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Skill increased: Passion Magic lvl 6!

“Got another,” I said, wiping sweat from my brow. “I can’t really say that this is working as fast as it should be.”

“Typical passion mages take a year or more of intensive emotional training to demonstrate their first proper, non-spontaneous effect,” said Raven. “Being able to do what you’ve done with a few hours of training is, frankly, absurd. Even Uther never went that fast.”

“Unless he was concealing his abilities,” said Grak. He’d been staring at me as I trained, watching the magic, and the most help of any of my audience.

“Sure,” I replied. “Can I get a towel?”

Pallida was laying back on a rock with her legs crossed at her ankles, inky armor pulled back to expose her pink legs and arms to the sun. She tossed me a towel overhand without looking, and I caught it to wipe away more sweat. I wasn’t sure whether renacim could tan or not, but that seemed to be what she was doing. I’d have to see whether her bubblegum pink skin would get any darker or lighter. Beside her, Solace was sunning herself too, totally nude, and I tried to avoid looking at her at all, especially because she was laid out like a starfish on the same big rock.

“You’re using spirit manipulation,” said Grak. “It might be that results are weaker.”

“The text of the virtue was that emotions can be stopped and started at will for the purposes of passion magic without the associated qualia,” I replied. “There was no mention of downsides.”

“That doesn’t mean they aren’t there,” replied Grak.

“So you think that I’ll level faster if I use actual emotions?” I asked.

Grak shrugged. “I think the rate of leveling is slow. That might be because of your approach. It seems worth trying something else.”

“Okay,” I replied. “So, I need to get angry.”

“Is anger the easiest emotion for you?” asked Raven.

“Probably,” I replied. “It also seems like it’s easy to test. It’s how I unlocked the skill in the first place.”

“So what’s your angriest memory?” asked Pallida. She was still shielding her eyes from the sun with her arm.

“Per Lifecycles of the Passion Mages, using your angriest memory isn’t all that wise,” I replied as I tried to think. “You dredge it up to get yourself in that emotional state, but the result is usually that you end up wearing the memory down to dust, especially if you keep doing it. Not down to dust literally, but memories change as you access them, which happens to everyone, not just passion mages, and you’re essentially doing something that on Earth might have been a type of therapy.” I let out a breath. “Should be fine for grinding up skills, but I want to keep powerful memories in my back pocket, I would think, if the spirit manipulation perk doesn’t work how it’s supposed to.”

“So what is it?” asked Raven. Her arms were folded across her chest. It was hot inside the bottle, not unreasonably so for a summer day, but more than I would have liked for intensive training, especially when everyone else was just standing around. Raven was in her customary black, with her cloak flapping behind her. She seemed unbothered by the heat.

“Angriest?” I asked. “A few months ago I probably would have said something about Arthur, or the injustice of the world, but — well, let me try that.”

I tried to capture that feeling, like there was someone whose job it was to stop everything terrible in the world, and they’d been laying down on the job. Worse than that, they had fanclubs and cheerleaders, people who weren’t just trying to excuse the incompetence and sociopathy of not helping people who needed help, but people who would explain that this was, in fact, the optimal thing for them to be doing. I thought about Fenn dying, and the sheer, boiling rage at knowing there was someone who could have stopped it and chose not to.

I punched out toward where I had the targets set up, twenty feet away, and blasted a tin can off its perch. A sweep of my hand, fingers clenched up into a claw, cut divots in the tree trunk we’d been using.

“Juniper punched a fellow student,” said Grak.

“At his high school?” asked Raven. “Why?”

“He had declared that Arthur’s death was part of the divine plan,” said Grak.

“It wasn’t his fault,” I said. “Victor, it wasn’t his fault. He was just brainwashed. I shouldn’t have punched him.”

“Brainwashed?” asked Raven.

“Figure of speech,” I replied. “It was the earnestness that got to me though, the way he just —” I punched out again at the targets, willing damage and destruction on them.

Skill increased: Passion Magic lvl 7!

“Skill up,” I said. “Definitely faster this way.”

“Good,” said Grak, nodding. “I’m getting good information on your manifestation.”

“Yeah?” I asked. I punched out again, trying to pour my anger into the telekinetic blasts and still control it at the same time. Being a passion mage, at least at my current skill level, was incredibly difficult, because not only were you trying to stay as emotionally charged as possible, you were also trying to do other stuff at the same time.

After another half-dozen blasts, it seemed like multi-threading, at least from initial experiments, didn’t seem to work like I had thought it should, with raw emotion on one thread and the targeting and shaping on the other.

“Your manifestation is sharp,” said Grak. “It’s needlepoint. From my understanding of passion magic, that is one of the better groups. It may change with different expressions or with time.”

“So I should try going wider?” I asked. “I should try area pushing or something like that?”

“I don’t know,” said Grak. He folded his arms. “My education on passion magic was minimal. It didn’t include proper training procedures.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I know we’re flying blind here — ah, I’ve lost some of the edge.” The anger had faded from me as I’d talked to Grak and thought about other things, the rage at divinity sweeping away. I wasn’t sure that it was still my angriest memory, not like it had been shortly after Arthur had died. There was a different deity now, and it was harder to be mad at him, because he wasn’t putting up so much as a pretense of benevolence.

“Proper passion mages will maintain their emotional state for hours at a time,” said Raven.

“They’re also drugged out of their minds a lot of the time,” said Pallida. “In the modern day, anyway. They do like to party though.”

“I appreciate a good libertine,” said Solace with a sigh.

“Well, I think the spirit virtue should work to make passion magic functional for me,” I said. “Even if it’s faster to level with real emotions, or better to use them.”

“Do you think you might have an easier time with something else?” asked Raven. “You’ve been on anger for some time now.”

“Anger is probably my most powerful emotion,” I replied.

“Narratively,” said Raven, and she kept going as I groaned. “Narratively, passion magic would be a means for you to understand your emotions and have a better handle on them.”

“I don’t think that’s it,” I replied. “I think it’s magical realism.”

“And … what is that?” asked Raven, frowning at me.

“It’s, uh,” I said. I paused for a moment, looking at the targets. “Basically, it was this Earth thing where you take the real world, but you add in fantastical elements, without actually getting the work to the level of fantasy, which usually meant that people didn’t acknowledge the magic, and it wasn’t systematized. Passion magic is systematized, as much as it can be, but a lot of the stuff that comes from the emotions is stock magical realism, to the extent such a thing exists.”

I paused to take in how that was received. Solace and Pallida still had their eyes closed, but Raven was giving me a thoughtful look, and Grak was frowning as though trying to puzzle it out.

“Like, look, sadness is related to environmental effects within passion magic,” I continued. “And in magical realism, you might have someone whose wife died, so he traveled to a cottage where it never stopped raining, which would maybe be remarked on but only in passing. Or he would constantly be cold, even chilly to the touch, until someone came into his life that restored him to both metaphorical and literal warmth. But in magical realism you’d almost never make a big thing out of this guy using his cold powers to make money, or scientists coming in to figure it out, it would just be a thing that happens and everyone accepts, because it’s a … a fourth wall, I guess, a metaphor, in the same way that a song in a musical might not be literally happening, but serves as a way for characters to express emotions or ideas.”

“But it might also have narrative purpose?” asked Raven.

“Outside of magic reflecting the emotion of a scene? It might,” I replied. “Did it have narrative purpose for Uther?”

“Debatably,” said Raven. “Can I have a moment to think about it?”

“Of course,” I replied. “Take all the time you need. I’m going to work on some other emotion.”

I decided on fear, which was one of the most combat applicable emotions. Fear proved a little bit harder in the abstract though, because there weren’t a whole lot of things that I was afraid of, especially not if they were only in my head, rather than being out there in the real world. I was afraid of deep water, the kind that you couldn’t see the bottom of, where something unknown might try to brush against your leg, but I could only feel a tingle of real fear when I was just thinking about it, rather than actually in the water. I had a phobia of needles, but it had never been so strong that I’d been debilitated: I had even given blood once for a high school blood drive. When Fenn had needed a transfusion, I’d been so concerned about saving her that my hands had barely trembled, and some of that had probably been because I was doing an amateur blood transfusion. I was happy that my fears weren’t like the fears in movies, the kinds that would stop a person dead in their tracks.

What finally got me there was Fel Seed. He wasn’t just a creature of body horror, and he wasn’t just monstrously powerful, he cheated. There were always more tricks he could pull out of his bag, more powers as the plot demanded, that had been his whole thing in my campaign, and reading through numerous books about him from the Infinite Library had shown that was just as true on Aerb. We were going to walk into his domain, likely sooner than later, and while we might try stealth, we weren’t going to count on that working.

I moved as I tried to hold that emotion, and this was easier than with the anger, because here I could multi-thread, my normal movements not needing to take the same amount of time. I didn’t have velocity magic yet, but the fear aspect of passion magic was supposed to sometimes approximate something like it. The nature of the increase varied, but in terms of the magical realism angle, it seemed like it was meant to be a magical version of fight-or-flight, a heightening of adrenal response.

I moved my hand through the air and saw it skip a few steps, like it had been overcranked, or like a few frames had dropped. Seeing that was enough for the emotion of fear to fade, even as I tried to hold onto it with more thoughts of Fel Seed.

“We encountered passion mages a few times,” said Raven as Grak wrote down the results. “Not many people know this, but Montran came from a village near what’s now Ink and Ardor. He trained there for a bit, primarily as an anger mage, until he got kicked out, which eventually led to him finding Uther and becoming one of the Knights.” She tapped her lips with her finger. “There was something the Dungeon Master said, in your last meeting, which was that tattoo magic had always been for Everett. For Everett. So … it’s possible that passion magic was for Montran. We nearly went to war with Ink and Ardor. I’m not entirely sure though, whether that theory might hold true in this instance.”

“Huh,” I replied. “You think that passion magic might have been a Montran story, not an Uther story?”

“It’s plausible,” said Raven.

“It was the most important sentence the Dungeon Master uttered,” said Grak. He continued writing as he spoke, twiddling his pen for a moment between lines. “I have been thinking on it.”

“Thinking … what, exactly?” I asked, looking over at him.

“Narrative might come from many places,” said Grak. “There might be stories that are not about you or Uther.”

“I mean, yeah,” I said. “I was never under the impression that wasn’t true. Everyone has their own, rich, inner life, as complex and multifaceted as my own.”

“I do not mean that,” said Grak. “I mean a story crafted by an intelligence.”

“Ah,” I replied. “And that’s much more in question.”

“It is,” said Grak.

“It’s empowering, in a way,” said Raven. “Empowering to think that I might have my own story mapped out for me, one separate from your own, woven together but not actually the same.”

“Do you think that only applies to companions?” asked Pallida from the rock she was laying on. “I feel like I’ve gotten a raw deal.”

“Such is our lot in life,” muttered Solace. She was still starfished out, and hadn’t moved at all. Crantek had photosynthetic skin, so there was at least some point, but it was something I didn’t think I would ever get used to. She was, thankfully, continuing on with aging herself up, and eventually it would be less weird.

“Oh please,” said Pallida. “You only died once.”

“I’ve died a number of times, for some senses of the word,” said Solace. “Only once in the last year, I’ll admit.”

“Technically speaking, Raven killed me a few times in the Library,” I said. “If we’re keeping track.”

“And you killed me once,” said Raven. “I’ve also died a number of other times, naturally, never for very long.”

“Wait, does that mean that Grak is the only one of us who hasn’t died?” asked Pallida, raising her head to squint at Grak. “You’re slacking.”

“Knock it off,” I said. My voice was sharp, sharper than I had meant for it to be.

“Just a joke,” said Pallida. She brought her arm down from her face and shot me a questioning look. “Something wrong?”

“You know Grak’s history,” I said. “I’d rather you not joke about him needing to die.”

Loyalty Increased: Grak lvl 19!

“I don’t imagine she meant it like that,” said Grak, his voice mild.

“I wasn’t thinking,” Pallida grumbled. “Won’t happen again. You never asked if I ever thought about killing myself.”

“Death is different for you,” I replied. “I would imagine there were dozens of times you killed yourself.”

“Oh, maybe even hundreds,” said Pallida. “Usually as a kid though. If you get a crappy set of parents and poor nutrition, it’s better to just kill yourself and start over rather than try going through life with severe handicaps. Three years old was usually old enough to think through it and know for sure whether it was a life worth living.”

“Jesus,” I replied. “You killed yourself at three?”

“A few times, yeah,” said Pallida, nodding. She reached down to below the rock, where a cooler was set up, and grabbed a beer from inside it. She’d apparently taken a liking to Earth beer at the beach, because I’d seen her drinking them on more than one occasion since then. They were a limited commodity now that Bethel was gone. Maybe it was just that Earth beer was one of the most exotic things on Aerb, even if the manufacturing process was similar. “I mean, it’s my life, I’m allowed to kill myself. Sucks for the parents, but if things are shitty enough I’m willing to kill myself and start over, fuck ‘em. Some people shouldn’t be parents. Some kids that I replaced should be fucking thankful that they were never born.” There was something hard in her face. She looked me over. “Sorry if this is crossing a line.”

“No,” I said. “I mean, it is, but it helps me understand a little better, so.”

“Good,” said Pallida. She stretched out, then began gulping down the beer. “I’m not complaining, naturally, being renacim is great, but there have been some bad beats over the millenia. I once spent a full lifetime in a cage, borderline starving, kept shackled so I couldn’t kill myself. They even cut out my tongue so I wouldn’t try to bite it off and choke on it.”

“Not sure I have the stomach for this,” said Raven. “I’m going to do some reading in the tree, let me know if you need help with training.”

“Oh come on,” said Pallida. “Of all the people to be squeamish, you?”

“I’m not squeamish,” said Raven. “I’ve just heard these stories before. You probably don’t remember, because you were in your sixties then.”

“I was?” asked Pallida, raising an eyebrow. “What else did I say?”

“Nothing too important,” said Raven. “Things you needed to get off your chest. You’ll remember in another few decades, if you live that long. It’s not a conversation we could have today, and not one that I’d have any interest in anyway.” She turned away from us and began walking to the house, her cloak swishing behind her.

“Well, damn,” said Pallida. “Usually I don’t break out the sob stories. I wonder what came over me then.”

“What’s come over you now?” asked Grak.

“Eh,” said Pallida, giving a shrug as she took another gulp from her beer. “Not to be a whiny bitch, but I’ve been feeling down lately.” She looked over at me. “You know, I might not be the greatest thief in the world this go-around, but you can still point me in the direction of things that you’d like to have. Might be good for my morale, if you’re doing the whole leadership thing.”

“There’s not much I need stolen, to be honest,” I replied. “Unless there are non-bound entads that could quickly solve our impending basic goods problem, or otherwise net us recurring income that could be used to sustain Poran.”

“I could take the Jade Elk,” said Pallida, seeming to perk up. “It’s my white whale.”

“And white whale in this context is … ?” I asked. I was pretty sure that Arthur hadn’t written his own version of Moby Dick.

“It’s an old story,” said Pallida, waving her hand. “One of those that cribs from a dozen others, stapling everything together.” She saw my look, which read ‘go on’, and sighed. “Animalia are really rare, and unless there are some pretty special circumstances, they can only breed with other Animalia from the same base species. Sometimes, eventually, they form a little community, like Gemma’s got, and a few cycles of reproduction with mild inbreeding later, they can become their own kind of almost-species. With me so far?”

“Sure,” I replied. “The punchline is whale Animalia?”

“I don’t know if I would say there’s a punchline,” replied Pallida, frowning. “But yes, the story is about this whale Animalia trying to track down another whale Animalia, a white whale, only to find himself perpetually one step behind. Is that enough for you?”

“No,” I replied. “What happens at the end?”

“This is oral tradition,” said Pallida. “The ending is whatever the teller wants, maybe different depending on whim. It mostly wasn’t about the end, it was about the journey, and even that was different, because there were parts and pieces.”

“Alright,” I said, rubbing my face for a moment. “So this Jade Elk is your white whale?”

“Sure is,” said Pallida. “Not in the sense that it’s been moving around much, but I’ve been trying to get it for damned near three hundred years. The family that owns it upgrades security like they’re worried the world’s greatest thief is after it, which, to be fair, I can empathize with. There’s nothing quite like taking a run at a job, having to bail out, then coming back a year later to see that everything is completely different.”

“And … what does it do?” I asked.

“It makes elk,” said Grak. “Five hundred a day.”

“What?” I asked. “It just … makes them?”

“Yes,” said Grak.

“That’s a fortune in meat,” said Pallida with a nod. “And since elk are extinct, —”

“They are?” I asked.

“Sure,” said Pallida. “Anyway, it’s thousands of pounds of meat, which — wait, what do the tuung eat?”

“They can eat red meat,” I replied. “The dietary profile that Amaryllis had them on was pretty different than in their natural habitat, which was dominated by amphibians and mosses. They have adaptable digestion.”

“How do you know that?” asked Pallida.

“I’ve been reading through some of the wealth of documentation that the project has produced,” I replied. “Lots of A/B testing to work the kinks out. It’s more interesting than I gave it credit for.”

“What the hells is A/B testing?” asked Pallida. She held up her hand. “Look, nevermind, I don’t want to know, because I don’t care. Do you want me to steal the Jade Elk or not?”

“Not,” I replied. “I get that you might be a little frustrated with your role here, which doesn’t include all that much stealing, or other stuff that you’re exceptionally good at, but I promise I’ll be on the lookout.”

“Good,” said Pallida. “You want me to pick up Gemma soon though? Or does the whole dragon thing mean you want to stop using the Egress for the time being?”

“Keep it below three hundred feet and we should be fine,” I replied. “The company line is that the Egress is a different entad from the one that everyone saw in Li’o, which warder’s sight should confirm.”

“Mostly confirm,” said Grak.

“Mostly confirm,” I corrected myself. “Modulo a sufficiently skilled warder watching for long enough and close enough, with specialized enough equipment, that they could untangle the entad signatures that a meta-entad would produce.”

“Your memory has gotten better,” said Grak.

“Yeah,” I replied, smiling at him and rolling my eyes.

“I’m not actually sure it’s possible to use the Egress like that for us mere mortals,” said Pallida. “As in, I think maybe that was just a Bethel thing. Normal operation was to pick a spot and have it land there without really knowing what was going on outside. You don’t really pilot it, per se. It’s fast and quiet enough that I’ve never had problems with dragons in the past, but they might have eyes on us. I don’t know.”

“So if we used it, we wouldn’t know whether the Egress was violating airspace laws, and we wouldn’t know whether we were being watched,” I said. “Maybe we could use some extra senses, but yeah, that’s a problem. We’ll have to bring it up with Raven and Amaryllis. We have two other entads that can take us across the hex, if need be.”

“These dragons can just fuck right off, if you ask me,” said Pallida. “I’ve heard it only takes about twenty billion obols to kill a dragon, it’s just that no one wants to pay the price for it, especially not when you have to be worried about retaliation.”

“How the hells do they arrive at twenty billion?” I asked. “Are they giving everyone involved a million obols a piece?”

“I have no idea,” replied Pallida. “It’s just what I’ve heard.”

“I imagine that figure includes lifetime earning projections of those who died,” said Grak. “Such calculations were done for Darili Irid. It is an attempt to put a number on lives.”

“Still,” I replied. “That seems really high. I guess if it figures in the chance of failure and retaliation I might be able to see it.” I was vaguely aware that government agencies in the United States did similar calculations, which usually came out somewhere in the low millions, if I remembered right. To get twenty billion would mean expected loss of life in the neighborhood of four thousand people, maybe less, since each of those people would presumably be the product of athenaeum training, and there were probably expensive entads and other magic items that would go into the operation. “Even then, that would mean you could kill all of dragonkind for ten trillion obols, which seems high.”

“Don’t pick fights with dragons,” said Grak.

“To be fair, they picked fights with me,” I replied. “We could get around killing Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle if we could off Perisev.”

“If,” replied Grak. “And it has been twenty-three minutes since you did training.”

“Thanks,” I said, nodding at him. “Cut me off at twenty minutes next time I take a break. I think I’m going to try contentment or love now, just to keep it mixed up and get some feeling for how they’re used and what my particular expressions look like. Keep your eyes open.”

Grak nodded at me, and I saw a subtle relaxing of his expression. I had appointed him as taskmaster, and he’d seemed hesitant about being in that role, maybe because he thought that I wouldn’t appreciate someone keeping me on track. I was trying my best to be sensitive to that, and to keep with the deal I’d made with myself. I wasn’t sure how many continuous hours of training I would be able to do, but it seemed like I would regret it if I didn’t push everything as high as it would go in as little time as possible.

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Alexander Wales

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