The interior of the fort was bigger than the exterior, which was readily apparent once we were through the front entryway and looking down the great hall. Two long tables made of a pale wood looked like they probably sat a hundred people between them, though both were empty. A huge fireplace took up most of one wall, with an expansive splash and a mantle above it; it was unlit. My eyes were drawn to the back of the room, where two people sat at a round table. One was a wrinkled old man with skin so white it was almost blue, and the other was a young woman, who I thought was probably his caretaker.
We sat around the table, with spots left open between our two groups. Heshnel sat to the left of the old man, at the center of their formation, while Amaryllis and I sat near the center of our side. We had six, and with the two newcomers, they had seven, which made for thirteen in total. That seemed like a lot of people to me, especially when they each had their own views on things.
“Dahlia?” the old man asked as we were taking our seats. His voice was like the creaking of a door, and the word was spoken with effort.
“No,” said Heshnel, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. “She is one of Uther’s heirs though.” He cleared his throat. “Everett, Lyda, this is the Council of Arches. There have been some developments that I’d like to communicate about privately, but for now I think that we should focus on Juniper Smith. Lyda, are you ready?”
“Certainly,” the young woman replied. She was dressed somewhat conservatively, with bangs that reminded me of Maddie’s, and a choker around her neck that was inset with a large opal. She brought delicate fingers up to the choker and gently pressed on it. The reaction was immediate: her hair lit up with a glowing green light, flying upward like she was doing her best impression of going super-saiyan, and her eyes were suffused with a pale green light. This lasted for no more than a moment before settled back down, but the green glow didn’t fade entirely.
The choker had been one I’d thought up for a villain in one of our campaigns. Special effects aside, all it did was allow someone to pilot a willing body remotely. I’d used it as one way to get around the problem of villains that die before they can be built up or make their motivations known. Naturally, I couldn’t communicate any of this to the rest of the party, and I wasn’t sure that it was entirely relevant, given that its presence wasn’t necessarily laden with meaning. The villain in question had been a marquis, mostly forgettable aside from all the times he’d managed to evade capture.
“Hello,” said the entity that was using Lyda’s body. The voice was like a chorus, with similar tones layered on top of each other. The thing-that-had-Lyda looked around, taking in its surroundings. It froze with its eyes locked on Amaryllis. “Dahlia,” it said.
“I look that much like her?” asked Amaryllis. She seemed vaguely annoyed by being mistaken for a long-lost relative a third time.
“Ah,” said the Possessor. “Not Dahlia.”
“No,” said Heshnel. “Amaryllis Penndraig, a distant descendant of Uther.”
“I’m the most direct descendant,” said Amaryllis, seeming a bit annoyed.
“Still distant,” said Heshnel.
“Are we going to get introduced to this creepy thing or not?” asked Fenn.
“We should make introductions all around,” said Heshnel. “But to start with, the entity using Lyda to communicate is called Thargox. The particulars must remain secret, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, I know Thargox,” said Solace. Her smile looked especially child-like. She waved from her seat. “Hello Thargox!”
The thing wearing Lyda’s skin gave Solace a puzzled look. “Hello little girl,” it said. “I do not recognize you.”
“That’s okay,” said Solace. “I looked different the last time we met. Oorang Solace?”
Thargox chuckled. “You do not look so different,” she/it said. “Your friend is well?”
Solace’s face fell slightly. “As well as can be expected,” replied Solace. “My companions are trying their best to help with that.”
(I didn’t think that was true. Up until we were made aware of the Cannibal, we had mostly been dealing with our fledgling nation, and when I said ‘we’, I mostly meant Amaryllis. We had been following that questline pretty steadily up, given it was half the reason we’d broken Fallatehr out of prison, and our entire time down in the Boundless Pit had ultimately been in service of having Solace be born again so that the locus wouldn’t die … but we didn’t actually have any good options as far as the locus was concerned, and the thing that made the most sense to try was to have me level up and increase my skills. We weren’t really making a beeline for that either, for reasons that should be obvious.)
“I’m sorry,” said Amaryllis. “Solace, can you explain?”
“It doesn’t appear that Thargox would like me to tell you yet,” said Solace. “I hold its secret in confidence.” I made note of the pronoun, ‘it’.
“Thargox?” asked Heshnel. “Can you tell us who this child is?”
“No,” replied Thargox.
“Lovely,” said Pallida.
We went around and made introductions after that, though I already knew everyone’s name by that point. It strangely reminded me of first day getting-to-know-you activities in high school, which I’d always hated with a passion. I had a better working memory now though, or I was maybe just a bit more attentive, because their names hadn’t just gone in one ear and out the other, reduced to background noise.
It hadn’t escaped my notice that Everett, the decrepit old man, shared a name with Everett, the bumbling skin mage based on Tom’s character and one of Uther’s seven Knights. Immortality was a very tricky prospect on Aerb, but I thought it likely that if someone had found a way around soul degeneration, it would be Uther or one of his people.
(It was probably obvious from the fact that there weren’t a bunch of really old humans walking around, and the fact that Amaryllis was the most direct descendant at ten generations removed from Uther, but people still died from ‘old age’. Even if you took care of physical health, mental health would eventually begin to decline, and if you took care of that, then the soul itself would start to unwind, dropping away bits and pieces of itself faster and faster as time went on. I was pretty sure those rules existed in service of maintaining a world that was a bit closer to Earth, since I’d used similar rules myself to curb the question of how everything becomes different if immortality is easy.)
“You’re Everett Wolfe?” asked Amaryllis, putting the question to him directly.
“Once upon a time,” he said with a nod.
“Alright,” said Tom. “So you know how we were talking about points and what they mean?”
“Uh,” I said. “Sure?”
“You were distracted,” said Reimer. “The argument --”
“Not an argument,” said Arthur. I made a silent prayer that we wouldn’t rehash the argument about what an argument was.
“The discussion was about what a hit point actually meant in concrete terms,” said Reimer. “Arthur began talking about luck, like, hit points are just a measure of how much luck you have until you get hit, and obviously in D&D, Pathfinder, and other derivatives, that’s not right, because there are other mechanics that interact with hit points, and how the heck does it make any sense for clerics to be restoring luck?”
“That actually makes a lot of sense,” I said. “Clerics can work with divine favor, and they’re restoring your connection to the gods that are ultimately responsible for protecting you in the frenzy of battle.”
“You don’t actually believe that,” said Reimer.
“It’s interesting from a lore perspective,” I said. “But no, I don’t think it’s literally true as the default, given it’s contradicted by loads of flavor and mechanics. I’ve always conceived of hit points as being something like exhaustion, physical damage, hunger, et cetera, all rolled into one.” I turned to Tom. “You were going somewhere with this though? About your new character?”
“Yeah,” said Tom. “I was thinking, like, normally all the points that you get for things represent how skilled you are, right? It’s experience and stuff. But I was thinking that instead I could play a guy that just bumbles his way through everything? Like, he’s a sorcerer, and he casts spells and things, but most of the time he’s got no idea what he’s doing, and when he levels up it just gets a little bit more ridiculous.”
“That seems like a horrible idea,” said Reimer. “Also, mechanically incompatible with the game.”
“We could homebrew something if mechanics get in the way,” I said with a shrug. “Let me think about it for a bit. Mostly it would come from narration on your end, right? You wouldn’t say that you were casting a fireball, you would say, I don’t know, that you were trying to light your pipe to calm your nerves and accidentally threw a fireball? Something like that?”
“Yes,” said Tom with a beaming smile. “Exactly!”
“Veto,” said Reimer.
“You don’t get to just veto character concepts,” I said.
“You veto my characters all the time,” said Reimer, scowling at me.
“First, I don’t think ‘how many daggers can you possibly throw in a round’ is actually a character, second, I have veto power, you don’t.” I gave him my best shit-eating grin. “And also, for what it’s worth, I feel like I really try to be acommodating, so long as it’s not bullshit like the hulking hurler.”
“It does seem like a bumbling sorcerer will wear thin pretty quickly,” said Arthur, cutting in.
“Well, I think it’s neat,” I said. “And if it wears thin, then that aspect of the character can just get phased out. Tom, you’ll figure out some stuff so I don’t have to narrate? Like, for each of your spells, figure out what you might have been intending to do instead?”
“Absolutely,” said Tom with a smile. “I’m going to be the bumblingest sorcerer anyone has ever seen.”
“So long as you don’t actually do worse on any of your checks,” said Reimer with a frown. “I can only pull so much weight.”
I’d read the biography of Everett Wolfe. The more I’d read, the more I’d seen the things he’d had in common with Tom’s character. This Everett Wolfe, the one sitting in front of me, had started out as a somewhat absent-minded artist, one with a focus on tattoos. Tattoo magic wasn’t well-known at the time, and the Athenaeum of Steel and Sweat hadn’t even been founded yet, but for Everett it was about the art, rather than the magic. Half the time he used exotic ingredients just for the sake of trying to get newer, sharper colors. It wasn’t quite right to say that everything he did was done through luck, but he worked on a deeper level of intuition, and that keen intuition saved his life a number of times, often unwittingly.
He didn’t stay like that forever though. Most of Uther’s Knights had their own stories, and Everett’s seemed to be one of moving from the intuitive, inspired artist to more of a prolific workhorse. His struggles, at least as outlined in the biography I’d read, were struggles of artistry, a push and pull between a desire to do something unique and original, following his strong intuitions about what tattoos to create, and the need to create tattoos over and over to the exacting standards that were demanded by the nature of the magic and the needs of his team. Tattoos, at least magical ones, boiled down to what were little more than vector graphics, and any competent tattooist was essentially required to do tedious, precision repetition of the same relatively small handful of patterns.
Amaryllis and I had both read up on him, and talked about him a bit, as we’d talked about all of the Knights. I almost felt like I knew the man, given how many of his struggles I had read about, and the things that his biography had revealed about him. Now he was, apparently, sitting across the table from us. It was weird.
“You look just like her,” Everett said to Amaryllis. “Doesn’t she, Sade?”
“Yeah,” said Pallida. “It’s kind of giving me the creeps, no offense.”
“None taken,” said Amaryllis. She cleared her throat. “I think that it’s time to get down to business. We’ve come here for answers, which was the same reason we were at Speculation and Scrutiny. Unfortunately, all we got from Masters were more questions and a cryptic message from my distant ancestor, as well as some implicit threats and undue use of force. There’s a good chance that we each have pieces of the puzzle that the other might want to take a look at.”
“Clearly,” said Heshnel. “That display outside was impressive, to say the least.”
Valencia sat in silence. I didn’t know what I expected from her, or what I thought she should have said, but the silence made her seem withdrawn. I was worried about her.
Heshnel returned to splitting focus between Amaryllis and myself. “Juniper Smith’s name was on a questionnaire written by Uther Penndraig’s own hand, five hundred years ago, for reasons which are unclear,” said Heshnel. “Following Uther’s disappearance and, presumably, death, it was speculated by many who were familiar with the phenomenon that he was dream-skewered. Speculator Masters has been sitting at his clinic, treating it as a fiefdom, and guarding it with quite a bit more fervor than one might imagine he would, if there was nothing to hide. Some token effort was put into independent investigation, but our attention was elsewhere following Uther taking his leave, and conversations with the dream-skewered didn’t turn up anything fruitful, aside from the anomaly of the questionnaire. Now, five hundred years later, as too many old threats have sprung into motion at once, someone arrives at the athenaeum with a name that was written long, long ago, beyond the threshold of any probabilistic or prophetic magic known to us. Who is Juniper Smith, and why did he come to the athenaeum?”
“I think it’s better that we have some of our questions answered first,” I said. “I don’t know what Plan B was, but Valencia assures me that it was more violent than a meeting.” That was understating it significantly. “We’re in the dark here. We need to be brought into the light, just a little bit, before we’ll say anything.”
“Masters mentioned specific threats,” said Amaryllis, taking the conversational ball from me. “Some were known to us, others weren’t, and the specifics are unclear. Tell us about the Infinite Library.”
“Why do you need to know?” asked O’kald. He was the only one of us standing; he weighed too much to sit in a chair. “What do you plan to do about it?”
“They have firepower, clearly,” said Pallida. “Just like Uther and his Knights.”
“If there’s anything that you haven’t heard of, there’s a reason,” said Heshnel. “But for the Infinite Library --”
“Are you really going to tell them?” asked O’kald.
The lenssi flicked its tendrils in the air.
“I am,” said Heshnel. “If he’s the Chosen One, then that might be cause for him to know, one way or another.” He turned back to me. “The Infinite Library contains every book that ever has been or will be published. Searching it is arduous, and currently feasible only with the use of a magic specific to that place.” Library Magic, naturally. “When someone enters or leaves the library, the books in the library change, because it cannot account for itself. With it, we can glimpse an imperfect future, the future as it would exist without our knowledge of that future and the work of the librarians. Per the last report from the head librarian, there are two years before no more books are published.”
“Masters said five years,” I replied. I felt my chest get a little tight at hearing how tight a deadline we were on, for a project whose existence we hadn’t even been informed of yet.
“Then I will hope that his information is more up to date than my own,” replied Heshnel. “Unfortunately, I’m skeptical that’s the case. Six weeks ago, it was five years, as low as it’s ever been. Then, something changed, and it became two years instead. We’re still tracking down a number of leads, as the exact cause is uncertain.”
Quest Accepted: We’re Going To Need Books, Lots of Books - The latest report from the ‘Infinite’ Library is that the world will stop publishing books roughly two years from now. The man who left the library changed the future, and if you go in, you’ll change the future too -- but perhaps that’s for the best.
“Why would you ask what the library is if you already knew?” Pallida asked Amaryllis.
The lenssi made three quick gestures with its tendrils.
“Ah,” said Pallida. “Right, cross-checking to make sure we’re not lying.”
“And what do those books say about me, if anything?” I asked.
“As far as I’ve read, nothing,” replied Heshnel. “Should they have? Are you so important that you would expect to be written about?”
“You don’t have books published yourself?” asked Amaryllis. “You haven’t already seen how this meeting is going to go? Because if this library can bring in books from some alternate future, then there’s nothing to stop you from writing your own books, and there also shouldn’t be anything to stop you from taking information from the future and advancing the arts and sciences by decades at a time.”
There was something a little too intense about the way that Amaryllis was speaking. I could see the parallels to her own situation, of course. She had books that weren’t from the future, exactly, but which were going to advance Aerb up a few ranks on the technology ladder. She was doing what she thought anyone should be doing, given the same resources we had.
“Exclusions,” said Everett with a cough. “We tried. It caused exclusions. There was once a thing called a demiplane.” He sounded wistful, and not entirely with us.
“The future that the library provides is a false one,” said Heshnel. “There are some things it cannot account for, beyond just itself. The exclusionary principle appears to be one of those things. There exists a moratorium on research.”
“Eight exclusions,” said Everett.
“More, when the Second Empire got ahold of the Library,” said O’kald.
Heshnel frowned slightly. “Yes.”
“The library is now in neutral hands,” said Thargox. This seemed directed at Solace.
“Ah. Neutral,” said Solace, as though that was a bitter word to swallow.
It suddenly occurred to me that more than half of the people in the room had been alive during the Second Empire. The thought that immediately followed was I didn’t have any concrete information about which ‘side’ any of these people might have been on. And once that thought was in place, it finally connected that when Pallida had said that Heshnel had been stripped of his abilities as a soul mage, it had probably been against his will, done by the same counter-imperialists that had thrown Fallatehr in prison. I don’t know why, but in my head, I had immediately cast him as being a revolutionary fighter taking up the signature tool of the enemy, maybe because he was one of Uther’s old allies. It was just as likely -- maybe more likely, given how people were responding to each other -- that some of Uther’s old allies had been instrumental members of the Second Empire.
“We’re not here to relitigate the past,” said Heshnel. “Far from it. We’re here to discuss the future.” His voice had gotten firmer. “Who is Juniper Smith?”
“There are other things that we need to know,” said Amaryllis. “The Outer Reaches, the Other Side, these are words that were spoken with weight to them by Masters.”
“No,” said Heshnel. “If we’re to exchange information, then it needs to go in both directions. Who are you, Juniper Smith? How did Uther know you would come?”
I glanced at the others. I hadn’t ever thought we were going to get out of this without me giving up some information, and I thought it likely that they would just talk to Masters after things had cooled down a little bit, especially if they had information to trade with him. We planned to talk with Masters again, so long as we could do it without stepping within a few hundred miles of the exclusion zone.
“Uther Penndraig was dream skewered,” I said. “I am too. We knew each other, as teenagers, on Earth. So far as I can tell, the dream skewered were a real, if very minor phenomenon, and from that kernel of truth, Uther and Masters built a deception intended solely as a way of baiting me or a few dozen others from Earth to come seek him out, if they ever showed up. To my knowledge, I’m the only one who did. I came to Speculation and Scrutiny because, like you, I wanted answers.”
“For someone who should have lost all knowledge of Aerb, you have remarkably capable companions,” said the fox Animalia, Gemma. She’d been mostly quiet, watching us. It reminded me of our bigger tabletop sessions, when there had been eight or nine people because too many of us had shown up, leaving people like Craig to sit quietly for long stretches of time, watching and waiting for a moment to contribute.
“I will forever be grateful that I found Amaryllis,” I said. “I don’t think that I would have survived for so long without her.”
“Diplomatic,” scowled O’kald.
“How old are you?” asked Gemma.
“Eighteen,” I said.
“And how long has it been since you were dream-skewered?” asked Gemma.
“Four months,” I replied, rounding up.
“Pallida, do you have some measure of his skills?” asked Gemma.
The pink-skinned girl looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “I watched him deliver a pretty powerful kick,” she replied. “I think he’d probably try to explain it away as being an entad, but I really doubt that. Assuming that he’s actually human, then I’d say he’s a pretty strong blood mage, magus tier at least, based on what I’ve seen. I was kind of hoping that he’d reveal something while we made our escape, but no luck there.”
The lenssi gestured, a long series of motions that took place in near-silence.
“Translation?” I asked, once it was finished.
Pallida was the one to answer. “The gist of it is that Dehla thinks there’s nothing to indicate that you’re all that special.”
“It seemed like there were a lot of words there,” I said. I glanced over at Valencia.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m still not up to it right now.”
“It wasn’t really important,” said Pallida. “Basically, if you were a blood mage, then you had to have trained at the athenaeum, but you couldn’t have actually achieved the level of skill that you did in a handful of months. So, maybe the dream skewering thing doesn’t work like we thought it did, or you’re lying, or I was wrong about what I saw, or wrong about --”
Dehla started gesturing again and Pallida stopped to watch.
“Okay,” said Pallida, once Dehla was done. “Apparently my skills as translator are not being valued today. What Dehla wants to know is how easy you found learning blood magic to be, and whether you did it at the anthenaeum.”
“That’s assuming that I know a single thing about blood magic,” I said.
“Do you?” asked Heshnel.
“Masters mentioned that Uther had something called the Knack,” I said. “He could learn things faster than anyone could reasonably be expected to, without any apparent magical aid. I … don’t think that I have whatever he had.” I looked at Grak. “I’ve been trying to learn Groglir for quite a while now, and while I am making progress, it’s about as fast as I would expect given how much time and effort I put into it.” I took a deep breath. “But as far as blood magic goes, yes, I attained some level of proficiency after a short lesson from a novice. I don’t think that necessarily makes me the Chosen One.”
“What does the term mean to you?” asked Heshnel.
“It appears in a lot of Uther’s writings, and it’s implicit in a lot of the works he created,” I replied. I hesitated. “Sorry, but if you know that he was dream skewered, and that I’m dream skewered, then I guess it doesn’t hurt anything to say that a lot of the ideas that Uther claimed for himself, and nearly all of the works he ever published, were all taken from Earth. A lot of it is, uh, straight plagiarism.”
“That fits in well with the theory, yes,” said Heshnel.
“Well, the Chosen One crops up a lot in Uther’s writing because it belonged to a class of stories that he really liked, and he wrote his own versions of a lot of those stories during his time on Aerb,” I said. “I’m given to understand that some of his focus on the idea of a Chosen One was seen as political propaganda, as though he was writing stories that tried to justify giving him power, but I don’t really think it was that, or at least not just that.” I swallowed. “He missed Earth. For whatever reason, he felt like he couldn’t talk to anyone about it, so he wrote stories instead, as a way of connecting to Earth and covertly sharing a part of it with people here. And … maybe he did think that he was the Chosen One, and maybe he even was?” I was watching Heshnel. I had lost him at some point, I could see that, because he’d spent most of the time I was explaining looking like he wanted to butt in.
“Uther never lost,” said Heshnel. “His enemies appeared in exactly the right order for him to be able to barely defeat each of them. He gained power rapidly, but it was always just enough to secure a victory, and there were times, rarely, that he got lucky rather than winning through pure might, skill, or knowledge. We never found out who Chose him, or for what purpose. When he left, we had to pick up the pieces and fight back against all of the problems that it had seemed like only he could handle.” He gestured to the great hall. “We were an army without its general, but we pushed on. And at great cost of life, the threats were put down, and the world was safe and secure.”
I let out a long breath. “The question is the direction of causality. If Uther had died early on, would the threats have never reared their heads? Or did he only arise because there were threats that only someone like him could be dealt with? It’s a question that you can’t possibly answer, but I have a feeling that you’ve all made up your mind.”
“Not really,” said Pallida. “But any insight you could give would sure be helpful.”
I looked at the seven of them, then glanced toward Valencia again, who gave me nothing more than a helpless look. “There are things that you’ll need to understand. It will take a long time to explain, but I’m willing to do it. To start with, I met the entity that I think did the choosing, and he told me in no uncertain terms that nothing was going to save me if I failed. I’m sure that if you did some research on us, which I assume you will, you would see some similarities between Uther and I, but --”
“Then it’s better you’re ended now,” said O’kald. I felt my blood run cold at the naked aggression, but none of the others on his side seemed to share it.
“Let him speak,” said Gemma.
“On Earth, I knew Uther as a teenaged boy named Arthur,” I said. I really didn’t like the feeling that we might have to fight if my explanation wasn’t good enough. “We were both pretty normal. We lived in a small town whose focus was mostly agriculture, corn, wheat, and soybeans. None of that is terribly important. What is important is that we played games together, games of imagination and storytelling, and our roles in those games were very different. Arthur was a roleplayer, someone who played at being different people, walking through a different world every few months. I was the one who created those worlds.”
I got some blank stares at that.
“Fenn?” I asked. “Can you bring out the Monster Manual?”
“Which edition?” asked Fenn.
“Fifth,” I said.
I caught Amaryllis looking at me, seeming none too happy, though this part, at least, we’d discussed beforehand. Yes, we were letting more people in on the fact that we could get things from Earth, but that didn’t really help them much, given that the backpack had been folded into what had to be one of the most defensible houses in the world. Besides, if Uniquities knew, then we had to assume that other people would soon know too. This group of people, led by Heshnel, was operating in secret, which was more than could be said for Uniquities.
Fenn popped the book from her glove and slid it across the table to Heshnel, who stopped it in place with his delicate, purple-black fingers. He glanced over at Dehla, who gave a swish of a tendril to confirm that it was non-magical.
“What am I looking at?” asked Heshenl as he leafed through the pages. He stopped on one, staring at it. “Drow?” he asked, looking up at me.
“Arthur and I played this game,” I said. “In that book there, dark elves are described as living deep underground in matriarchal societies, which I used as a jumping-off point for creating a race of elves that lived deep beneath the oceans, within a thick layer of ice that coated the ocean floors, down so deep that no light could reach. Then I came here, and found that the thing I’d thought up was actually true here.”
Heshnel stared at me, then down at the Monster Manual, and began flipping through the pages again. I hoped that he wouldn’t be too terribly scandalized to find the z-word.
“Elements, remembered from Aerb, in your dream of Earth?” asked Thargox. “A wrinkle in the nature of Earth?”
“No,” I said. “I know things that I couldn’t possibly have known. Uther did too, didn’t he?”
“He did,” said Everett. He sank slightly in his chair.
“You’re implying, what?” asked Pallida. “That a lot of what Uther knew was because he had seen it before, in these games that you’d played? That’s …” she stopped, staring at me, then looking at the book. “Are renacim in there?”
“No,” I said. “They were a species of my own invention.” Not unique, really, except maybe in the implications of their rebirth process.
“Juniper claims to have invented a lot of what’s on Aerb,” said Amaryllis. “I’ve seen enough in my time with him to think that even if he’s deluded, there’s valuable information in his head. I assume the same was true of Uther.” We’d more or less agreed on this framing. Amaryllis could be skeptical about me, which would help them undercut whatever I was saying. It wasn’t too different from the role she’d taken when we first met, and it wasn’t entirely a stretch.
“That’s only half the story, or maybe less than half,” said Gemma. “Why did Uther always win?”
“Uther thought that his life was a story,” I said. I looked at Everett. “More, as time went on?”
“I think that Uther was right,” I said. “You might think of it as him being in a story, but I’m not sure that’s helpful. Maybe instead think of it like a specific type of magic that would be completely invisible to a warder, with no actual counter, and which warped the very fabric of the world such that he would always have challenges to win by the skin of his teeth, if he applied himself to them.”
“Or even if he didn’t,” said O’kald.
“No,” I said. “It wouldn’t have worked if he’d just blown things off. At least, I don’t know enough to say for sure. There’s an entity, above the gods. I spoke with him, and he seemed adamant that he would let me die. He said that he didn’t care about narrative. I don’t know whether he once cared and then stopped, or if he was lying, but that’s what he said. He did say that there was a plot, but that if I scribbled outside the lines, he would see where that new direction took me.”
“This all sounds unbelievable,” said Heshnel. “You seem like you understand that.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “It’s hard to prove, if not impossible. There is this, though.” I held out my hand. “I wish for a hot dog.”
A hot dog appeared in my outstretched hand.
Dehla began gesturing frantically as I took a bite. The hot dog wasn’t very good, as I had known it wouldn’t be. I’d used three of the hundred hot dog wishes already for testing, the first to make sure that they actually did something, and the second and third to make sure that there weren’t combat applications. Grak had watched when I’d made the third wish, but hadn’t seemed as surprised by the results as Dehla seemed. It was a new wavelength of magic, distinct from the signature of the entad bands, and noteworthy in that regard, but it wasn’t going to upend anyone’s conception of reality.
“Translation?” I asked.
“You used an excluded magic outside the exclusion zone,” said Pallida. The pink of her skin had gone somewhat pale. I glanced at Grak, and he shrugged. Apparently, he hadn’t known that.
“Then he’s the Chosen One,” said O’kald. His hand went down from the surface of the table, to where his weapons rested.
“Why do you think that it would do any good to kill him?” asked Amaryllis. “Why would you think it was even possible?”
“Easy enough to test,” said O’kald. I couldn’t tell how much of that was a threat, and how much of it was dark humor.
“Uther disappeared,” said Heshnel. “We suffered heavy losses afterward, but we beat back every threat to Aerb, and what followed was a five hundred year period of peace.”
“Peace,” said Solace. “It’s odd, to hear the rise of the Second Empire described in such terms.”
“He doesn’t mean it like that,” said Pallida. “There were wars, sure, but there are usually wars somewhere or other. We measure peace relative to the cosmic scale. It was five centuries, more or less, of Aerb not having cataclysmic threats. There were exclusions, sure, and they sucked, and the Second Empire was, you know,” she glanced at Heshnel. “But it wasn’t like we were two steps away from the whole hex dying, you know? And that’s where we are right now.”
I saw Amaryllis pale slightly at hearing that.
“If you’ve read what Uther had to say on the matter of narrative, then you’ll have read Degenerate Cycles? ” asked Heshnel.
“I haven’t heard of it,” I said. I wasn’t quite a Penndraig scholar, but I had read most of his stuff, and I was well-acquainted with his bibliography. I would have picked up a book with such a suggestive title immediately.
Heshnel held out a hand, and after a few seconds, a book came flying around a corner next to the door to come to a dead stop in his delicate grip. He set it down next to the Monster Manual and opened it up.
“He talks about escalation, and its role within narrative,” said Heshnel. “Uther considered a story to be, at its heart, a conflict and its resolution. The problem was that for a conflict to be compelling, there must be some question of its resolution, at least to his way of thinking. In this book, the last he ever wrote, he considers the case of narrative cycles and how they might be made to be extensible, given a few tight constraints, though it’s unclear where these rules might have come from. The main cast of characters, he says, must always remain the same, never varying. The threats they face must also remain the same, or nearly so. The cast are free to wander as they please, in the course of this narrative, but they must never grow, never change, never become more powerful.”
“He tried,” said Everett, seeming to gain some energy for speaking. “He never said that it was what he was doing. I didn’t know until after he was gone. He wanted us all to adventure together, forever, static.”
Heshnel tapped the book. “Uther writes that it’s a lost cause. Contrary to what he wrote in On the Nature of Narrative, he says here that narrative isn’t infinitely extensible, not within the rules that he’s set out. A story with a foregone conclusion is no story at all, or if it is, then the conflict isn’t what it appears to be on first blush. He says, explicitly, that there needs to be some element of change to keep a story compelling. If the cast changes, they can face new, different challenges, conflicts whose resolutions might be in question. Each cycle results in change and growth, trivializing old conflicts. Escalation, he says, is inevitable, if you’re constrained by an unchanging cast.”
I frowned at that. “No,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be an upward trend. Different conflicts are possible if the hero is weaker too.” Throw Superman some kryptonite, if you really want the conflict to be in doubt.
“We suffered,” said Everett. His voice was raspy. “We lost loved ones. We gained afflictions. Vervain lost his sight. Alcida became blocked, unable to let loose her charge. Forty-Two was stuck in a single form for a month. Uther had always been the one to fix everything, and he found himself impotent, or so I thought.”
I blanched at the implication.
“There’s no proof but what he writes here, none of it conclusive,” said Heshnel. “If he was sabotaging his team in an effort to prevent this entity from escalating the conflicts, he abandoned it after not too many years, for reasons that are unclear to us. Escalation wasn’t constant, after that, but as he points out in Degenerate Cycles, there are only so many compelling conflicts, given that something must be learned or gained along the way for the story to be complete.”
“You think that the escalation would have continued, if Uther hadn’t left,” said Amaryllis. “You think that it wouldn’t have ended at the terrible things you can’t or won’t tell us about, it would have kept on, escalating more and more until … until he lost? Or until the world became meaningless in the face of whatever he was dealing with?”
It was a difficult question. If the narrative lasts forever, and it needs to include some element of escalation, then what does it look like fifty or a hundred years down the line?
“Imagine the world is as Juniper says,” replied Heshnel. “Imagine that Uther had some power that reshaped the entirety of existence to be consistent with facts that allowed for Uther to perpetually be the Chosen One. In the best case scenario, he would continue on in perpetuity, forever keeping the world safe from ever-escalating threats.”
“In the worst case?” asked O’kald. “The threats become greater and greater until we’re left in the lurch again, this time with problems that we cannot solve by throwing lives at them.”
“That’s not the worst case or the best case,” said Amaryllis. “The worst case is that you leave yourself in the lurch, because you took out the only person who could have actually resolved things. The best case is that Juniper doesn’t win a partial victory, he wins a complete one. That’s what the Dungeon Master said was on the line. At the end of the road, Juniper assumes the Dungeon Master’s place.”
“It seems an awful lot of power for a single person to have,” said Gemma.
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “And I’m not happy with that. But we’ve been led to believe that he can clear every exclusion zone and empty the hells of devils and demons.”
“Led to believe,” said O’kald. “By a supposed creature so powerful that it could have fixed every problem on its own.”
“The internal motivations of the Dungeon Master are opaque to us,” I said. “That said, I’ve been taking what he says at face value, at least lately, because it seems like the most reasonable thing to do. I don’t think that it makes sense to try to cut the Gordian Knot here.”
“Gordian Knot?” asked Pallida.
I looked at the confused faces around the table. “It’s an idiom from Earth,” I said. “It means to attempt to solve an intractable problem in some clever way.”
“Uther did that,” said Everett, croaking out the words. “The Uttalak write their stories in knotwork.” He heaved a sigh. “Uther cut their epic in twain, to make two stories of it. Solved a lot of problems that day.”
“Doesn’t seem terribly clever to try to kill the Chosen One,” said Fenn. “No offense.”
“This was the last book that Uther ever wrote,” said Heshnel, poking at Degenerate Cycles. “It was only discovered after he was gone. It’s very difficult to read it and not think of it as a suicide note.” I could see why such a thing wouldn’t be in his official bibliography. I wondered how many copies of it existed, and who controlled them.
“He wouldn’t commit suicide,” I said, but I felt my heart sink, because I had no conviction.
“He might have,” said O’kald. “If he thought that it was what was best for Aerb. You have some better explanation for what happened to him?”
“I think he might have gone home,” I said.
“Abandoned us?” asked Everett. “After so many years?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He left me a message in a magic mirror, which I only viewed today, and he seemed … nostalgic, I guess. He was hoping that maybe if he was still alive when I got the message, we could meet with each other and find a way back home. It dated to maybe sometime after 12 FE, based on what he said.”
“He kept to himself,” said Everett, with a note of finality, as though that was all you needed to know about Uther.
The lenssi gestured something, and I looked to Pallida.
“You know, we all understand the gestures,” said Pallida. “I don’t think that I should have to be the one on translation duty.”
“Tell him,” said O’kald.
“Them,” said Fenn. O’kald only grunted in response, a sound that was like two rocks coming together in his throat.
Pallida sighed. “Fine, the lenssi says that we’re essentially in a quagmire of unknowability, at which point it’s best to just look at the possible outcomes and place our bets.”
“Meaning?” I asked.
“Meaning that we can set up a payout matrix,” said Amaryllis. “Figure out the outcomes, assign values to those outcomes, then assign probabilities.”
Pallida watched Dehla gesture some more, just two quick slashes this time. “That … is more or less correct,” said Pallida. She glanced over at Amaryllis. “Where did you learn that?”
“Studies of philosophy,” said Amaryllis. “If Dehla would like to make a map of the possibilities, their probabilities, and the values we’d place on them, I think that would be a good use of our time.”
I’ll skip ahead a bit here, because most of the twenty minutes that followed that was spent with Amaryllis and Dehla in conference with each other. Pallida acted as translator for Dehla’s half of the conversation, but it was pretty apparent that the renacim wasn’t strongly invested in the conversation.
“So,” said Amaryllis, looking down at her sheet of paper. “The real question I have at the moment is how likely you all think it is that with Juniper eliminated, you would be able to put an end to all the threats Aerb currently faces.”
I wasn’t terribly comfortable with this line of thinking, but I supposed it was worth something to have the option on the table and discussed openly, rather than something that no one could actually verbalize. There was a very small part of me that was concerned that Amaryllis could be convinced that Aerb would be better off with me dead, through some kind of narrative or meta-narrative logic. She seemed to care about narrative more than I did, even after I’d had my talk with the Dungeon Master, but I was almost certain that she wasn’t about to stab me through the heart in a bid to save the world. (Almost.)
“With the threat of infernals taken off the tables, the picture isn’t so bleak,” said Heshnel. “You know the threats by name, at least. The Void Beast might be mollified, if we can figure out why it’s moving towards us again, and it’s a threat that’s known to the people of Aerb. Moreover, it’s a far-off threat, a century at current rates, which is more than it was when the imperial ban was implemented. The infernals are, apparently, worried about something that’s entirely against them and on your side, though obviously there are concerns there, especially with regards to another unification.”
“Something on their side?” asked Everett, half a step behind.
“We’ll speak on it later,” said Heshnel. He turned back to us. “The defenses that Uther laid in place against the Other Side have held strong for five centuries, and will hold for decades at least, so long as we can bring together the necessary expertise to fix them where they’ve frayed at the edges. If those defenses are breached, we might still win, with considerable losses, but that’s not something that anyone would like to risk.” He let out a sigh. “The biggest risk factor, aside from whatever undefined fate the Library is attempting to warn of, is the Outer Reaches, of which I can say no more.”
“Those are the ones that we can see,” said O’kald. “Those are the threats as they exist now.”
“He thinks that more will come,” said Pallida. “In one version of the theory, so long as there’s a Chosen One, there will be challenges for them to meet. And granted, there’s no evidence that any threats were retroactively created for Uther, aside from the sheer coincidence of it all … but the Lost King himself seemed to think that there was something to the idea.”
“I’ll need to read a copy of that book,” I said.
“Certainly,” said Heshnel. He slid it across the table to me, and I glanced at Grak for long enough to get a nod from him. I really wouldn’t have minded having warder’s sight, given how useful it was for making sure there were no traps.
“You’re taking this well,” Gemma said.
“It’s not really news,” I said. “We already knew that Uther had an obsession with narrative. Arthur had that same obsession, when I knew him, even before all of this started. And as for how it applies to me, I’d already seen some of the strands of escalation present themselves. It’s complicated, it really is, but I’m willing to tell you everything.” Everything I can, anyway. Adding that caveat would have been a bit more honest, but at the expense of sounding really sketchy.