eyes to connect with her soul. I wasn’t terribly surprised to feel her moving my hand lower, so that I was touching her boob, and I could imagine the wink she would give if anyone noticed the both of us standing stock-still in that position. The touch was really more symbolic than practical anyway; I already had a direct path into her soul anytime I wanted.
I looked over her body, as conceived by her soul. I really did love her; I hoped that 42 Skin Magic was enough. We’d taken the tattoo mage Leonold’s soul out back in Silmar City, but it was long gone, back before we’d had any inkling that we might have a use for it, probably dumped into the generator’s tank in the basement of Weik Handum, or maybe sold on the streets of Barren Jewel. It would have come in handy; in a way, I was glad that it wasn’t a Chekhov’s Gun that had been laying in wait to fire all this time.
The wording on Soul Symbiote was the same as on Blade-Bound, ‘effective skill’, which didn’t appear to grant new virtues, but I could make sense of the scars on her all the same. The power of the soul emanated from the skin. This was what gave power to the tattoos, in combination with the magical reagents that went into them. Scars were different, a redirection and capturing of the emanated energy, the curls and whorls gathering it up and pushing it back in toward the soul in specific ways.
(An idea popped into my head of a skintight casing that would slip over my skin and capture all of that emanated energy, like a mobile Dyson sphere for the soul … but I realized at once that it would take a year of searching out rare ingredients and the GDP of a mid-sized nation, even leaving aside that I didn’t have very much time until the practical knowledge would fade away.)
I didn’t think that I would have been able to scar her from scratch, but I could fix the scars, reposition them so that they would capture the energy right. I wasn’t so susceptible to the soul trance as I had been, but I could still feel myself getting lost in the work, moving the scars around, fixing the nearly-imperceptible disruptions and misalignments in the patterns that had been caused by the normal processes of growth, wear, and tear. I fixed it all, taking my cues from the work that was there. It was like a master carpenter coming across a house that had been left to rot, warp, and shift for twenty years and putting all his efforts into carefully replacing every board, sanding down every surface, matching the varnish and paint -- all while only having a vague idea what a house was.
When I was finished, I opened my eyes and kept my hand on Fenn, burning bones in order to heal her. The shift in the positioning in her scars was so minute that I probably wouldn’t have realized anything was happening -- except that I had Soul Sight, and the red that limned her dimmed considerably.
“Did it work?” asked Fenn. Her hand reached up to touch mine. “Or don’t you know?”
“Can you try jumping as high as you can?” I asked.
“Sure thing, boss,” said Fenn, giving me the laziest possible salute. She crouched down and then launched herself up, screaming in delight as she rose thirty feet into the air. I moved to catch her, bracing myself, but when she came down she kicked me away and landed on one foot with the grace and poise of a ballerina. “Fuck yes.” She leapt forward and wrapped me in a hug that was crushingly strong.
“Ribs,” I said, wheezing slightly.
“Sorry,” replied Fenn. She pulled back and looked at me. Her eyes were sparkling. “How long is it going to last?”
“A week,” I said. “Same as it did last time.” Her face fell. “Maybe more, because you’re probably growing less than you were when the scars were applied -- when they scarred you. Cells die, other cells grow to replace them, none of it comes back exactly the way it was before, sorry, you know all this.” Her face had fallen as I’d talked. “Anyway, there’s a solution that I’d like to try.”
I walked over to a jar of souls, bulk class, made from embryos, and picked one out. It was a matter of a moment to reach into it, as I’d done with Fallatehr, and look at the body inside, a small thing the size of a raspberry, unformed. It made me a little sick and uncomfortable, to see a soul like this, a life cut short in the interests of fueling cars and trains. The soul wouldn’t have been created without that demand, but still -- there was something sad about it, a soul that would remain empty.
I copied Fenn’s body into it, the same process that I’d done when grafting the ribs, the same process that Fallatehr had used to make a mimic of Amaryllis. The soul’s image of the body was dependent on the body; the scars on Fenn’s arms were there on the soul because they’d had a chance to set, and any injury could be written onto the soul as the soul adapted to the reality of living with that wound. This soul would never have a body, and the image of Fenn’s body that I’d written over would never change either.
I slipped the soul back into its container. “I don’t know whether I’ll be able to get back into this soul, but if I do, I should be able to give you the scar powers back. Essentially it would let me lock you in as you are now. If it’s okay with you --”
“It’s okay,” said Fenn. She kissed me and hugged me tight again. “Everything is all okay.”
I went to the others with the offer, but it took a little bit of explanation, and a fair amount of convincing.
“It won’t be you,” I said. “Just a way of storing all of the parts of you that I can reach. A soul in a bottle lasts for a few years, so it’s not permanent, but who knows what might happen in even the next few months.”
“What parts?” asked Grak. He was sitting next to Amaryllis, beside the remains of the ritual, and had his hands folded across his chest.
“Body and memory are the big ones,” I replied. “Skills can’t be moved over, because they’re excluded, values you can move but I don’t know that there’s much of a point, same for social models, you can’t move or change lineage, nor true names, attributes aren’t copyable, unique magics are a part of the soul but can’t be transferred, though I don’t think that applies … obviously I would ask for your consent before actually applying any changes, just like I’m asking consent now.”
“It makes me uneasy,” said Grak.
“Me too,” said Amaryllis. “Though I think it’s fairly unlikely that we run into another soul mage.”
“I’m not a part of this conversation,” said Valencia, sounding just slightly bitter about it. She was leaned up against the locus; both of them seemed to have recovered a bit, and their relationship was no worse the wear for whatever had actually transpired between them.
“I’ll do it,” said Amaryllis. “I’m just saying that it makes me uneasy. I can’t say that I’m entirely at ease with you having a direct line into my soul in the first place. Do it now, before you run out of power.” Grak nodded along with her.
Three souls went into their own little stoppered glass bottles, one by one, each with a label written by me; mary.bak, grak.bak, and fenn.bak.
The last thing I tried was to take part of the locus and copy it over … but it had a soul of images, many of them abstract, all knitted together, and all the Essentialism in the world didn’t seem to allow me to get a handle on how to grab any of that and move it elsewhere. Despite the findings of the Second Empire, I wasn’t actually convinced that the locus had a soul; the thing it had seemed related but too different for me to claim that it was in the same category. I couldn’t figure out any way to back up even a small part of it, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to figure how to copy it back in if I’d wanted to. The fact that it wasn’t possible with my Essentialism so high seemed to indicate that Essentialism was the wrong tool for the job.