The Isle of Poran sat in the middle of a slate gray sea, under unnaturally roiling clouds. The soil was poor, leaving little but lichen and moss to grow, and it was almost perpetually wet and drizzly, with an average of two sunny days out of the year. It had been the redoubt of a vampire prince, long ago, with a small village of muck farmers surrounding his castle and paying blood tribute to him and his cohort.
I’d had a lot of problems with vampires, back on Earth. There were scientific issues you had to work out, if you didn’t just want to say “it’s magic, fuck off”, like the fact that blood had 900 calories per liter, which put some serious limits on vampire diets. There were also worldbuilding issues, like why, if vampirism could spread and vampires had lots of abilities, they hadn’t just taken over the world a few centuries ago. But the thorniest issues with vampires had been the cultural ones: vampires hadn’t just been done to death, they’d had so many variations that there wasn’t much space to be original with them. If you switched your vampires over from feeding on blood to feeding on psychic energy, you were already joining a crowded field. Same went for vampires feeding on magic, or dreams, or even the computational energy of the brains of the living. If you decided that vampires had taken over the world, you’d risk calling to mind a dozen different stories where that happened, and if you had something clever to keep them hidden, then hundreds of authors had already done that.
I usually went ultra-traditionalist. My vampires weren’t some twist on the classic stories, they were vampires to the core, with all the weird shit that came with that like not being able to cross running water, not being able to see their reflection, et cetera. They weren’t the modern kind of vampire you could kill with UV light, it took direct sunlight, and it wasn’t something you could guard against with sunscreen, it made them crumble to ash in minutes. There were tweaks, here and there, for the sake of making sure these vampires could be defeated by a band of adventurers, and to make sure that their bacchanalian blood parties wouldn’t strip the land of people in the space of a century, but I more or less stuck to strict traditionalism.
Part of that was the trope of “no ontological inertia”: killing the primogenitor of vampirekind would kill all of the vampires in the world. I loved that trope for a number of reasons, but mostly that it allowed a very clear and very difficult objective that a band of four to six adventurers could accomplish.
In 14 FE, Uther killed the primogenitor of the vampires, which caused every single vampire on Aerb to turn to dust. The vampire prince who had long ruled over the muck farmers of the Isle of Poran was one of those casualties, leaving the muck farmers free to loot his castle, establish a democratic collective, and get wiped out by an invading ship from the nearby lands of the Ha-lunde a few years later.
The Ha-lunde had mostly been interested in killing, because they were an all-male species that reproduced by fucking corpses (yes, they were one of my creations). It was a complete slaughter.
The land had never been terribly good for farming, so Ha-lunde’s claim on it went more or less uncontested through various changes in international politics, advancements in technology and magic, and a succession of different modes of governance for the Ha-lunde. No one really wanted to live on the Isle of Poran, and there weren’t any resources of note. Maybe if population had been climbing and space was precious, someone might have moved in, but that wasn’t the case.
Back in Uther’s time, the Ha-lunde had been a warrior race of blood-lusted men who engaged in warfare primarily in order to collect corpses and then fuck them. Centuries later, they were a cornerstone of the Empire of Common Cause, and they used the corpses of specially-bred animals instead of humanoids, or occasionally, donated corpses from races that didn’t particularly care what happened to their dead. They were stalwart defenders of the Empire, full-throated backers of international cooperation, and champions of the so-called “common cause”.
The official story was that the Isle of Poran had been given over to the tuung as another example of the Ha-lunde doing what they thought was best for the Empire at some expense to themselves. To the cynics, this was eye-rolling martyrdom. To the anti-imperialists, this was a transparent attempt at expanding the scope of the empire, though their case was a little tough, because a member nation independently handing over land to a citizen of a non-member nation seemed like the opposite of expanding the empire.
The truth was that Uniquities had set up much of it, all officially unofficial. Alcida was the head of Uniquities, but she was also allowed to have her private life, wasn’t she? And if it came to light that she had talked to a friend high in the Ha-lunde government, well, she was allowed to talk to people in her private time, wasn’t she? Naturally it wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted anyone asking about in the first place, but if they did go asking, there were ways to cover up and deny.
And so it was that we found ourselves in possession of an island with poor soil and miserable weather, far away from everything important.
There were a hundred people on the island, which meant that the tuung were outnumbered fifty to one. It was a collection of volunteers from sympathetic nations, overseers from the imperial government (including Finch and Jorge from Uniquities), speculators, and a few whose only interest in the Isle of Poran was that we’d paid them.
Esuen had agreed to the plan, as laid out by Amaryllis, which wasn’t really a surprise. When the former handmaid had written to us that she wanted to be extracted, she had probably been imagining that she would be living in an embassy for the rest of her natural life, a willing pawn in someone’s game. Instead, Amaryllis was handing her a country on a silver platter. It was a small, crappy country that was virtually unrecognized by the international community, but the infertile land, poor resources, and inclement weather didn’t actually mean anything to us; we were going to make our money through intellectual labor, most of it stolen from Earth.
(Amaryllis had bigger plans, naturally. Miunun was going to be a technological powerhouse, if she had her way, but we couldn’t milk Earth forever, and we were probably never going to have the intellectual labor necessary to pursue our own R&D that would advance things from where Earth had been in 2017. Instead, the plan was to use the capital we’d generate to transition into capital-intensive manufacturing and processing. Specifically, Amaryllis thought that we might be able to provide Aerb with the plastics that it was so sorely lacking by engaging in some hydrocarbon jujitsu and a bunch of complicated processes. It would take skilled chemical engineers, trained up on Earth chemistry, some allowance for magic getting in the way of it all, some TBD method of obtaining massive quantities of biomass, and then a multi-billion obol processing plant.)
I didn’t spend much time with Esuen, who was the official “face” of the Republic of Miunun and nominal ruler. Amaryllis liked her well enough, but their relationship was entirely professional, and there were points of friction between the two of them, even with all the help that we were giving her (that only we could give her) and what I felt had started at fairly good terms and only improved from there. From what I understood, mostly from Amaryllis complaining, the biggest issue wasn’t really legislative and executive control, but instead, the money that everyone in the know anticipated would eventually come from our monopoly on Earth stuff. I tuned out a lot of it.
Somewhat surprisingly, Grak was the one who had the most success at actually befriending Esuen. It shouldn’t have been surprising, because they had both come from relatively cloistered societies to attend one of the athenaeums and then broken from their home society over irreconcilable differences. Their situations, when I had actually stopped to think about it, were actually pretty similar. Of course, Grak also had some horrible trauma or pain over that falling out which he felt he had to make right, and Esuen was trying to forge a new and different society for her people … but I guess those differences might have given them something to talk about.
The Council of Arches was enshrined in the constitution of the Republic of Miunun, a seven-seat “advisory” body with broad powers. It was me, Amaryllis, Fenn, Grak, Valencia, and Bethel, with the seventh seat currently unfilled. The position was for life, and none of the seats could be refilled once emptied. It meant that as time went on, the power of the Council would gradually fade, until eventually it was no longer able to make decisions due to not being able to reach a quorum, at which point it would effectively cease to exist for the purposes of governance. The Council of Arches wasn’t a dynasty, it was designed to become a vestigial organ.
The first round of births was going to be in a week’s time. Amaryllis had refused to install a touchstone on the Isle of Poran for the time being, citing security concerns, which meant that the only way to get there was to teleport into Ha-lunde and then take a long boat ride over (or pay the exorbitant fees for teleporting direct, without a touchstone). This was beneficial to us in a lot of ways, since it meant people couldn’t just stop in whenever they felt like it, but it did produce some constraints on getting in the necessary expertise. We needed professionals to help raise and train up the tuunglings, and had to get everything in place before they were hatched.
In the meantime, we had business of our own.
I hadn’t accrued much power during our few weeks on the Isle of Poran. The two extra points from leveling had gone into MEN, which raised the caps, but most of my skills were above the soft cap of 20, and couldn’t be raised higher. I had a few new virtues, from skills that were either slow or impossible to raise in the time chamber, and was working on connection for flower magic with a garden, but that was it. The lowest-hanging fruit still remaining was in unlocking magic, but:
- We had no idea what Tree Magic, Library Magic, or Spirit actually did, which was part of the logic for why I had included them in the build, but it made unlocking them difficult if not impossible until they presented themselves to us in some way.
- To become a velocity mage, you had to move, without magical assistance, faster than the benchmark, and then maintain it for a short period of time. It went up with every velocity mage that was inducted into the ranks. Due to somewhat short-sighted expansion of those ranks during the Second Empire, that meant going more than six hundred miles per hour, and there was presumably some secret to it, because that was really, really fast.
- Vibrational Magic was locked to a magic item, which was tightly controlled by the Athenaeum of Sound and Silence, and besides that, rate limited. It was frustrating, because all I needed was a tap on the head, but there was a long line of people waiting in front of me, all of whom had gone through the training necessary to actually utilize the magic.
- Revision Magic required being revised backward by a year, which was far more than enough to kill a person, since your body spent that year taking in and expelling matter. The Athenaeum of Claw and Clocks had a collection of entads that would keep you stable, including the Thousand Rings of Stability, but it still meant giving up a year of your life, the so-called “lost year” (as memories were lost too), and obviously it took a lot of time and power from an existing revision mage to do the revision.
- Still Magic required visiting a temple and meditating there for a week, which wouldn’t have been too much of a problem, except that the temple was deep underground, and controlled by the Athenaeum of Sound and Silence.
- Water Magic was a bloodline magic, and all I really needed was a teacher, who we’d already contacted and was on her way to come see us. The strict combat utility wasn’t all that promising, but the weather control aspects would help a lot on the Isle of Poran.
- Fire Magic we could do too, but hadn’t. About 1% of the time someone was burned alive, they would awaken horribly scarred but otherwise fine, with the barest powers of a fire magus. If you had sufficient magical healing, you could take someone to the brink and then heal them back as many times as it took for the fire magic to trigger.
We’d gone over most of this during our week in Barren Jewel, when we’d been shut up in our hotel room waiting out the bout of civil unrest to finish. The big difference now was that we were more or less out of the shadows, and Uniquities was willing to help us with contacts and resources, so long as they could be done via backchannels. We still wanted to keep my abilities secret, at least for the time being, but Amaryllis thought it was likely that I’d be allowed to skip a few of the lines. Once the magics were unlocked, I would race through the required years or decades of training that they each required and become even more of a multimagus … but we weren’t quite at that point yet.
It was Valencia who had gotten the biggest boosts in the time we’d spent on the Isle of Poran. Part of that was her strength and endurance training, part of it was better skill with her devils and demons, and sure, some of it I guess I would also attribute to Jorge (blegh) working with her, since he had a better knowledge of infernal matters than any of us.
It wasn’t just that though; Bethel had given her some gifts.
There were a ton of downsides to being non-anima. The general rule was that magic didn’t interact with Valencia at all unless it would also interact with (say) a sack of potatoes, which was why we called it the Sack of Potatoes Rule. The soul was, in some sense, the interface that most magic worked on, and without that interface, you were left high and dry. Magical healing was one of the biggest losses, since it simply didn’t work on non-anima. Entads were another weak point, since she had no bloodline, couldn’t be invested, and they generally didn’t respond to her unless they also responded to demons or devils.
The flip side of this was that Valencia was practically invisible to magic. Wards against blood were, properly speaking, wards against latent, passive, or active blood magic, sometimes with a few stipulations. Valencia’s blood had no magic to it at all, and no connection to any soul, which meant that she could slip through all the most common wards without even knowing that they were there. There were very few magics that directly affected the mind, but she was effectively immune to them, about as immune as a sack of potatoes would be. Soul mages were powerless against her, which must have been part of Fallatehr’s interest.
Where Bethel’s hobbies and Valencia’s abilities intersected, there were cursed magic items.
Way back in the very early versions of D&D, cursed magic items were mostly there to fuck you, because OD&D and AD&D didn’t really care whether you lived or died. The whole concept of the roleplaying game hadn’t really developed, and characters were just grist to the mill, a loose collection of emergent traits that got stapled onto the much more fully developed mechanics. Magic items in general were a lot more random, and the cursed items even more so. Some of it was funny stuff, like the Ring of Bureaucratic Wizardry, which made you have to fill out forms before you could cast spells, but at the same time, that sort of smacked of “ha ha, you can’t play your character anymore”. Later editions (and other games) either removed the curses, watered them down, or made them big, important things that had actual gravity to them.
Aerb did cursed items like I had done cursed items. They weren’t ‘cursed’, exactly, but they had some built-in drawbacks to them that made them dangerous or awkward to use, and there was a good chance that you’d end up hoisted by your own petard. There was a sword that would bleed you for every second you held it in combat, one that you couldn’t return to its sheath without having killed something larger than a cat, a spellbook that would drive you mad if you used the same spell twice in a day, all sorts of little catches and hiccups that added in flavor and demanded thought.
“The issue, I believe, will be that Valencia is incapable of properly wielding much of it,” said Bethel. “Anything that requires will on the part of the user would be useless, which includes many of the best armors I took.”
“Do you have that axe?” asked Fenn.
“All of it was left behind in the cavern I had made for myself,” said Bethel. “But yes, the Axe of Gilhead was among the entads I had possession of but elected not to make a part of me.”
“That’s the one that, um, pulls blood from the bodies of the people it cuts?” I asked. I remembered the illusion she’d presented to us, of a man whose hands became wet with blood the moment he grabbed its handle.
“She wouldn’t feel the compulsion for blood,” said Bethel.
“She’d get bloody though,” said Fenn. “That would be pretty neat though, right? She would come into battle wearing white, then I’d throw her the axe, and she’d be stained red with blood in an instant. It would be badass.”
“You’ve been watching too much anime,” said Valencia with a frown.
“You’re going to criticize my choice of media?” asked Fenn with a snort.
“It does seem really impractical,” I said. “Maybe if we had a way to clean the blood?”
“We should transfer all of it here anyway,” said Amaryllis. “We can test the entads out for usability. A random hole in a vast stretch of rock nine miles down the Boundless Pit is a wonderfully obscure place to store things, but it’s lacking in accessibility.”
“Let’s take the teleportation key and grab them then,” I said.
“Hard pass from me,” said Fenn. “You can take the glove, but this doesn’t at all seem like a six person job, and I’m exercising my rights as the group’s laziest member.”
“I have things to do here,” said Amaryllis. “Actual, legitimate things, not that it seems to matter if Fenn’s excuse is that she’s lazy.”
“I’ll go,” I said. I looked at the others. “I wouldn’t mind some company though. Grak?”
He stared at me. “Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “If you don’t want to, that’s fine. I’m not sure we have anything to talk about, but worst case scenario, we spend a handful of minutes scooping up all the crap we left behind, and then an hour and a half in halting conversation while I practice my Groglir.”
“I do not think Language means what you think it means,” said Grak. “Your pursuit of the skill has not borne fruit.”
“Well, either way,” I said. “I’m getting close to functional fluency, even without the skill. I think it’s probably healthy for me to be forced to do a few things the hard way.”
“I have nothing else to do,” said Grak.
I had expected Valencia to tag along too, but to my mild surprise, she didn’t express any interest, even though we were getting all the cursed entads for her. Maybe from her perspective, it was just going to be us sitting in a cave for two hours speaking Groglir to each other, but I’d been hoping for her presence in order to help smooth out lulls in the conversation.
We got to the cave without any problems, and stuffed all of the entads in the glove without any real problem. There were two suits of armor, a handful of weapons, some necklaces and bracelets, a crown, and a variety of tools. Valencia wasn’t going to be able to use it all, but I did find it a bit ironic that she was going to be the best-equipped member of the party. Neither Grak nor Fenn had magic armor yet; I didn’t have a good handle on what the levels actually meant, but that seemed a little embarrassing at level thirteen.
“Dar,” I said, once we had finished, which was Groglir for ‘so’. I wasn’t sure whether it would parse, but part of my language learning was just to try things how I thought they ought to be, then see whether or not Grak thought they were worth correcting.
“Dar,” Grak repeated with a grunt.
“Can you tell me what happens when your penance is paid?” I asked in Groglir.
“Did Amaryllis or Valencia tell you?” asked Grak. He spoke much faster in his native tongue, and was obviously quite a bit more fluent. He still spoke in the same way, logically dividing up his chunks of speech, but the pauses were shorter, almost (but not quite) a glottal stop to join clauses together. We hadn’t gone into it yet, but there was something about speed of speech that modulated deeper meaning in Groglir. I was still trying to find my way through the words, which was hard enough.
“I did not ask,” I replied. “You did not want to share and I thought it would be rude to take that ... information, if they have it.” I struggled to find the word, but eventually managed it.
Grak nodded. “I appreciate that.”
“I know you are a private person,” I said. I mulled over my words, and not just because I was speaking a foreign language. “I am sorry that … that all of your efforts at being a good midwife for Amaryllis came to less than we had hoped.”
“It’s not that,” said Grak. He turned away from me slightly.
“I did not think that it was that,” I said. “I was only thinking about how hard you must have worked and how I would feel in your place. You spent more time in the, uh …” I paused, realizing that I didn’t have the word. “In the box.”
“Aderanhe,” Grak supplied.
“You spent more time than Fenn and I,” I said. “It wore on me. If my months of training had been swept aside I would have been frustrated and sad. You are probably better at enduring things than I am.” I was getting better at speaking Groglir; it was almost smooth, especially now that the rust had been shaken off.
“These things happen,” said Grak.
“It was something I was thinking about,” I said. I shrugged. “I was trying to put myself in your shoes. I do not think that I do that enough.”
Grak grunted at that, but made no other response.
We were lit by a flashlight, which I’d pointed at the ground in order to better disperse the light. We had an hour left before we could use the teleportation key again, which seemed like an eternity. I was really, honestly trying with Grak. He’d called us family before, but not in a good way. Family, as in, people you’re stuck with, people you can’t choose, people you maybe wouldn’t have chosen, if you’d been able to pick.
“Tell me about your friends at the Athenaeum,” I said, still in Groglir.
Grak looked at me. His frown was partially hidden by his beard.
“I did not listen very well when you told me the first time,” I said. “You left details out, too.”
Grak nodded slightly, but paused for so long before speaking that I thought he was going to stay silent. When he spoke, it was a stream of Groglir so fast that I had trouble keeping up.
I’d gotten bits and pieces about life in Darili Irid. It was a mile down, but still above the water table thanks to the fact that it was sunk into a mountain at high altitude. It was on the small side, as dwarfholds went, and far away from anything important. The bulk of Darili Irid was in their combination of farming and mining, using the muck that ate stone and produced something blandly edible. It left metals behind, which were gathered up, melted down, and sold via bulk teleportation. It was extremely rare that anyone ever came to Darili Irid, and even more rare that anyone left.
Grak had been burdened by social expectation from the moment he was born. He was most-pure, essentially a prince (or a princess, since the pronouns we used were, in fact, wrong, and using them really made it seem like he conformed to human gender norms, which wasn’t really the case). He had grown up with duties and obligations, above and beyond what any other young dwarf had to deal with. Attending births was one part of that, as were ceremonial duties like giving blessings to new tunnels with his father, and saying a handful of kind words at funerals. The position of most-pure seemed something like that of a pastor to me; the duties and obligations were largely about maintaining the community, rather than actual executive functioning, though there were elements of that too.
Grak chafed under the restrictions placed on him, and to hear him tell it, his father (also most-pure) exacerbated that significantly. Grak was a clone of his father, or something close to it, which wasn’t too unusual for dwarves, but always came with some baggage. In the case of Grak and his father, it was a little bit toxic; trying to mold your son into a better version of yourself and overcorrecting for all the perceived faults in your own upbringing probably tended to do that.
Young Grak only saw other dwarves. Groglir was the only language he ever heard spoken. The only visitors to Darili Irid were other dwarves, and even then, not many. The wider world could be seen only through those things ordered for the monthly bulk teleportation; a long order from the whole clan would go out with the precious metals that were the only thing of worth produced by the dwarfhold, and days or weeks later, another bulk teleportation from one of the major cities of the world would come in bearing the fruits of the empire’s multicultural wonderland.
For Grak, it started with his father’s newspapers, which were delivered, a month’s worth at a time, whenever the next shipment of outside goods came in. It was international news as written for dwarves, a combination of imperial politics, major incidents, and the occasional fluff piece, as produced for the billion or so dwarves that lived on Aerb, most of whom were in isolated dwarfholds just like Darili Irid. It was, to be sure, a slanted view on the world, and the particular paper that Grak’s father ordered aimed itself in an anti-imperial direction -- as it was, after all, a paper meant for dwarves that preferred their news to be in the lingua franca of dwarves rather than that of the Empire of Common Cause. But while Grak saw much that was frightening and confusing in the papers, he also saw a lot that intrigued him.
When Darili Irid’s warder began to grow too old to continue on, Grak staked his shovel into the pile (a dwarven idiom, apparently). Grak was a prominent member of his community, well-liked, diligent, and with a better command of social situations and personal feelings than almost anyone else. He knew a fair amount of Anglish, though not enough to actually speak or read it. But the thing that really clinched it was his skill at Ranks, a dwarven game that I suppose I’d describe as a combination of Conway’s Game of Life and character optimization. When Grak went on a tear, winning eighteen sets in a row, he became the frontrunner for being sent to the Athenaeum of Barriers, and it wasn’t long before he was taking a more intensive crash-course in Anglish, one conducted largely through mail in the year leading up to his departure.
Grak came to the Athenaeum of Barriers speaking broken Anglish, which would have made things hard for him even if he’d been raised in a more cosmopolitan clan. He’d come from Darili Irid though, a place whose primary connection to the Empire of Common Cause was in monthly shipments by bulk teleportation -- and even then, much of their trade was with other dwarfholds, rather than the great centers of diversity and global cooperation. He had been looking forward to it, but even with all his preparation, it was confusing, disorienting, and a little bit scary, even if it was also as free as he’d been in his entire life.
(Some of this was new to me, but a lot of it wasn’t. I had asked about Ranks early on, because it was in his game-provided biography, and I’d convinced him to show me the rules and play a game with me during a period when I’d been trying harder to raise his loyalty.)
In his first week, he’d met two other new students, and maybe just because they didn’t know anyone else, they became fast friends. Neither of these friends were dwarves, but they were what I would consider dwarf-adjacent. The girl, Nadi, was a kle’tan, a species of skinny, claustrophilic tunnel-dwellers that tended to be afflicted with agoraphobia, something that she didn’t have a problem with. The guy, Ding, was an igno, a squat species with bumpy red skin which collected rocks they held in their mouths and used in place of having teeth. In terms of upbringing, Nadi was similar to Grak, since she’d come from a somewhat cloistered village and had little in the way of contact with others before coming to begin study at Barriers. Ding’s family, on the other hand, had been fully integrated into imperial society for three generations, and Anglish was his first language.
They spent a lot of time together, much of it in cultural exchange, with Ding playing the part of erudite guide for Nadi and Grak, showing them the breadth of what was on offer in the empire, introducing them to things that were strange by the standards of their respective cultures. They went to plays put on in the park, they took in theater productions from the acting club at Barriers, and Ding would take them to hole-in-the-wall speciality diners where they would sample the most foreign dishes they could find. They were a tight little group of three, growing and learning from each other, for a few months before things became complicated.
Grak was alone with Ding when the ongoing discussion of comparative culture had turned to the topic of sex.
For the igno, it was a biological urge, one that they couldn’t satisfy themselves any more than they could tickle themselves. The need would get worse and worse, becoming a distraction and eventually a compulsion, until something had to be done about it. For dwarves, it was somewhat the opposite; a dwarf was never overcome with need, or even really experienced more than a shade of it, not unless there was some physical stimulus. Instead, sex tended to be something that dwarves engaged in only for the purposes of procreation, though as a parthenogenetic species, they didn’t even need that. Dwarves found the actual physical process highly enjoyable, but there was never much element of compulsion to it, and they would rarely seek it out.
Ding shifted his position on the couch, and joked that maybe the next time he was having trouble with his studies because he needed relief, he would ask Grak for some help. It wasn’t really a joke though ... and Grak wasn’t at all averse.
Grak spent a long time explaining this to me, all in Groglir, while I strained to keep up and interjected occasionally in order to get clarifications on sentence construction and vocabulary.
“I had not known what would await me in the world outside of Darili Irid, only that I wanted it,” said Grak. “I had always found the dwarfhold too small, too ordered, too limited, even though I loved and honored Darili Irid. My position as most-pure put burdens on me. There were many duties to attend to. Learning the way of wards at Barriers was another one of those duties, one I had sought out because it was as much freedom as I had thought I would ever get in life. I wanted to try new things, do you understand? I had no itch for coitus, but Ding was a friend, and if I could help him to scratch that itch, I was eager to assist him.” (He was much more fluent in Groglir.)
So they had their ‘experimental coitus’, which was largely led by Ding, and which Grak found quite pleasurable, even if he’d had no particular craving for it when they started.
Once they were done, the fallout began, and never really stopped.
“It was a mix of cultural baggage, misunderstandings, and differences of our species,” said Grak. “I felt a deep kinship with Ding. To me, he was krin, or at least krinrael.”
(I don’t think I can do those words justice with a translation. ‘Krin’ was someone you were physically intimate with, often to the level of sharing a bed naked with them, and ‘krinrael’ was that, but much more temporary, not an ongoing arrangement. It didn’t imply that you were dating, or that you even talked all that much, but it often was a stepping stone to more intimate or contractual arrangements, like the dwarven version of marriage and/or pair-breeding. You could have more than one krin, but it wasn’t particularly common. There was some element of (or at least some suggestion toward) sex, but dwarves didn’t place all that much emphasis on sex, and it wasn’t what a dwarf would think of when they thought of krin.)
“You were not that to him?” I asked.
Grak shook his head. “When the act was done he had no interest,” said Grak. “A switch had been flipped. He did not avoid me, but to him it was as he said, a need to be fulfilled with assistance and nothing more. He did not care about the intimacy.” Grak frowned. “I cared. Nadi did too.”
As it turned out, Nadi had her own designs on Ding. Her people were originally tunnel-dwellers, in the closest thing that Aerb had to an Underdark, but their aversion to open spaces was a weakness they recognized as a society, so many of their stories were about explorers and adventurers, heroes who bravely walked wide-open plains with nothing but the sky above them. From a certain point of view, Ding fit in with the heroic archetypes common among kle’tan. He wasn’t an explorer or adventurer, but he bravely sought out new and exciting things for them to try as a group, and he was cosmopolitan in a way that all the best kle’tan heroes were. Naturally, she had a crush on him.
I kind of liked hearing Grak relive all of this ancient drama. He was still talking at a fast clip, leaving me in a frantic rush to comprehend and extrapolate things that I had missed, but he didn’t really express himself much, especially not on interpersonal issues. The recounting he was giving me was tinged with emotion, which I didn’t get from him very often either; he was slow to laugh, and easy to get in a sullen mood, which was, to be honest, part of why I didn’t talk to him all that much.
“She was upset when she found out,” said Grak. “She felt like she had been betrayed. Ding explained it as a moment of craving, nothing important or meaningful to him. I felt hurt by that. He was my first krin, or so I had thought. We all wanted different things from each other. Nadi wanted a pair-bonding, I wanted continued intimacy, and Ding only wanted to not have his mind clouded by thoughts of fornication. I understood none of that at the time. To me it was as if he had declared us krin, then rescinded that the next day. My feelings toward Nadi were more complicated, especially after they had sex together.”
“Oh,” I said. “They had a relationship?”
“No,” said Grak. “Ding felt his mind clouded by need again, which filled him with desire for outlet. Nadi … she had positioned herself to be alone with him. She offered herself to him, but I do not know what she was thinking.”
I thought back on Grak giving me the abbreviated version of this, months ago, not long after we’d first met. I didn’t think that the situation between Amaryllis, Fenn, and myself was all that similar, especially since cultural (mis)understandings weren’t really a huge issue … but especially when he was speaking his native language, and opening up more about the specifics of what happened, I could see where he was coming from. And really … things had gotten messy and complicated, and had only been mostly resolved because Amaryllis was willing to alter her own soul in order to get it done. If not for that, we would still be in an unstable equilibrium.
“How did it end?” I asked, after Grak had stayed silent for a time.
“If Nadi had hoped he would feel some affection toward her, she was let down,” said Grak. “She felt used, after, which was an accurate understanding of the situation. We all felt betrayed by each other, for different reasons. It was the end of our friendship.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I paused, licking my lips and trying to think of the right words. “They were your best friends. It can be hard to have things fall apart. What did you do after?”
“There were many dwarves at Barriers,” said Grak. “I spent a year cloistering myself with them. We ate dwarven food, sang dwarven music, and pretended that we were in a dwarfhold. I had a proper krin.” He shrugged. “I had liked that feeling of need from Ding. It was not something that a dwarf could provide. Not a traditional one.”
“On the train,” I said. “Magor. He seemed aggressive.”
“He was not traditional,” answered Grak. He stared down at the flashlight. “We had a good time together. I have thought about inviting him to the Isle of Poran.”
“That serious?” I asked.
Grak shook his head. “No. He was barely krinrael.” He looked up at me. “I am lonesome.”
“You have us,” I said. “I know that it does not feel like it --”
“It does,” said Grak. He heaved a sigh.
“Then I do not …” I stopped, trying to think about it. “I was going to say that we are not dwarves. You do not think that important though? You said a year cloistered with other dwarves. After that?”
“It was too much like home,” said Grak. “I loved it, but it grated. I abandoned the false dwarfhold and made new friends of all species, most of them other students at Barriers. I had a few krin. One of them lasted three years, though there was no question of anything more.”
“But you weren’t lonesome then?” I asked.
“No,” said Grak. He paused. “I had a different idea of what it meant to be Grakhuil Leadbraids, back then.”
“You said --” I tried to think about what I knew, and how to connect the dots. “Your biography, given to me by the game, said that you returned to Darili Irid and were entered into an arranged marriage.” I wasn’t sure of the exact construction there, since I was just taking the idiom of ‘arranged marriage’ and translating it literally, ‘ari mamin’.
“Yes,” said Grak. “I had built a life at Barriers. It was stripped away when I made the long journey home. I was most-pure, and clan warder on top of that. It was a return to obligations. My father had decided upon a mate for me, not mere krin but a father to my children. Gone so long, with letters home that became fewer as the years passed, they thought I needed something to tie me more tightly to the clan. At the prospect of being tied, I realized that it was not the life I wanted, in spite of my affection for the place.”
I frowned, trying to think about that. “But now you want back,” I said.
Grak stayed silent.
“Or … not,” I said.
Grak continued his silence.
“You keep using the word penance,” I said. “A self-punishment?” The game had told me as much, in the text of his companion quest.
Grak wasn’t looking at anything in particular. I greatly preferred conversational tooth-pulling with Fenn, where getting her to speak meant wading through jokes and diversions rather than silence.
“Something happened to Darili Irid,” I said. I paused, watching him. “You came back. They tried to force a life on you. You left. And then -- I don’t want to guess at what tragedy happened because they didn’t have a warder. I will guess, if you don’t tell me.”
“It is time for us to go back,” he said, finally switching to Anglish.
“Something horrible,” I said, staying in Groglir. “An invasion? A theft?” I wasn’t that eloquent to him, I’m sure, since the ideas I was trying to express had to be cobbled together from words that I already knew. “Assassination?”
“Accident,” said Grak. I saw his jaw move slightly as he clenched his teeth. “A ward failed. They had hired a warder, cheap, part-time, to replace the old dwarf I was meant to take over from. He had little training. Little knowledge. Three years, provisionally licensed, but,” Grak rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand. “Darili Irid was deep beneath the surface. There were complex wards to shape the flow of air, to keep it clean. We used processes that were dangerous. When the ward failed, the air fouled, quickly.”
“Oh,” I said. “Your father … ?”
“Everyone,” said Grak.
“Oh,” I said again. “Shit. That’s,” I folded my hands in my lap instead of saying more. It was horrifying, for a start. I had questions about how such a thing could even happen, what safety checks had failed, what alarms had been silent or just not installed, but before I could put my foot in my mouth, I realized those were the questions that Grak would have asked himself in the days and weeks after he’d learned it had happened. He wasn’t telling me so I could diagnose the problem, or propose a solution. “Can I -- how many?”
“Two thousand, three hundred, forty-six,” said Grak. “Everyone.”
I tried to grapple with that number. It seemed too big. It seemed like the kind of thing that would have made national headlines, something that couldn’t possibly have escaped my notice … but I hadn’t been searching for answers, and Darili Irid was, by Grak’s account, a small hole in the ground whose primary interaction with imperial affairs was paying a pittance in taxes. Put in that context … there had been an explosion in China, some kind of factory, killing thousands, and all I could vaguely recall was watching a video on Youtube that had synced the views from different cameras. And there had been a stampede in Mecca, hadn’t there? Thousands of people crushed to death, and I probably only remembered it happening because I loved the worldbuilding aspects of giant pilgrimage sites. That helped me to put it into context, a bit. I wondered how many disasters and accidents I had seen on television and then completely forgotten about a few minutes later.
Two thousand dead, and it probably hadn’t been enough to register more than a single column several pages into the international papers.
“I am sorry,” I said.
To my shock, Grak was crying.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said. I wanted to switch from Groglir back to Anglish, where the words would flow more easily and I could phrase things more politely, but I had already cottoned on to the fact that it was easier for Grak to hide himself when he spoke a foreign tongue. “Whatever mistake happened, you do not owe them your life.”
“I do,” said Grak. He was crying more now, sobbing, overwhelmed. I shifted in my seat on the floor for just a bit, then moved over and put my arm around him, patting him gently on the back. He leaned into me, and rested his head on my shoulder as he cried. It was a bit awkward, but I’d never had someone cry on me and not had it feel like that.
So many things about Grak were coming into focus for me, different things that he’d said or done. His focus on the penance was on paying down some karmic debt, and it wasn’t actually about the gold, it was about ensuring that he was staying on that path. Fenn had called us all suicidal on more than one occasion, but along with what Amaryllis had said to him at the hospital, I got the impression that was literally true. He blamed himself for what had happened, and there was no way to ever make it right, but he was devoting himself to the pursuit of restoring that karmic debt, throwing himself into situations where death was a possibility.
I’d seen Grak injured a few times, some of them pretty serious. I’d always thought his flat reaction was just dwarven stubbornness in the face of injury, a gruff, manly response to getting hurt. That was sort of how I had seen him in general, a man unaffected by the world, stoic in the face of adversity. It hadn’t really occurred to me that he was depressed and waiting to die.
We held our hug for a long time.
I wanted to tell him that I understood. In the depths of my depression, every scrap of happiness I’d somehow managed to secure felt like it was a betrayal of Arthur’s memory, a dagger planted in his back. I’d driven people away because I didn’t think that I deserved them. I had so much anger and sadness, feeding into each other, that the world seemed like it had nothing to offer me. I hadn’t cared whether I’d lived or died, and then when I hit bottom, as low as I could go …
I tried to kill myself.
I didn’t say this to Grak. It wasn’t something that I had said out loud yet. I was worried that he would think I was making things up about myself, or that he was only looking for comfort, not for us to relate to one another, or that I had misread what he was doing with the penance.
The more I thought about it though, the more I thought that was just me making up excuses to cover the real reason. I didn’t want to say it because it was painful to say, and I thought that he would think less of me for it, or at least think differently about me. It wasn’t something that I had told Fenn or Amaryllis. I didn’t want to expose the weakness of trying to take the easy way out, nor the weakness of not being able to follow through on it. I’d been pretty successful in not so much as thinking about it.
“Thank you,” said Grak.
“We are here for you,” I said. He pulled back slightly, and I released him from the hug. “I know you know that. I know that … that it probably feels like forging a new life for yourself is --”
“Not possible,” said Grak.
Quest Updated: All That Glitters - Go with Grakhuil Leadbraids to the mausoleum of Darili Irid when he’s amassed one thousand pounds of gold. You are the only one who can help him make peace. (517/1000) (Companion Quest)
I stayed quiet. I wasn’t actually sure that the quest was accurate, since they’d been inaccurate before. I had a hard time believing that I was the only one that could do it, given that social stuff was definitely not my forte, and I wasn’t much of a real friend to Grak. He’d only confided in me because … well, that was a question mark, and I didn’t know him well enough to say. I was under the impression that Amaryllis got on his nerves a little bit, though I couldn’t really have said why, except that maybe it was for the same reasons she got on my nerves.
“Okay,” I said. I’d finally given up and made the switch back to Anglish. “I’m not going to force the issue. We’ll help you get your gold, ideally before the two years are up, and then I’ll come with you to Darili Irid.” I’d been trying to think of the lines that I might use to convince him to stay with us, but nothing I thought of sounded convincing, and I was pretty sure that in his position, I wouldn’t have listened.
Loyalty Increased: Grak lvl 13!
I didn’t feel good about that. Grak was his own person, he wanted to be his own person, finding us and becoming a part of the Council of Arches, heart and soul, was, in his eyes, sort of a betrayal of the person he thought of himself as being. All I was really doing was increasing that tension, without actually helping to ease or resolve it. I didn’t know whether loyalty actually did anything, aside from the bonuses it granted, but I hadn’t seen it go down yet, and if it was magically modifying their minds instead of just acting as a gauge of what they thought about me … well, that wouldn’t feel good either.
Fenn looked out over the haul from the cavern, which we’d dumped out of the glove. Grak had gone to be on his own, which I could understand. That left me, Fenn, Bethel, Amaryllis, and, of course, Valencia.
“I don’t understand why someone would use some of this stuff,” said Fenn.
“Mortals are attracted to power,” said Bethel. “The ones who tried to raid me were more attracted than most. Some of them were desperate, and many of these tools are the tools of desperation.”
My eyes landed on the Memory Blade, which I thought was a good contender for Valencia’s primary weapon. It became sharper the more memories it ate, and according to Bethel, at its height it was capable of cutting through stone like it was soft butter. It fed from both the person who wielded it and whoever it hit, heedless of the damage it was causing. Valencia didn’t have memories, or at least, not memories stored in her soul, which meant that in theory, she could use the blade with only the upside. It was dull now, since it had been a century since it was used, but it could build up again with time.
“Armor is going to be a problem,” said Amaryllis. “Most of it will change shape to fit whoever wears it, at least to some extent, but I’m not sure that will work for Valencia.”
“It wouldn’t be too hard to get a body double, right?” I asked.
“We’re talking about cursed armor here,” said Fenn. “Maybe let’s not put random strangers into it?”
Valencia was staring at a suit of red armor covered with tiny, curved thorns. Bethel had termed it the Red Armor of Arramor, which was one I’d come up with for our Long Stairs campaign. If you were wearing it, you wouldn’t take any damage until the top of the hour, at which point that damage would be dealt to both the wearer and whoever had done the damage. There were a bunch of ways to bypass it, but it was total protection against a whole lot of damage. In our games, the biggest catch to it had been that healing didn’t actually work until after you’d taken the damage … which came all at once, triggering massive damage rules and/or pushing people below the maximum amount of negative damage. You also couldn’t take it off if you had damage pending, which Reimer learned to his intense displeasure; he wasn’t terribly good at roleplaying a guy who knew he only had fifteen minutes to live.
“We’ll need to test some of this stuff,” I said. “Test whether the armor will conform to Valencia, test which parts of which abilities work, et cetera. Shouldn’t take us more than a day, I don’t think.”
“Was any of this meant for me?” asked Valencia. She was staring at the armor as she spoke it.
“Meant for you?” asked Bethel.
“The Dungeon Master nudges things sometimes,” I said. “He, uh, sets things up. Let’s say there are a billion entads, most of them not great, right? Well, we’ve come across what, maybe two dozen so far? Much more, if you include all the ones that nominally belong to Amaryllis, or the ones that I’ve heard about in passing, and definitely if you include Uther’s stuff. But of the ones that we actually have, or have interacted with, a hugely disproportionate number have been ones that I personally created, or which were used in the games that I played. It’s proof of the Dungeon Master’s thumb on the scale somewhere in the process.”
“Ah,” said Bethel. She frowned at all the entads she’d chosen not to take in. “So the thought is that this powerful entity sent people to their deaths inside of me because he foresaw that I would elect not to take them, that you would come to me, that I would choose not to kill you, and that Valencia would both be present in this party and live through her altercation at Headwater.”
“Valencia is invincible,” said Fenn.
“Am not,” said Valencia.
“Are too,” said Fenn. She had some experience; they’d been training together in the gym, and despite Fenn’s avowed laziness, she had been spending a fair amount of time there. “I’ve never seen you take a hit. ‘If you prick her, does she not bleed?’ Well, no, because you’re not going to be able to prick her, she’ll dodge out of the way of the needle and then break your arm in two places.”
“I said I was sorry,” said Valencia.
“Never said I was upset,” said Fenn.
“You swore a lot,” said Amaryllis. “And then said that you were going to break her arm in her sleep.”
“I say a lot of things,” said Fenn.
“Back to the matter at hand,” I said. “Yes, it’s very possible that the Dungeon Master either foresaw everything and nudged it into the right configuration, or foresaw bits and pieces of things and set up a bunch of possibilities. Maybe … I mean, it’s possible that each of these was intended for a different possible future, and the ones that seem obviously meant for Valencia are just because that’s the timeline we ended up in, right?”
“I’m kind of over the existential stuff,” said Fenn. “Bible study helped a lot with that.”
“It’s also possible that the Dungeon Master cheats more than he lets on,” said Amaryllis. “He simply placed that armor there for Valencia a few days ago and retroactively altered all memories and evidence to fit a world where it had always been there.”
“Sure,” I said. “If we’re talking about random bullshit powers, yes, that’s entirely possible.”
“But it’s to our benefit,” said Bethel.
“I’m going to try the armor on,” said Valencia.
“Sure,” I said. “We’ll test it in the least harmful way possible.”
“It’s to our benefit now,” said Amaryllis. “In the future? Maybe not so much. Also in the past, though it’s hard to say.”
“She’s still salty about the password-protected tattoo variant,” said Fenn with a laugh.
“Because it was bullshit,” said Amaryllis. “The whole fucking thing, and yes, I’m still quote salty unquote about it. We were specifically fucked by a black swan.”
“Like Leda,” said Fenn.
“Sometimes there are black swans,” I said, ignoring whatever nonsense Fenn was talking about. “I mean, you don’t include them in narratives without some foreshadowing or multiple viewpoints, which basically means that you don’t do them in tabletop games, but … I thought maybe that was the point?”
“The fuck kind of point is that?” asked Fenn.
“I’m inclined to agree with the spirit of that question,” said Bethel.
“No, I understand it,” said Amaryllis. “Fenn, did you ever get around to reading A Game of Thrones ?”
“Nope,” said Fenn. “If you wanted me to read books, you shouldn’t have invented television.”
“It’s fine,” said Amaryllis. “It was just a good example. Essentially, if you have a body of work built up, that engenders expectations, and in the context of an audience’s reaction to narrative --”
“Snooze, pass, I’m done with it,” said Fenn. She rolled her eyes at Amaryllis’ faint frown. “Look, I’m sorry if you find it interesting or worth spending time on, but unless it’s actually going to help us in some way, I don’t give a crap, and I don’t think anyone else should either.”
“Fine,” said Amaryllis with a shrug. “But you should know that it was a really interesting point.”
“I’ll put it on my internal scoreboard,” said Fenn with a smile.
“Is this how you two are when you’re alone together?” I asked.
“Yes, exactly like that,” said Fenn. “But usually we’re naked and having a pillow fight while we talk.”
“She does that with you too?” asked Valencia.
Fenn stopped and looked at Valencia, who was doing an absolute pitch-perfect job of showing confused innocence. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing.
“Are you using a devil to sell the joke?” asked Amaryllis with a frown.
Valencia held up her thumb and forefinger, half an inch apart from each other.
“Well, it was funny, I’ll give you that,” said Fenn.
“You really need to stop doing that,” said Amaryllis. “If they find out what’s happening, and trace it back to you, they have methods of influencing Aerb. The hells haven’t been united since the time of the Apocalypse Demon, and the dent Uther put in our cosmology has helped ensure only the weak can make it up, but trillions of infernals unified again isn’t really something that we should risk for a joke.”
“I’ll just kill them all,” said Valencia. “Jorge thinks that I should anyway.”
“That sounds like exactly the sort of thing we should have a long talk about in the Council of Arches first,” said Fenn. “I don’t think we included a clause about genocide in the charter, but maybe we should have.”
“If we’re going to do it, better we do it as quickly as possible,” I said. Amaryllis glared at me. “I’m just saying, if there are a trillion people in the hells, which there might be, and they’re being … I don’t know, physically and psychologically tortured, then murdering all the devils and demons is probably the most possible good we can do, right?”
“That’s what Jorge said,” replied Valencia.
“How many tendrils do you have?” asked Amaryllis. “Last I checked, it was seventeen, and it took you some time to move them around.”
“I have more than ten thousand,” said Valencia. “But I’m close to my limit, for now, because there’s starting to be a little strain. I was able to add more after Juniper leveled up.”
I hadn’t really been keeping abreast of the research into Val’s powers, on the thinking that Amaryllis wasn’t likely to miss anything that I would catch. My attempts at putting some distance between Valencia and myself seemed to be working, at least as far as her attachment to me went. I knew that her sight into the hells was a bit limited, not enough for surveillance, though we had infernoscopes for that if we really needed, and if we didn’t want to look at anything too far down. I also knew that the tendrils couldn’t be used on people in hell, which had been one of my first questions; that, at least, would have been a no-brainer, whatever you thought about the wisdom of antagonizing the infernals.
We moved on to other topics, and went through a few cycles of testing weapons and armor for Valencia. The game had termed her Valencia the Red, and as it turned out, the Red Armor of Arramor worked perfectly on her, which was a little bit on the nose. There were different methods that armor used to shape itself to a person, and the Red Armor of Arramor used the method that would have worked on a sack of potatoes; conforming to whatever was placed inside it and hoping that the joints would work out on their own. There were different methods of reducing damage, or even knowing what damage was, and the Red Armor of Arramor used the method that would have worked on a sack of potatoes, stopping ‘incoming’ kinetic energy with respect to itself if preset thresholds were exceeded. And finally, there were different methods it might have used to dish the pain back out at the top of the hour, but apparently, it interfaced with the soul’s conception of the body in order to determine what damage would have been done before directly applying it.
I was envious of the armor, naturally. I had given up my sword to Bethel, and didn’t have a replacement yet. The armor I traditionally wore was fine, but it was a little bit lackluster. Valencia took the Memory Blade too, though we didn’t really have a good way of testing it, not given that we wanted to keep all our memories.
Beyond the armor and the blades, Valencia also wore the crown, which was made of thorns in what was painfully obvious as a reference to Jesus. Given the thorns, I was thinking it would be some sort of damage reflection, but no, it soaked up poisons and toxins (from a preset list without need for bodily reference) and transformed them into mental afflictions.
“I’ll get some guns for you too,” said Amaryllis. “There’s absolutely no reason that we should waste your perfect aim by handing you a sword. We’re at least six months out from our machine shops being up and running, let alone able to produce the knock-off P90s I want, but I have a shipment of pistols and rifles coming in.”
“You do?” I asked.
“We’re the military of this country right now,” said Amaryllis. “Against a single fireteam, I tend to like our odds, depending on their composition, especially if they attack us in this house, in which case they have virtually no chance. That said, it would be idiotic if we died because I wasn’t willing to spend a few thousand obols on firearms. And if someone comes for us, then after what happened with Larkspur, I doubt that they’ll err on the side of underestimating us.”
I considered that a chilling reminder of the kind of situation we were in -- but a more chilling reminder was yet to come.