There were three major priorities. The first was finding a cure for sleep, which would allow Instinctive Halting to be active indefinitely, and Meta Stilling to keep Prince’s Invulnerability active, as well as the boost from stilling all the debuffs. The second was rescuing people, both the living and the dead, which was being accomplished by Bethel and the tuung, and had been since I’d descended into the domed building. And the third priority was calling in help from the Empire, which couldn’t be done without authorization from the ruling council of Li’o, who were all presumed compromised. That last was especially important, because while the Empire could act through something called Article 86, doing so would cause major political problems for the Empire which might result in either civil war or imperial collapse, for complicated (and not so complicated) political reasons. It was an open question whether I actually cared about the continued health of the Empire of Common Cause, but until I had a strong opinion otherwise, maintaining the status quo seemed wise.
Another big thing to do, which only Amaryllis and I were capable of, was trying to root out any plans that Harold had left. The newly compliant Ellio had been clear that they’d advised Harold to create sleeper agents in the case of Harold’s death or incapacitation, but Harold was inconsistent in actually following their directives, which was good for us, because a non-alien intelligence with Harold’s power and goals would probably have succeeded where Harold had repeatedly failed. So far as we could tell, it was the mortal advisors that had gotten him so far this time, within spitting distance of completing his goals.
I didn’t like going into anyone’s soul. First off, the default starting view was of them naked, which in most cases was just awkward for me. Second, there was a temptation to look around and snoop, which I never did insofar as it could be helped, but it always made me feel bad about my moral character. Third, after the first dozen people, it was pretty tedious work. And fourth, there were a lot of people who were understandably justified in not wanting someone to touch their soul, especially someone like me who had no credentials or license. That was an issue that we solved by having Valencia be the one to talk with them, but it still made me feel a bit queasy, for all the obvious ethical reasons.
(I had killed perhaps two dozen people over the course of the day, and I wasn’t sure that I could justify all of them as being for the greater good, or wholly necessary. Sometimes, it had just been easier, or because I was angry, and it was effectively a warzone. Those sounded like excuses to me, but I was terrible at figuring out why I had done things at the moment I had done them. I was trying not to think about it.)
While I was traipsing through the souls and spirits of others, removing Harold’s hooks where I found them and trying to undo any obvious alterations, hoping to not hit a memetic minefield, the other members of our team were working on the other issues. Healing the living and extracting the souls of the dead was a top priority, and we had everyone there who could be of any help. We’d tasked others with the time-critical task of getting me a cure for sleep.
People on Aerb could get brain damaged. You’d think, given that the soul seemed to store a fuckton of information in it, that this wouldn’t be the case, but the brain and the soul were a complicated two-way street, and there were lots of ways that the street could get broken. It was with that in mind that I looked Grak over with every tool at my disposal. Solace had already taken a look at him and declared him fine, but I wasn’t willing to take any chances.
“You did really stellar work,” I said as I touched his forehead. He was still missing bone there. Solace could fix it, but had declined to, because she didn’t think that it would particularly bother him, and it wasn’t really a health hazard given that it was covered with skin.
“Thank you,” said Grak. “It was unearned.”
“Unearned?” I asked, sitting back slightly to look at him.
“I have not studied enough to know the things I do,” said Grak. “I am not a magus. It all comes to me with fluidity and ease.”
“I suppose you’d be a hypocrite if you were super happy about your jumps in skill, given how much it bothered you that all my power was unearned,” I said. “But I think there’s a pretty solid place between ‘taking it for granted’ and ‘thinking less of yourself’. That’s the middle ground that we should both be striving for. And I wanted to let you know that you did really stellar work.”
“I might be the most powerful warder in the world,” said Grak. His voice sounded a little funny as he said it, with an inflection that he didn’t normally have when speaking Anglish (we had started in Groglir and then switched for Juniper-doesn’t-know-what-he’s-doing diagnostic purposes).
“You might be,” I replied. “Though you are only at eighty-four.”
“That low?” asked Grak, looking at me.
“That’s what your soul says,” I replied.
“I thought it would be higher,” Grak replied. He gave me a sheepish look, one that I wouldn’t have identified as such a few months ago. “Not because I think I’m that good.”
“But you are?” I asked. “And you’re wondering what’s left at the top?”
“Uther was a warder,” said Grak. “The bulk of his wards still stand. There are places he warded that no one can enter. There are wards he broke that were thought unbreakable. He has many feats to his name, some of which have left warders scratching their heads for five hundred years. The real answer is simply that he cheated.”
“We don’t actually know that,” I said. I didn’t really consider the game powers I had to be cheating, just playing a different game with different rules, but I could see how it would look from the outside.
“We suspect,” said Grak. “You should talk to Raven more.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “She looks just like Maddie. And we had a week together in the Infinite Library, and it was just … business, I guess, very few hints that it was going to go in any direction I really didn’t want it to go in. Then when we were out, I wanted it to stay business, I guess.”
“You can talk to her about business,” said Grak, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” I replied. “It’s just … there’s been a lot on my plate lately, and I feel like I have to carve out time to spend with people if I ever want to spend time with them. Valencia accused me of ‘making the rounds’.”
“She told me,” said Grak. “She regretted it.”
“Well, she didn’t tell me that she regretted it,” I replied. It had been one of those little comments that had stayed with me enough that I had a vague paranoid worry that it had been thought up by a devil.
“She was waiting to tell you when she made the rounds again,” said Grak. He smiled slightly.
“Well, I guess I know what we’ll be talking about then,” I said with a sigh. I looked Grak up and down. “I’m unsure on the brain damage, by the way. You seem lucid enough. If it’s there, it’s probably beyond my current abilities. Or maybe it was there and it healed on its own, or with the magics we applied to you. I don’t know.”
“I appreciate you worrying,” said Grak. He fidgeted slightly. “You probably have other things to do.”
“I do,” I replied, but I didn’t move from where I was sitting. “You’ve heard of imposter syndrome, right?”
“No,” said Grak.
“Basically,” I said, hoping that I wasn’t just talking out of my ass. “Basically, it’s this internal feeling of being a fraud, worrying that you’re going to be found out, or that you’re not good enough. It’s self-doubt. And the funny thing is that a lot of people feel this, maybe even most people,” which was probably overstating it, “but it’s just something that you have to work through.”
“I’m not sure that’s what I’m feeling,” said Grak. He frowned at me. “You understand we have done little to deserve these powers?”
“I do,” I said with a nod. “But … I don’t know, there’s a difference between knowing that we don’t deserve them, and discounting everything we’ve done as being, basically, worthless. You’ve had help, sure, there’s a thumb on the scale, but it’s still you that’s doing it. It doesn’t invalidate the fact that you saved thousands of people, maybe more than thousands. You don’t need to feel like you’re solely responsible for your successes to feel good about what you’ve accomplished.”
“I would never have said I was solely responsible,” replied Grak, looking at me with an intensity that made me a little uncomfortable. I had seen into his soul, I’d had to in order to check him over, and I had seen how high I ranked. I thought it was probably too high, but maybe that was just my own imposter syndrome talking.
“How are things with Solace?” I asked. “Has she been keeping you company while I was gone?” It wasn’t the most subtle of transitions, but dwarves were supposed to be blunt, even dwarves like Grak who had some amount of imperial sensibilities.
Grak turned away slightly. There was a barely visible blush, hidden as it was by his beard. “Good,” he said. “She has been very … accommodating.”
“Huh,” I said. “That’s … do I want to know more?”
“Likely not,” replied Grak.
I sat in silence for a moment. I really did need to get on with doing other things, but I didn’t want to leave on that, not if it would make him feel like I disapproved, or like I was thinking the wrong things. I wished that I hadn’t asked about Solace and made things awkward, but that ship had sailed.
“I’m happy you have a krinrael,” I said. “Solace always seemed … well, interesting, I guess. And we all need somebody.”
“Even you?” asked Grak.
“I’m comfortable being solitary,” I said.
“Hrm,” replied Grak.
“Don’t ‘hrm’ me,” I told him. “You’re a dwarf, you’re supposed to be blunt.”
“I’m only as much dwarf as I want to be,” replied Grak. “Bethel had mentioned some sexual frustration on your part.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. “Of course she has. Look, it’s really not anything for anyone to concern themselves with.” I paused. “Can I ask what, exactly, she said?”
“Only that,” replied Grak. “She enjoys being cryptic.”
<I do,> said Bethel, and from Grak’s expression, I could tell she was speaking into his mind too. <Juniper, I’m going to patch you to Feldspar, he’s one of Mary’s tuung. Apparently something happened to Heshnel.>
“What happened?” I asked, staring at Heshnel’s head shortly after he’d been brought in. I had already gotten the gist of it from the tuung, speaking through Bethel.
“I was killed,” replied Heshnel. His head was sitting on a table in a tastefully decorated room which Bethel had either made for us or hastily appropriated. She was copying the Baroque style, with gilded floral patterns and ostentatious wallpaper, none of which went all that well with a dark elf’s head sitting in the center of a table. I wasn’t sure there was any interior decorating that could have made it less creepy. “The entad has now fused with my soul, a condition that will last until it is removed from my neck, at which point I will face oblivion.”
“Ah,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Through the ages, people have come to see death as an inevitability,” said Heshnel. “I spent much of my life hoping that wasn’t true, and fighting to conquer death, but here I am.”
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked. “Any way I can get you a body back, or some mobility, or something like that? I don’t want you to be beholden to Bethel or anyone else. I still consider you a part of the team.”
“I’m not,” said Heshnel. “I never was.”
“If that’s true,” I said. “Then that’s only because you wanted to keep yourself at arm’s length.”
“I still don’t have the measure of your place in this universe,” said Heshnel, frowning slightly. He was either taking the whole beheading thing very well, or his new outlook was being magically assisted in some way. “You killed the great, towering, terrible beast, but what does that mean in the context of the world? Is it a sign of how things have escalated, and how much further they have yet to escalate? Or a real and true triumph over something that your Dungeon Master set up for you to defeat, a thing that needed to be felled before your eventual apotheosis?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t have any idea either. Obviously I’m hoping that there’s a finite limit to what the Dungeon Master has on hand, and that he’ll stick to the world as he made it and not spin up new shit when or if everything is beaten, but I wouldn’t count on that. And in the meantime, I don’t really have any option except to respond to the incentives in front of me.”
“You could kill yourself,” said Heshnel, raising an eyebrow. “Just as we were planning to kill you.”
“I could,” I said. “Or I could do like Mary thinks, and try to follow the narrative.”
“That was what I tried,” said Heshnel. He still sounded like he had before, and a touch of sadness had crept into his tone.
“You … you did?” I asked.
“When your friends, Reimer and Lisi, came to the house, I stayed in the shadows, watching them. I had seen the claws descend from the sky and strike the earth. I knew that it was bad.” Heshnel took a breath, despite not having lungs anymore. “I followed them. I joined with them. I didn’t want them to die, but I had not wanted people to die before, and accepted that it was necessary in spite of my wishes. I have killed before, because it was the right thing to do, not because it was deserved, not because I wanted it, but because it was the burden of necessity. Your friends, I followed, and them I did my best to save.”
“But not because of any nobility or valor on your part?” I asked. “It was because of … narrative?”
“That’s not quite right,” replied Heshnel. “I don’t understand this universe anymore. I thought that I did, when we came to the conclusion that Uther was the magnet drawing in all these threats, but when you arrived, it seemed possible, probable that this narrative theory was actually correct. I thought about what would happen to those two children if they didn’t have me there to protect them, what import it might be that they arrived, what part I might be meant to play. But to say that it wasn’t nobility, that it wasn’t valor, is to ignore that I have been fighting against those instincts for my entire life.”
I frowned and thought about that. I really did need to get back out there, but Heshnel’s head had been brought to me, and he seemed like he wanted to talk. Over the weeks since his group had ambushed me, I’d begun to feel like maybe I owed him something. He hadn’t been a part of it, he had come to my defense against his friends and allies, and I hadn’t given him much but scorn in return.
“You thought, just this once, that you would do like heroes do in the stories,” I said. “You would do the noble and valorous thing that your heart had been telling you to do all along.”
“It isn’t the heart,” replied Heshnel. “It’s the animal wiring of the brain, the cadence of the soul, the imprint of early lessons. I have cut away much of that, where I was able, where it was possible while leaving me mostly the person I was before. I had friends experienced in essentialism to help shape me, friends I would shape in turn. But some of it remains. That was what I followed. It seemed magical, to give in to those impulses, to save lives in that way, to use my resources for small, concrete goods instead of chipping away in an indirect manner at large, overwhelming ones.”
“And you did good,” I replied. “You saved Reimer’s life, and Lisi’s too. I’m extremely grateful.”
“I saved other lives,” said Heshnel. “A dozen, perhaps, maybe more. I let the feeling of righteousness get to me. My soul isn’t what it once was. It’s drifted, over the years, grown wild and free where it was once restrained. I expended resources to help people whose lives mattered less than my own, and I died for it.”
“You regret it?” I asked.
“I spent my life for the lives of, perhaps, two dozen others,” said Heshnel. “It’s perhaps the unbridled pride that my species are known for, but I don’t believe my life was worth so little.”
“But you might have died anyway,” I said. “Your life is worth more than the lives of two dozen people, sure, I’d buy that, but it wasn’t a one-to-one trade, it was more like trading a few percent chance better possibility of survival for a large percent chance that the people you helped would stay saved and not die shortly afterward.”
“True,” replied Heshnel. He paused. “Have I ever told you how unlike him you are?” I didn’t have to ask who ‘him’ was. With pretty much anyone who had met the man, Uther Penndraig simply became ‘him’, a vast and ineffable figure.
“Probably,” I said.
“Uther would have answered with a riddle, or proclamation, or something of that nature, rather than a quick check of my mathematical assumptions,” said Heshnel.
“Well, I hope it’s helpful for you to know that we’re not the same person,” I said with a shrug. “I have the feeling you’re not the last person I’m going to have to convince of that.” I looked to the ceiling for a moment, debating whether or not I wanted to call Bethel in and end this so that I could move on to more time-critical things.
“I won’t be staying with you,” said Heshnel.
“Why not?” I asked. There had been something about the way he’d been talking that dulled my surprise at hearing that.
“You don’t need me,” Heshnel said. “Solace is an accomplished flower mage, though her style is unorthodox, her strains are weak, and she’s in a period of rebuilding. Essentialism was stripped from me at the end of the Second Empire, leaving me unable to teach it, even if it would only be in those very few areas you might still be lacking. I have little purpose on your councils, save as a lightning rod for old grievances with the Second Empire, a subject on which I have taken my lashes more times than I could count. Nor am I the elder that I might have served as, not when you have Raven and Pallida to tell you about the old days and the reign of Uther Penndraig.” He looked down at the table. “I don’t even have a body.”
“None of that means --” I began.
“Do you want me here?” asked Heshnel. “Is there some reason that my presence is helpful to you?”
I hesitated. “I value having many voices. I value dissent. The Second Empire stuff in particular makes you valuable, and as much as the others might not like me to admit it, as much as I don’t want to admit it, I think that you and I have a pretty strong ideological alignment.”
“And so my dissent is even less valued,” said Heshnel with what I think might have been him trying to nod.
“If you want to go, I won’t stop you,” I said to the head on the table.
“Then I will go,” said Heshnel. “I had always promised myself that death would be the end of my burdens.”
“I mean, there’s a question of how you’re going to do pretty much anything,” I said.
“Did you think that I wore this necklace for three hundred years without having a plan for that?” asked Heshnel.
“No,” I replied. “I guess not. Give it a day or two, when things have hopefully settled down, and we’ll get you wherever you need to go. In the meantime, there are a lot of things demanding my time, Reimer and Lisi being one of them.”
“Go,” replied Heshnel. “Thank you for taking the time to speak.”
“How are you doing?” I asked Bethel, while I took a break from combing through souls.
“Poorly,” she replied. “Too many people, too many obligations, too much like a hospital, a ship, or an institution. I detest it.”
“Okay,” I said. “We appreciate it.”
“I’m well aware that you appreciate it,” replied Bethel, frowning at me.
“Sometimes humans make mouth sounds because we know a situation sucks and there’s really not anything that we can do about it,” I said. “We could set up a makeshift hospital using the tuung and some staff that we’ve cleared for work, and take the Egress as a shuttle, but … well, if you’re at your breaking point, let’s do that. Or, before you’re at your breaking point, because I don’t want you to be pushing past discomfort for too long.”
“I will be fine,” said Bethel. “This will last no more than a day. Two at most.”
“This Article 86 business had better fucking get sorted out,” I said. “Either way, the empire isn’t going to sit by forever while a city crumbles. I’d say that I’m surprised that it’s gone on for so long, but there was this thing called Hurricane Katrina, back on Earth, and the upshot --”
“Yes, I’m well familiar,” said Bethel with a sigh. “You forget so easily that you’re not the only one who knows of Earth.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m going to have to make some new friends who I can impress with my obscure references.”
“Hurricane Katrina was not obscure,” said Bethel.
“You’re in a bad mood,” I said. “I get that. Let me know if there’s anything we can do to make it better?”
“I will, if I think of anything,” said Bethel. “I would like to make it clear that you owe me, dearly. And the longer this goes on, the deeper that debt grows.”
“When we get back to the Isle of Poran, we’ll set you in place, kick out the tuung, and have a solid week of you just being a house for our little extended family,” I said. “Deal?”
“You won’t sleep in the bottle?” asked Bethel.
“That,” I said, snapping my finger. “That’s a little more sticky.” I saw her eyes darken. “But yes, it sounds like an acceptable compromise to me.”
“Very well,” said Bethel. “Valencia continues to line people up faster than Amaryllis alone can clear them.”
“Back to it then,” I said. “Any word from Pallida or Raven?”
“Not yet,” said Bethel. “I will, among my many duties, keep you informed.”
“The locus is tapped out,” said Solace. I had been pulled into the bottle room between clearing people, a place that hadn’t changed at all, which was pretty atypical for Bethel. The bottle was still held by an upright stone hand, and the room was still full of plant life, though the sky overhead was still a sickly green color, even with Mome Rath dead.
“Okay,” I said. “You’ve been doing a lot of good work. We’ll have this room made into the time chamber, set up some grow lights so that it won’t be complete darkness, possibly on a timer, and give it a few days.”
“No,” replied Solace, frowning at me. She was wearing her leaf cloak and resting up against her staff. She was wearing clothes, which I was thankful for, loose slacks and a loose shirt. Her hair was a bit longer than it had been, and it might have been my imagination, but she looked older too, seven or eight instead of five (though I was terrible at guessing ages).
“No?” I asked.
“The locus is not some device that you give inputs in order to have outputs,” said Solace. “It is not a machine that needs oil and water to run.”
I frowned a bit, then relaxed and allowed myself to get into what I thought of as druid mode, even though druid mode didn’t like being called druid mode. Some of getting into the headspace was just breathing and letting myself calm down, which felt a bit hard in the current circumstances.
The first thing out of my mouth was very nearly, “I hear your concerns, loud and clear,” which felt way too much like the opening to a PR-massaged apology from a major corporation. “I understand,” I said instead. “People are going to die because they didn’t have healing. Our stockpiled fairies have already run dry, and we don’t have limitless bones, nor do we have enough bone mages, even with the ones we’ve gotten from the collected survivors. And that’s just the stuff that those methods of healing are capable of fixing, because Lord knows there are gaps. Bethel and the tuung are, at the moment, pretty much the entirety of search and rescue, and the hospitals of Li’o -- Christ, we’re pretty much out-competing them, which is pathetic on their end and means that we have an obligation to do as much as we can.” I paused and took a breath. “And yes, I know that this doesn’t actually change things from your perspective, and it doesn’t magically mean that the locus will be charged up from grow lights and a couple days in the chamber. Even if that should work, it just … won’t. I trust you on that.”
“You find it frustrating,” said Solace. She had her arms folded.
“I do,” I replied. “And yes, I know, that’s reflective of the worst impulses of the Second Empire, the desire to put everything in a nicely labeled box, especially in the name of doing the right thing. But I can’t just deny how I feel, that wouldn’t be what the locus would want of me. It would want me to feel those things, to acknowledge them, internalize my understanding of them, and then change. I have the first part, but I don’t know how I get to the last part from where I stand now. How do you not find it frustrating, knowing that people are dying?”
“I find it frustrating that people are dying,” said Solace. “I don’t place the blame on that which holds no blame. The locus is finished with its help, likely for the next few days, not because it has particular desires, but because of its intrinsic character. Do you get frustrated at inanimate objects when they do things that you dislike?”
“Well,” I said. “Yeah.”
Solace furrowed her brows. “That’s silly.”
“Sure,” I said. “But also very human, and I assume that the same holds true for the other mortal species. And in point of fact, the locus isn’t inanimate, it’s got a … well, I don’t want to say mind, and I don’t want to say soul, but it’s got a something, a spark of life, a will, and it’s very hard to distinguish whether or not individual things that happen are because the locus is willing them to happen, or because it’s struggling against them.”
“Do you have time for this talk?” asked Solace. Her voice had gone gentle, which I thought was probably intentional on her part, given how quickly it had happened, and her previous near-hostility.
“Not really, no,” I replied.
“Then it can wait for another time,” said Solace. “It’s not a conversation that you should be having with me. Your sessions with the locus have been going well, and it would be good for you to continue with them. This seems like something that the two of you could talk about.”
“Sure,” I said. The locus didn’t actually talk during our sessions, it just nodded or looked at me or made facial expression that were nearly unreadable given that it was a six-eyed deer. “Thank you for understanding.”
“Thank you for at least attempting to understand,” said Solace.
“Anytime,” I said. I tried to keep the sarcasm from my voice, but I wasn’t sure that I was successful. <Ready for whatever is lined up for me,> I sent to Bethel.
<Of course, my liege,> replied Bethel. <Words cannot describe how much you owe me.>
“And Juniper?” asked Solace.
“Yes?” I asked.
“We still need to find a solution to our problem,” said Solace.
It was a reminder that I didn’t need, an old point that had been brought up so many times before that I was nearly deaf to it. I hear you, loud and clear, your concerns have been noted and in the coming days I will be doing everything in my power yadda yadda. I had nothing to say on the subject, nothing to add, I wasn’t quite doing everything that I could, but we had already sacrificed a lot of time and effort for the locus, and we’d gotten pretty much nothing but the status quo and some bad news from the Second Empire in return. Thankfully, I was saved from having to make a response by Bethel yanking me away.
“You know,” I said to Pallida. “You would think that saving the city would get you a little bit of rest and relaxation.”
“City wasn’t saved,” said Pallida with a raised eyebrow. She was sitting next to Raven in our common room, the large one that held chairs, couches, and a large fireplace with a discreetly rolled up screen for when we brought out the projector. Aesthetically, it was like an inverted Fabergé egg. “That might be a part of it.”
“Okay, sure,” I replied. “The city is pretty much in ruins, and there were a whole lot of monsters running around, and this probably represents a failure on my part in some unknowable way, if it’s not just chalked up to outright malice. But still.”
“Dealing with the aftermath is rarely pretty,” said Raven. “Uther always hated it. It was often possible to kill everyone involved, common that we fought enemies that were truly beyond reform or redemption, but every once in a blue moon we were mired in complicated moral situations, or places where there were no easy solutions.”
“I’m really looking forward to the empire coming in, no matter how that happens,” I said. “This isn’t something that we should really have to be doing at all, not when we have comparatively few resources at our disposal.”
“The world’s most amazing flying house with a literal mile of hospital inside it is comparatively few?” asked Pallida. “Plus a platoon of frogs, which don’t count for nothing.”
“Maybe I’m overestimating the empire,” I said with a shrug. “Anyway.”
“The bad news is, we haven’t been able to find anything novel for your sleep problem,” said Pallida. “The good news is, our looting did pay dividends.” Pallida rolled up a sleeve and showed a tattoo to me. The larger shape was that of an eye, but the pupil was like a goat’s, squished in the middle, almost reminiscent of an hourglass. “Kenner’s Eye. It took us a surprisingly long time to find a tattooist, even accounting for the general bedlam.”
“I’m actually fairly surprised that Bethel didn’t get one,” I said. “You’d think with all the people passing through, there would have been one with Kenner’s Eye.” It was a disappointment, frankly. Amaryllis had her own copy of it, but there was a problem with that, which was that she had incurred a debt. Taking it from her while that debt was active would put her out like a light. It was a fallback solution, to be sure, especially since we could rush through her sleep with the time chamber, but we’d held off, hoping that we could find something better, so that Amaryllis could pay down the debt at her leisure.
“Not so useful, for what it is,” said Raven. “When it was a cheap spell, it was used by guards, firemen, physicians, and anyone who might have to work long shifts, the better to stave off sleep. As the price rose, fewer had it.”
“We actually found an abandoned tattoo shop before finding a different tattooist, and the owner didn’t even have it in his book,” said Pallida. “A book we brought, by the way.”
“Good,” I said. I reached over and touched her arm. “I was thinking that I would probably respec to a more ideal build in the near future. Maybe it’s time to bring Art back into the mix so that I can tattoo myself instead of using spells that others put on me.”
I slid the tattoo from her to myself, bridging our skin and settling the magical inks into place.
Achievement Unlocked: Exclusive
“Fuck,” I said, staring at the text. “Fuck fuck fuck.”
“What is it?” asked Raven, going tense.
“Bethel, bring everyone in, group meeting, as quickly as is reasonable,” I said. I looked up at Raven and Pallida’s alarmed expressions. “I got an achievement, ‘Exclusive’,” I said. “I’m really hoping that it doesn’t mean what I think it means.”
Our group appeared one by one, put into place around the table.
“What is it?” asked Amaryllis. She must have taken a moment to freshen up, because she was out of her immobility plate and wearing a t-shirt and jeans again. I had switched the vambrace to plain clothes, which was considerably less of a hassle.
“I think there might have been an exclusion,” I said.
Everyone stared at me.
“Come on,” I said. “Get seated. If it’s happened, then we have at least a little bit of time to figure things out. I don’t think that it’s catastrophic.”
We sat around the table together, some of us more cautiously than others. Heshnel wasn’t there, though I didn’t know whether that was because Bethel hadn’t grabbed him, or because he hadn’t wanted to come. To the rest, I explained, in brief, what had happened, which didn’t take very much time at all.
“But what would have been excluded?” asked Amaryllis. “Just Kenner’s Eye? Just Prince’s Invulnerability? Or … something more?” Her face was set into a scowl. “Obviously we’re going to have to test it.”
“You take the Egress, go a few miles out, test your tattoos,” I said. “For what it’s worth, all mine appear to still be functional, though I can’t really test Kenner’s Eye.”
“If it’s all of skin magic,” Amaryllis began. She was a bundle of tension.
“I know,” I said. “There would be implications. Take the Egress and figure out if that’s what it is.”
“It may be still magic,” said Grak. “If the Dungeon Master wanted to place limits.” Midway through his sentence, Amaryllis disappeared from her place at the table, presumably to the garage where the Egress was kept. Bethel would be stationary until it returned, but I was hoping that wouldn’t affect our operations too much.
“Wait,” I said. “She had Kenner’s Eye with a debt on it.”
“Paid off as of three minutes before this meeting,” said Bethel. “She wanted to be prepared to hand it over.”
“Okay,” I said, relaxing just slightly.
“There’s no way of second guessing the Dungeon Master,” said Raven, picking that thread of conversation back up.
“Smart girl,” replied the Dungeon Master.
“You,” I said, locking eyes with him. He had appeared without warning, though it was impossible for me to say how or when. He wasn’t even in anyone’s chair; it appeared as though the table had expanded to allow him a seat. When I looked over at Valencia, who was sitting next to him, I saw that she was stock still, unmoving and unblinking, and a quick look around the table confirmed that the same was true for everyone else.
“Time for a chat,” said the Dungeon Master with a genial smile. He was wearing a dark gray hoodie again, but this one said, ‘Of Dice and Men’ with an emblem of a little mouse holding a sword next to a large d20. In front of him was a monstrously thick book, which would probably have been the largest that I’d ever seen had I not done my stint in the Infinite Library. It was thick and bound in red leather. The spine, which was visible to me, said, ‘Worth the Candle, by Juniper Smith’.
“Amaryllis had a list of questions prepared,” I said.
“Yes, yes, no, yes, maybe, it depends on my mood, yes, no, and I’d have to look it up,” replied the Dungeon Master.
“Literally none of the questions were yes or no questions,” I replied. “They weren’t even ambiguous.”
“Well, I tried,” said the Dungeon Master. “Or at least, I pretended to, and isn’t that what matters?”
“Why are you here?” I asked. I was already getting tired of him.
“Ah,” he said. “I’m here because you’re here, and I thought maybe now would be a good time to talk.”
I stayed silent, waiting for him to go on. Amaryllis had a long conversation with me about how to comport yourself in front of a god, and I was trying to take her advice, even if I wasn’t sure that it actually applied.
“The first reason, of course, is that to fulfill the rule of three, we need to meet an extra time before we meet at the end,” said the Dungeon Master. “That’s assuming that you get there, anyway. Given that we’re about halfway through what I had prepared --”
“Half?” I asked. “That’s … there are only five months left?”
“I’m not giving you a clock, lord no,” replied the Dungeon Master. “You don’t need a Sword of Damocles hanging over your head.”
“There’s a whole fucking armory of Damocles,” I said.
“Don’t be a drama queen,” sighed the Dungeon Master. “The point being, no, it’s not a clock, it’s not even really a statement on anything that’s going to happen, it’s just that this is halfway through what I had planned from the outset. You can take your digressions, if you choose, rack up your wins and losses, wander the hex or settle down to have a family, do as you please, stretch this tome even further than it’s already been stretched,” he patted the book, “But I would still maintain that this is the halfway point, more or less.”
“Okay,” I said. I clenched my teeth for just a moment. “Fine. Halfway to godhood. You said first reason, what’s the second?”
“Ah,” he replied. “Well, there we come to the crux of it. There was a sequence of events that I never intended to happen, and here at the end of it, there’s you, in your current form, invincible except to a select few attacks, most of them ones that people won’t know or think to try, given that your particular form of defense should, by all rights, be impossible.”
“I’m too powerful, so you’re cutting me down to size,” I replied.
“Oh, I let you have your fun,” he said with a wave of his hand. “You stomped your way through the annex, you did things that should have resulted in your death a hundred times over, and it was all enjoyable enough, I suppose. You always used to let Reimer do that, didn’t you?”
“Sometimes,” I replied. “I tried my best not to take his toys away.”
“I was always going to exclude it,” said the Dungeon Master. “Tricky thing, excluding something that’s not degenerate on its own, only in combination with something else. I decided on cutting skin magic, to save you the suspense.”
“You excluded all of skin magic?” I asked. “Scars and tattoos?”
“There were a few subfields that no one discovered,” he replied. “I always try to include little secrets like that, ways to expand things. I’d always wanted to do something with prehensile hair. But yes, all of it.”
“That’s,” I said. “That’s overkill.”
“Oh, yes,” he replied. “It’s very much overkill. But there’s no kill like overkill, is there?”
“Fuck,” I said. “The knock-on effects of that … you’re taking away one of the primary advantages of being an elf. You’re taking away translation tattoos and Parson’s Voice.”
“Yes,” nodded the Dungeon Master. “With relatively little fanfare, it’s a shame to say. Normally I prefer the exclusions to be big, grotesque, snarling things, but sometimes a magic goes out with a whimper instead of a bang. You’ve been to the illusion exclusion, obviously. Not a site of any great tragedies.”
“How did Uther know it was there?” I asked.
“Well, that would be telling,” said the Dungeon Master with a smile. “Look, this kind of thing happened to him all the time, albeit not with a little chat like this.”
“Were you Vervain?” I asked.
The Dungeon Master laughed and thumped his fingers against the book. “This,” he said, tapping the book in front of him, “This chronicles your adventures thus far. Uther has been on Aerb and its associated planes for a long fucking time. His story, told in full, would fill a very large bookshelf.”
“‘Has been’,” I said. “He’s actually on Aerb? Alive?”
“Aerb or its associated planes,” replied the Dungeon Master with a nod. “Though I didn’t say alive, or dead, or somewhere in between. And you already have a clue that you need to follow up on. I don’t even consider this meta knowledge.”
“I’m not sure how I’m going to beat Fel Seed if you keep throwing up exclusions when I gain a scrap of power,” I said. I was trying to stay calm. It was one thing to hear from Raven that Uther had last gone missing in what became the Fel Seed exclusion zone, it was another to hear the Dungeon Master talk about it, even if he was using veiled reference.
“A scrap of power, he says,” the Dungeon Master chuckled. “If I were being mean, if this were retribution, then you would lose still magic and we’d be done with it. As it stands, you still have the strong synergy between Essentialism and Still Magic.”
“And if I find another way to dodge sleep?” I asked. “You’ll knock that out too? There’s an entad sitting in the temple right now, it would be child’s play for us to take it.”
“The way I see it, there have to be limits, and if not limits, then costs or consequences,” replied the Dungeon Master with a shrug. “I won’t say, one way or another, what will happen if you track down some other method. But Kenner’s Eye was always lame, and tattoo magic had always been for Everett anyway, nothing really intended for you, not that you used it, so here we are. It’s gone, wiped away except for in this city. It will probably be good for Li’o in the long run, actually.”
“You don’t even know? That’s the kind of world you’re running?” I felt my voice strain.
“I could know, if I wanted to,” said the Dungeon Master with a shrug. “But I like surprises.” He tapped the book again. “I was debating giving this to you, but I suppose it can wait until you’re done. Offer not valid if you die, obviously.” He tapped the book a final time, and it popped out of existence. “I should get going, things to do, places to see, you know the drill.”
(It did occur to me to ask about the book, especially given the supposed author. The byline could have just been metaphorical, or it could have been a joke, or it could have been literal in some fashion, written by me after it was all over, or when I was asleep, or simply by yanking me out of time to write a chapter whenever anything important happened then scrubbing my mind afterward. But the number of possibilities, and the untrustworthiness of the Dungeon Master, made it sort of pointless to ask about. Besides, I didn’t really care about the poor schlub who was writing that book, even if it was, in some way, me.)
“Why did you fuck with Amaryllis?” I asked, since it seemed like I wasn’t going to get a better question answered.
“Did I?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“You made her childhood crush be an anagram of my childhood crush,” I said. “I get why you’d fuck with me, you don’t like me, hell, most days I don’t like me, and we obviously have some kind of connection, even if it’s just being kindred spirits, whatever the hell that means, but come on, why her? Why make her life into this joke?”
“It’s a single anagram,” said the Dungeon Master. “I really don’t think you appreciate how hard those are to set up. They take an extraordinary amount of planning, because you have to get both the family and given name right, if those apply in the culture, and that’s really a lot to handle, even before considering that the person who gets the name has to be perfectly suited to the task. Do you understand how much work is involved for an Alek Syfriend or a Lena Kordrew?”
“Why do the Infinite Library timelines look like they do?” I asked.
“You’re cheating and using one of Amaryllis’ questions,” said the Dungeon Master with a frown. “You thought that you could just get me talking and I would prattle on, reveal all my secrets, disclose some hidden vulnerability? I’m the Dungeon Master, Juniper, I’m not your adversary, and if I am, the only way you can beat me is refusing to play, and you’ve made it abundantly clear that you’re going to keep playing, even if you don’t think the game is, well,” he moved his hand as if to tap at the book again, then looked down. “Dammit.” He looked back up at me. “How would you feel about wiping this conversation from your mind and doing it over?”
“Are you just fucking with me?” I asked.
“Not just, I wouldn’t say, no,” replied the Dungeon Master, smiling at me. “There is a point, though I’m sure you won’t like it when you find out what it is. Where were we? Oh, right, the same offer is still on the table, don’t think that a little exclusion between kindred spirits changes anything. You have it within you to win, if you want it bad enough, if you act with courage, and if the dice roll your way.”
He vanished at that, and I swore, which caused everyone to look my direction in confusion.