We had somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred days before we found a new solution to the sleeping problem, and then a different deadline of sixty days until we killed or otherwise dealt with the Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle problem. I had never been a particular fan of timers when I was a DM, partly because tracking days was a pain in the butt, and partly because I didn’t like giving the players clear fail conditions. A clear fail condition tended to make the game less fun for everyone, since a blown deadline was, in essence, a punishment, and good game design was more about positive reinforcement of the fun aspects. Further, time limits could force the party into doing things that they didn’t really want to do, just from the fear of missing out or the time pressure involved. That wasn’t to say that I never did time limits, because I had done a whole bunch of ill-advised stuff and tried to make difficult things work, but it was something that I shied away from, as a general rule.
There were other deadlines looming. We were in hock with the dragons over the airspace thing, and the Void Beast was looming, two problems at opposite ends of the scale in terms of seriousness. It required a lot of consideration on our part, because we knew that whatever we didn’t focus on would keep rolling along without us. In a way, the exclusions were nice, because they didn’t really do much and would keep pretty much indefinitely. I was content to just let all of the exclusions sit there, being various degrees of horrible, for as long as I could.
The time pressure was a pain because in an ideal world, the Respec would be done immediately before a significant chunk of downtime, and putting downtime in right before a deadline was, essentially, procrastination. Worse, we didn’t actually know that scheduled downtime would be actual downtime, because stupid random bullshit could conceivably come at us from any direction at any time. For all that though, we were pretty sure that we knew where all of our enemies and potential enemies were, and so there wasn’t really a better time than the present.
The last time I had changed my skills, I’d had very little idea what I was doing. I knew virtually nothing about any of the skills, and I was working under the threat of imminent soul fuckery from Fallatehr, which seemed like ages ago. This time, I had friends and allies around me, plus as much information about the underlying mechanics of the system as Reimer could give me, as well as his particular picks for skills and how they had played within the game that this system was, apparently, based off of.
“Ready?” I asked. I got a round of nods, then went into my soul.
There were a few skills that were Tier 1, never removed from any possible reformulation of the character sheet. Those were Essentialism, Spirit, Bone Magic, and Still Magic, all of which were cost-less and evergreen. Everything else had been on the chopping block, at least in theory, but there were forty skills to fill in, and a few of them had been on the provisional sheet for a long time. One-Handed, Two-Handed, Parry, and Dodge made up the suite of martial skills, and there were a lot of magics that were slapped in as well, either in anticipation of unlocking them, or because they had enough potential utility to be worth it. Vibrational Magic, Blood Magic, Revision Magic, Star Magic, Velocity Magic, Plastic Magic, Ink Magic, Passion Magic, Water Magic, Warding, Gem Magic, Air Magic, Fire Magic, and Rune Magic all made the cut, with a lot of those being wishful thinking on our part. Back when we’d been in Barren Jewel, we had tried to unlock a bunch of different magics, but it wasn’t until I’d learned soul magic that I had known that some magics were simply locked off to me by virtue of having not been selected from the get-go.
That left another eighteen skills, which was where things began to get interesting.
Reimer was big on two things: synergies between skills and lynchpin strategies. He made the argument that with still magic as strong as it was, and entad armor working even if you didn’t have the skills for it, none of the armor skills were needed, especially if I had blade-bound quality parrying and at least relatively high dodge. Armor was good if and only if there was some kinetic threat that still magic didn’t actually deal with. On the other hand, armor skills gave virtues, and Medium Armor in particular had virtues that made it beneficial to have and level all of the different armor skills, though Reimer hadn’t known the full virtue list.
The problem with the synergies in general was that Reimer didn’t know all of them, and he half expected that “I” had made them up as needed for different games or just to give non-item rewards. There were a few that Reimer had been able to confirm for certain, like the blade-bound one and the monkish one, and a whole bunch of others that seemed neat but probably were never going to be used by me, like the skin/bone/blood/pustule one, which I couldn’t get now that skin magic was excluded. Others, like the ‘connections’ synergy, included crap skills that I would have to take and level up as a cost of doing business. Beyond those, there might be any number of synergies to be found, because they simply hadn’t played enough different characters to find them all, especially since they tended to play at the lower levels.
There were also “soft” synergies, those that weren’t hardcoded into the game but nonetheless existed through either rules interactions or simply the way that two skills meshed with each other. Air magic and rifles had a soft synergy because you could make the air less turbulent, which would mean not having to account for the wind. Blood magic had a soft synergy with anything that let me bleed less and regain blood faster. There were a bunch of those, all over the place, ways that X would make Y stronger simply because of different non-explicit overlap between the skills or ways that an inherent weakness could be shored up.
And beyond that, there were synergies that were barely synergies at all, like skills that depended on the same pair of attributes. Rather than being synergies, they were places where a single cost paid for more, and in the optimization balance, that made some skills worth getting simply because they slotted in so well.
To that end, Reimer and Amaryllis had agreed that I should probably focus on being a melee mage, with a focus on the mage side of things. The idea was that I would be able to run into combat, unleash a ton of magic while hacking at things with my sword. Reimer wasn’t terribly fond of it, I could tell, but that was because he saw it as making the best of a bad situation, the kind of thing you did because you had poor stat allocation from the get-go rather than optimally placed points. The plan was to place all remaining points from every future level into MEN, angling toward more and more mentally-oriented magic.
And that meant cutting out social skills almost entirely.
“Give the numbers a look,” Reimer said. “It’s skill multiplied by the primary attribute in the naive case. Right?”
“Right,” I replied. “And what kind of DC are we looking at?”
“DC?” Reimer asked.
“Difficulty class,” I replied. “The target number.”
“We called them TNs,” said Reimer. “Why ‘difficulty class’?”
“It descends from ‘armor class’,” I replied. “Or at least, I think it does. Early editions had THAC0 but not DC, I think.”
“How did they do skill resolutions without a TN?” asked Reimer.
“This really, really isn’t important, but they had different resolution mechanics for everything that you could want to try,” I replied. “So you’d have fatigue factors and a percentile chance for drowning based on a table, and other things like that. It wasn’t until third edition that everything was put together under difficulty class. Arthur had us play a one-shot of each of the older versions.”
“That’s wild,” said Reimer, shaking his head. “And that sounds just like him.”
“You were telling me to give the numbers a look?” I asked.
“Right,” said Reimer. “Right. So, let’s compare you against a hypothetical optimized character, even a poorly optimized character. Heck, even one as poorly optimized for social skills as you are optimized for physical skills. An eleven in SOC means they’re multiplying their skill by ten, and that skill is going to be thirty or so, which means they get a bonus of three hundred against the TN. That means achievable range in the naive case of three hundred and one to four hundred.” He waited for me to nod. “Right, so you’re sitting here with a four in SOC, meaning a multiplier to skill of three, and you cap out at a whopping nine on that skill. That means a bonus of twenty-seven, and an achievable range, again, in the naive case with no adjustments or multipliers, of twenty-eight to one hundred and twenty-seven.”
“So you’re saying that there’s a … what, no point?” I asked. “That it’s mostly just down to luck?”
“Well, no,” said Reimer. “It’s down to GM fiat, because the GM sets the TNs. But after the TN is set, then it’s down to luck. Wait, did I tell you how our system handled unskilled rolls?”
“You said there was some leeway,” I replied. “More GM fiat, which I’m sure you hated.”
“Right,” said Reimer. “Because it was inconsistent.”
“Oh come on,” I replied. “LIke you would really have liked if I had written everything down as it came up and then ran off that.”
“Well, no,” said Reimer. “Because it would have been completely busted, like half the stuff you came up with. But my point is that unskilled rolls had this wishy-washiness to them, where you would try to take into account the character’s life and what they had been through, and it was all just so,” he threw up his hands without completing the thought. “I liked the system, but I liked it because I liked the numbers, the idea that it was, you know, a process that was unfolding in front of us, a clockwork.”
“A simulation,” I said.
“Yeah,” replied Reimer, nodding fervently. “A simulation. And to circle back some, I think your numbers as they are now are really just about who you are as a person, rather than being explicit rolls, except in certain specific cases. Mostly I think that because you’re just being Juniper. Maybe a little better than you were, but we could just chalk that up to you getting your head partway out your ass.”
“Thanks, I guess,” I replied with a frown. “I’m on the fence over whether the changes that I’ve noticed were from me just trying more or placebo effect or what.” I looked down at the papers in front of us. “I still think there’s an upside to keeping social skills. It cuts off the lowest possible results.”
“Sure,” said Reimer. “I’m not some moron arguing that there’s no benefit, I’m saying that the benefit of getting a bonus of a few hundred on any other check is worth more than a plus twenty-seven on the social stuff, even if you have to deal with social stuff on a regular basis. The range change we’re talking about for social skills is basically about taking you from baseline functionality to slightly better than baseline functionality. You’re not going to get extreme disposition changes or wildly impressive performances, not on the social side of things.”
“I get that from a numbers perspective,” I said.
“That’s the only perspective,” said Reimer.
“No,” I replied. “There’s the arbitration-of-rules side to think about.”
“Which happens with or without the numbers,” said Reimer. “Or which the numbers only influence, not control.”
“I’ll think about it,” I replied.
“Just so you know, I’m probably going to give Amaryllis the same speech, and she’s probably going to agree with me,” said Reimer.
“Yeah, she probably is,” I sighed.
I was trying hard to view the game layer as being just a game layer, rather than being me. It was hard though, because the game layer was written on my soul, and though I wasn’t the sum of my learnable abilities, it wasn’t that far of a stretch. Reimer’s interpretation of “effective skill” had been that it was just the base number, meaning that it would be multiplied by my abilities, rather than by whoever’s abilities I had borrowed from, at least for the purposes of Symbiosis. Taken that way, my nine in Flattery was really useless, because Symbiosis would push me up into the mid-twenties. The same applied to pretty much all of the social skills I had retained.
So I cut them, as much as I didn’t want to, because that was the plan.
In their place went a wide array of useful things, mostly those along the same axis as everything that had already been added, taking into account all of the skills that I was planning to keep. Optics went in, because there was a known synergy with Gem Magic. I took a cluster of mental abilities, because I was going to be pushing MEN anyway: Engineering, Analysis, Research, Repair, Logistics, Logic, Mathematics, and Alchemy, some of which synergized with either magics or with each other. After that, because there was some space, a few additional skills were added, some because I found them consistently useful: Athletics, Rifles, Language, Unarmored, and Unarmed.
Two skills were for my personal preference, Heavy Armor and Thrown Weapons, skills which I could arguably do without, but where my own desires won out. Heavy Armor in particular seemed like a skill that was bound to save my life some day, especially if Still Magic eventually got knocked back down from grandmaster status. Thrown Weapons was also arguable, given how much range I already had, but it had been a part of my arsenal for a long time, a fair amount of entad support, and honestly, I just thought it was cool.
That left two, which went to more speculative abilities: Tree Magic and Gold Magic.
Tree Magic was contentious, because we still didn’t know what it did. Gold Magic was even more contentious, because it came with a steep downside. Both were taken on contingency, the former because it might end up being necessary, the latter so that we could break glass in case of emergency.
As I went through, taking skills out, I was stripping the ones I'd never use again of their points through Skilled Trade. Sixty-one went into Essentialism, getting me back to the capstone, and the rest went to pushing up skills to higher levels, prioritizing good virtues. Gem Magic was also a priority, because it had historically been one of the slower skills to gain levels, and the newfound synergies made it actually usable.
And that was that, dozens of hours of work and argument condensed down into forty skills. I didn’t even necessarily know all the reasons that everything was chosen, because character optimization was never a strong interest of mine, and a lot of the work had been done while I was in the middle of other stuff, especially that week I’d spent in the temple at Li’o. It was all decided, and it was just a matter of putting it into practice with no deviations or surprises.
|7 POW||21 One-handed Weapons||21 Two-handed Weapons||21 Parry||21 Dodge|
|7 SPD||21 Unarmored||21 Unarmed||21 Thrown Weapons|
|7 END||21 Heavy Armor||21 Athletics||29 Vibrational Magic|
|13 CUN||28 Engineering|
|13 KNO||24 Analysis|
|13 WIS||27 Rifles||35 Bone Magic||34 Still Magic|
|3 CHA||17 Water Magic||26 Gem Magic|
|5 INS||39 Essentialism||39 Bone Magic|
|1 LUK||4 Language||39 Spirit|
I opened my eyes and looked around. “Done,” I said. “Any world-ending threats while I was in there?”
“None,” said Amaryllis, breathing a sigh of relief. “We’re still in the critical moment though. We need to get you trained up as quickly as possible.”
“Do you feel any different?” asked Raven.
“No,” I replied. “Not at all. Just … a bit apprehensive about it.”
Raven nodded. “I would be too.”
I sighed. “Amaryllis is right though, we want to keep the window of weakest power as small as possible. Time to get training.”
The next thirty-six hours were basically non-stop training and unlocks. A fair bit of this had been prepared ahead of time, but there were still moments of exploration and a few wrinkles that cropped up. Almost all of the mundane skills were easy unlocks, especially now that I had descriptions for most of them, thanks to Reimer. Alchemy in particular had been an odd duck, but Reimer’s explanation had been that it was just ‘my’ name for mundane chemistry, and fairly good if you had other skills to pair it with, or a vast hoard of magical reagents. There was nothing like standard potion-making in the same way it existed in D&D, but there was more to chemistry simply because of all the magic there was in the world, which we thought was probably one of the reasons that chemistry on Aerb lagged so far behind Earth in a way that a lot of their other technologies didn’t.
I unlocked Air Magic pretty easily just by focusing on temperature gradients in the air. I got Ink Magic after about two hours using magical inks I’d made and then consumed according to some bootleg instructions (again courtesy of Finch). And lastly, I unlocked Passion Magic by sitting there and getting riled up enough that I could move things with my mind.
It was three new magics in the course of a day and a half, four counting water magic, nearly doubling what I had available to me. Air Magic gave the ability to separate out air by temperature, pressure, or different kinds of gasses, which was a pretty niche ability but had a couple of serious upsides, and apparently it synergized with Water Magic, so long as I was trying to act on water vapor. Ink Magic was mostly about creating material things from the aether with raw creativity as its source, capable of creating objects that were like worse versions of entads that would eventually degrade over time. It was kind of useless on its own given the quality of entads we had available to us, but Amaryllis had firmly believed that creativity was one of my strengths, and being able to produce even a small crop of slowly decaying low-tier pseudo-entads would be a boon for the tuung, or anyone else who went with us.
All the training resulted in a flurry of new virtues, naturally, though few of them were exciting. Most were little things, minor superpowers that probably wouldn’t ever come up, or which I wouldn’t notice if they did. Almost everything from what I was thinking of as the mad science cluster was just in the way of seeing the world around me, or some bonuses in certain niche circumstances. I was well familiar with that style of magic, since it had been something I’d used to spice up magic items. The uncanny ability to know which parts were missing or broken in something that needed repair was nice, but it wasn’t going to upset the apple cart, at least not until I had to try reconstructing a power source made by the ancients or something.
The trio of Research, Analysis, and Logic did give me the first of my synergy bonuses, which was part of the reason that they’d been chosen (also because they didn’t have social components).
Narrow Expertise: When you first obtain this virtue, determine a subject matter. When using skills within the subject matter, double your effective skill. When using untrained skills within your subject matter, treat your effective skill level as twenty. You retain your subject matter even if you lose this virtue, though you lose all bonuses until it is reacquired.
We weren’t really sure how I would go about picking a subject matter, so as soon as the virtue popped up, I loudly declared my intention, then dove straight into the books I had on hand, just in case it worked like Language had, where I would pick up the next thing I put my mind to.
There had been a lot of discussion about what subject matter would be best. Subject matter was, obviously, something that had variable scope, because you could drill down almost infinitely into any subject matter you cared to. Reimer had played characters with the virtue a few times, and cautioned that he’d been flatly rejected when he’d tried to be an utter cheeseball (no, you couldn’t pick ‘Everything’ as your subject matter). Really, if the virtue had been written properly, it probably would have had the bonuses grow or shrink based on how narrow or wide the subject matter was, but that was neither here nor there. According to Reimer, a subject matter had to be conceptually smaller than a skill, meaning that you couldn’t just declare yourself a subject matter expert in One-Handed Weapons and double your effective skill there … but you could still pick something a level more specific, like “swords”, if you wanted a protracted argument about how that was totally fair, and if you went a level deeper, like “katanas”, the DM wouldn’t be so grudging about it.
There were a few tempting things to become an expert on. Fel Seed was one, because I still didn’t know how to beat him. Uther was another, because he seemed to be our eventual goal, the obvious end-state of the narrative. Narrative itself might have been a useful subject matter, but I didn’t think I could stomach it, and Amaryllis thought that might be the wrong level of meta. There were arguments for all kinds of specialties from a more straightforward standpoint, like looking at which skills I used most often, or which I needed the most help with.
We ended up settling on one of my biggest comparative advantages: multi-magic.
In some ways, it was a shot in the dark, because we didn’t have firm information on how it would be adjudicated, especially since I couldn’t exactly make out-of-character arguments for myself. But with the Six-Eyed virtue in theory making the letter of the rules more lax, and with how many times I ended up using different magics together, along with all the ones that I was going to pick up with the Respec done, it seemed like we were going to get good utility out of it. In some ways, it felt like it might help the synergies flow together a little bit better.
Once I’d gone through a few mostly-useless books on multi-magic to help lock it in, I could feel it settle at once. Vibration magic could change my biorhythms, which could alter the beat of my heart, which helped with blood magic. Vibration magic gave me an edge on stilling waves of all shapes and sizes, not that I currently needed it. Gem magic was essentially kinetic light, and while I wasn’t quite at the level where my vibration magic could manipulate light, there was some promise of that for the future, an intuitive sense that it was a thing I might be able to do by combining the disciplines. It was going to take some time and sparring to suss out where the bonuses might possibly apply, but I had a feeling that the expertise had taken.
“Back up to speed?” asked Amaryllis as she sat down beside me. We were sleeping, or rather, not sleeping, in the school. The room had a desk, a table, and a large rug, and had probably been intended for something else before I had commandeered it. The biggest problem with Bethel being gone, from a minor annoyance perspective, was that we couldn’t just pop things in and out of existence whenever we wanted to, especially because Amaryllis didn’t like to let Sable out of her sight. I had a collection of books on the table, but was taking some time to switch it up with physical practice.
“More than that,” I replied. “I’m hesitant to say it, but I wish that I had done this a long time ago. I’m not sure what I was so worried about.”
“Ambush seemed likely,” said Amaryllis with a shrug. “I know you didn’t want to give the social skills up either, or the option for putting points into Social in the future.”
“I’ll live,” I replied. “I don’t actually think that improving myself is off the table, it just won’t be in the form of numbers-go-up.” I sighed. “It would have been nice, but we have to work within the system we have, and I guess I would grudgingly admit that working on my social skills without a crutch is, I don’t know, character-building or something.”
“Good,” said Amaryllis, nodding at me. She gave me a smile, which faltered slightly. “I do have some bad news. Sweet William is being a complete prick about the negotiations.”
“Is he?” I asked. “He seemed nice.”
“He is nice, but he’s got pressure being put against him,” replied Amaryllis. “He’s looking after his wife and children, whom he apparently loves dearly, and that’s led to him being a pawn for Hyacinth.” She let out a frustrated sigh. “She wants me in Anglecynn.”
“The sterilization thing?” I asked. “Or something else?”
“There are many reasons,” said Amaryllis. “The sterilization is one, but I’m sure part of it is also investiture of entads. Having the entads bound to me means they’re not much good to anyone except as leverage, and there’s little in those stores that I really want. But there are also entads that are bound to me, but which I can invest in people, and some of those investment terms are very long, which means that I would be giving my cousins and the henchmen of the opposition a fair bit of magical power.”
“Ah,” I replied. “And if you do that, then maybe we don’t have to send a bunch of tuung to work with the Draconic Confederacy?”
“I’m not sure that’s an option,” said Amaryllis. “Per our laws, none of the tuung are of age, so they would have to take someone else, but the only proper citizens are either members of the Council of Arches or Esuen.” Esuen’s mate, Suono, had died while we’d been in Li’o, lasting longer than expected with modern medical experts and some serious magic, but dead all the same, with his soul literally torn apart, as he’d been fated to since the moment she’d exposed him to her scent. “We could alter the law and send off the tuung, but it would be tantamount to slavery, which is a bridge that I’m not willing to cross.”
“They would volunteer,” I said. I didn’t know the tuung very well, but I had spent some time with them in the mop up efforts that we’d done around Li’o, and they had turned out a lot better than I had expected them to, given the conditions they had been raised in.
“Of course they would volunteer,” replied Amaryllis. “It would still weaken the fabric of our little nation, because as much as we tried to instill a sense of duty and honor in them, they would see some of their cohort go off for no real reason relating to them. They can’t be seen as expendable, because that would erode their view of themselves and lead to a lot of power process stuff that I really want to avoid.”
“Also, they’re not expendable,” I replied.
“That too,” said Amaryllis. She was quiet for a moment. “Obviously I don’t think they’re expendable.”
“Except in the sense that their lives have less worth than our own,” I nodded.
Amaryllis gave me a look. “Is this an argument you’d like to have right now?”
“No,” I replied. “I agree, I just feel weird about it.”
“Me too,” said Amaryllis. She looked down at her hands. “It’s unheroic. I don’t need to be a classical hero, god no, but when I was growing up there were all these stories about Uther and what he did, and it stood in such sharp contrast to everything I saw my relatives doing.”
“And you’re thinking that we’re going to Anglecynn?” I asked. “Is that wise?”
“Wise?” asked Amaryllis. “The real question is whether it’s necessary or not, and necessity is dictated by a probabilistic evaluation of whether or not it will help us to accomplish our goals, so —”
“So it’s hard to tell?” I asked.
“It’s hard to tell,” Amaryllis agreed. “We don’t know the true cost of going there, because we don’t know the DM’s machinations, and we don’t know the specifics of how Hyacinth is going to fuck us. A lot of the benefit here is just in saving the dream of Miunun, which seems like it might be on the chopping block.”
“What?” I asked. “Really?”
Amaryllis shrugged. “We lost one of the major factors that was going to make it work.”
“Bethel,” I replied. I let out a long breath, making a noise with my lips.
“Specifically, the time chamber and the ready creation of mundane goods,” said Amaryllis. “Carve out her spark of individuality with a conceptual knife for all I care —”
“No,” I replied. “I don’t want her back, not anytime soon, but we can’t treat her like she’s — I was going to say like she’s some kind of monster, but I guess we always thought that she was. We can’t treat her like she’s irredeemable, or like nothing can ever be repaired, because that’s exactly what would ensure that it can’t ever be fixed, and if it can’t be fixed, then what Valencia is doing is for nothing.”
Amaryllis gave me a slight frown as she thought about that. “That’s fair,” she said. “It’s also suspiciously mature of you.”
“I can say it without getting sick to my stomach,” I said. “I’m really, really not ready to see her, and I would rather not think about her, but — we can talk, in practical terms, about the impact of having her gone, and I think it would be best to do that without any malice, venom, or disparagement.”
Amaryllis stared at me for a moment. “Okay,” she said. “At any rate, we’re hampered by the loss of the time chamber, the ready access to food, the ready access to water, to clothing, to all the other things necessary for a functional nation.”
“I’m a water mage,” I replied. “We can have the steel mage build us a cistern and a collection system. There’s not much that we can do about food besides importing it, which I know is going to create a negative cashflow. We can either spend time getting some farms up and running, or we can get the factories up and running, which probably can’t be done in parallel with our limited workforce, and it makes more sense to specialize in our comparative advantage, especially since the soil isn’t very good on Poran.”
Amaryllis was watching me. “How much of that is Logistics skill talking?” she asked. “You think it’s taking?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “Some, maybe. Anyway, our biggest constraint is money, which means that you need to strike a good deal with Dianthus over the Draconic Confederation thing, which means that we probably need to go to Anglecynn and deal with their bullshit. Maybe you’ll get your companion quest there. Your proper one, not the whole pregnancy thing.”
“Which didn’t even get a virtue,” sighed Amaryllis.
“I think Solace was the virtue,” I replied. “And weirdly, I’d have thought that the Birth of a Nation quest would be your companion quest, but I guess not, which means that if you do have a companion quest, it’s probably in Anglecynn.”
Amaryllis nodded once. “It seems likely. Unless it’s about … you and me.”
“Meaning?” I asked.
Amaryllis gave an aggressively nonchalant shrug. “Just a thought.”
“An incomplete thought,” I replied.
Amaryllis looked me over, moving her lips back and forth as though debating. “Our data set consists of three to five points,” she replied. “There have been four quests marked as companion quests, two of which have been completed. One of those got us Solace back, and I think that it was a companion quest in the sense that it was a quest that was explicitly being done for a companion. The other was Grak’s quest, which I think might be more typical of companion quests generally, and that one wasn’t just about helping Grak come to terms with what happened, it was also about you. Fenn — Fenn’s quest is gone, so we don’t know what that one was, and we don’t have any real idea what’s going to get the locus out of the bottle and thriving, but my guess is that the companion quests aren’t completely about the companions, they’re about your relationship to us, or something that we share in common.”
“Alright,” I replied, trying to think that over. “With Fenn … maybe her unhappy childhood? With the locus, maybe the abstract concept of art, or just abstract concepts in general? With you … no clue. Do you have one?”
Amaryllis was silent. She cleared her throat a bit, then hesitated before speaking. “If I knew what resolution looked like for me, I would just go ahead and do it. If I could see the path to closure, I would pursue it. I like to think that I know myself, and the places where I’m prone to — to failure, or to complications. I know the things that I don’t like about myself, and I already take as many steps as I think I can take in order to make those parts of myself bearable.”
“What don’t you like about yourself?” I asked.
“Oh, lots of things,” Amaryllis replied. She looked out the window, then glanced over at me for a moment before returning to looking outside. I had moved the clouds to make it sunny, but other than the shaft of light hitting our isle, it was dreary. I could feel the water out there, both the clouds and the sea, and very faintly, in small clusters, people, who I hadn’t been able to feel before cresting level 20. “When I’ve made hard choices, I’ve disliked how I felt guilt or sorrow over the way I felt about making objectively correct decisions. And sometimes I dislike that I didn’t feel enough, like some part of me wanted to be overcome with grief, even if that was entirely useless. I hate how sometimes the horror of the world gets washed away, or how a single life of someone I know feels bigger than a thousand lives that I don’t. We haven’t lost a single one of the tuung yet, and I know that when we do, it’s going to hit me like a punch to the gut, and that feels so arbitrary and wrong. I hate that I want to change myself, warp my mind and soul into something inhuman. There’s this Penndraig perversion in me, the same thing that attracted my ancestors toward soul magic. I don’t think there’s anything magical about being stock human, or that it’s preferable just because it’s natural, but there’s still a risk there, one that I wish I weren’t drawn to like a moth to flame. And … Solace. My daughter in name only. All these feelings for her and about her that are flapping in the wind, unmoored.”
“But you have all that handled?” I asked. “Do you have … someone to talk to?”
“You,” said Amaryllis, looking back at me. Her eyes were piercing blue, like she was pinning me in place.
“But it’s not something that we really talk about,” I said. “I mean, a lot of this, it’s the first time you’re mentioning it.”
Amaryllis shrugged. “Then I guess the answer is no, I don’t really have anyone to talk to, or maybe I’m so delusionally self-sufficient that I think I can handle it all on my own. I have you to talk to, but I don’t use you as much as I might.”
“You should lean on me,” I said. “Or if not me, then someone else in the group.”
Amaryllis let out a little disbelieving laugh. “Juniper, you’re going to be a god, and when you’re there, that’s when I’ll lean on you. Until we get to that point, we’re going to do it the other way around. For Jesus’ sake, you’re getting something from your past dredged up about once a week, with doppelgangers of your friends and family walking into your life as bizarre versions of themselves. I’d say that it’s a miracle that you’ve been holding together as well as you have, but there’s a divine being of unimaginable power that’s taken an interest in you, and maybe he’s just pushing exactly enough to provoke the response he wants.”
“That’s true,” I replied. “But you know, sometimes two things can be stronger because they lean on each other. You’re no stranger to mutually beneficial arrangements.”
“It’s still social and emotional labor I don’t want you to have to do,” said Amaryllis, but she didn’t have much conviction in her voice.
“Look, we’re going to Anglecynn, you’re probably going to get your own dose of past, whether that’s Hyacinth, Rosemallow, old friends, new family, your mom, your dad, whatever impacted you … I have to imagine that it’s going to be tougher on you than on me, so I want you to know that you can lean on me, that I’m here for you.”
“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “Thank you.”
“I want to clarify that not only should you know, you should also take advantage,” I said. “We have a counselor at school, and I knew that I could go to his office if something was bothering me, but I never did.”
“You had counselors at your schools?” asked Amaryllis.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Is that not a thing here?”
“Not in Anglecynn,” replied Amaryllis. “The tuung have non-tuung mediators and advisors. I read a fair bit about the American education system, but somehow missed that. And here I thought I was being clever.”
“I hope you see Earth some day,” I replied. “No unlock for star magic as yet, and I really doubt that star magic would allow us to visit, but it would be fun to show you around.”
“I thought you didn’t want to go home,” said Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow.
“I don’t,” I replied. “I like it here. But I’d still want to visit, if I could bring you with me.”
Amaryllis smiled. “Well, if you find a way, let me be the first to know, would you?”
“Sure,” I replied. I looked down at my watch. “We have about ten minutes left before we both have to do other things. Did we cover enough?”
“We did,” said Amaryllis. “I also wanted to visit and have a break. I hope that’s okay. We’ll have group time later tonight, assuming that my meetings don’t go long and I can make dinner, but it’s … not quite the same.”
“Well,” I said. I coughed into my hand. “I was thinking that maybe we could lower our cortisol levels with the time left?”
“Oh,” said Amaryllis. Her eyes widened. “Did we ever talk about that?”
“It was when you were falling asleep,” I said.
“Then, sure,” said Amaryllis. “I mean, I would like that.” She looked around the room for a moment, then reached out with Sable and popped a couch into position. It was a small couch, because a long couch would have run into Sable’s size restrictions, but that was fine, because we didn’t need that much space. I sat down, and Amaryllis laid with me. Once she was in position, I put my arm around her, and she rested her hand on my leg. Her head was resting on my shoulder, making her close enough that I could smell her.
“Did I say anything else when I was falling asleep?” asked Amaryllis.
“Not much,” I said. “You trailed off. I think you must have had a speech planned and then decided against it.”
“I did,” said Amaryllis. “I just decided that I should say what I wanted. The speech was stupid anyway. There wasn’t a need for pretense.”
“No, there wasn’t,” I replied. I liked feeling the pressure of her body against mine and the heat where we met. We were silent for a moment, and I tried to enjoy myself. I had looked up what cortisol was, but I didn’t have a good intuitive grasp on what cortisol felt like, if there was some simple qualia associated with it. The human body was awash with hormones, and some of them you could learn about and isolate, as a way of knowing your body. I was pretty sure that I was going to have to get better at that if I wanted to make the most of being a passion mage.
“I should get going,” Amaryllis eventually said as she pulled away from me.
“Me too,” I replied. “I’ve got skills to grind.”
Amaryllis seemed like she was about to say something, then nodded. “I’ll see you for dinner. I’ll commit to making it.”