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“I’m going to need to rest soon,” I told the call of the gold as I landed in Necrolaborem. “Too much fighting and flying today.” It had been one of those long days, the kind that stretched on forever by virtue of having started early and been crammed full of taxing things.

There was no response. I was allowed to sleep, I was pretty sure of that, but I was worried that I was going to be on call, as it were. It was late, and I’d had a bit of trouble finding Necrolaborem, since the sun was down. Celestar and the multi-colored stars seemed to provide more illumination than on Earth, but that didn’t help me much when there was cloud cover. I could move the clouds with water magic, but it was a real limiter on speed. I hadn’t brought the teleportation key with me, in part because I was the person who least needed it, but a part of me wished that I had called in for it to be bulk teleported to me.

An Amaryllis was waiting, with tuung around her, and greeted me as I went toward the manor.

“I’m beat,” I said. “Where can a guy go to get some rest?”

“We were going to have a short get together,” said Amaryllis. “Would you be okay putting in an appearance, maybe a half hour or so? You can pass off sleep to the tuung, better to keep you fresh while you’re a gold mage. Night is a bad time to use your powers, but I might end up sending you out.” When she said ‘I’, she meant a different instance of her. “You’re good for social time?”

“Uh,” I said. I thought about Valencia being local, for once, and what I might miss out on. “Sure.”

“It’s not actually a party,” said Amaryllis. “Just to make that clear. It’s an hour-long break from doing anything resembling work, so that we don’t fry ourselves. Studies show —”

I waved a hand, and she stopped talking. “I am sure that I’ll be interested in those studies later, but for now, I just want to rest and relax.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis, nodding. I couldn’t tell whether she was relieved or disappointed that she wouldn’t have to quote some scientific literature back at me. “Elizabeth will lead you down.”

“You’re not coming?” I asked.

“Someone needs to stand guard over the night,” she replied. “Besides, I’m already there.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Just checking.” I moved forward and gave her a kiss, and she leaned against me for a moment before letting me go.

Elizabeth was tuung, naturally, though one that I hadn’t gotten much more than an introduction to. It was hard for me to tell them apart, especially because the ones that didn’t have inktad or entad gear all dressed virtually identically. We moved through the still-smouldering front part of the manor, then into the elevator, which was guarded by more tuung.

“How are things?” I asked her.

She looked over at me, seeming unsure that I was speaking to her. “Plans are moving along. I don’t have a full situation report on the second generation or on the ongoing cultural diagnostic efforts. I apologize.”

“No,” I said. “I mean, how are you, personally?”

She took a moment to mist herself with the little tank at her side. “The adjustment to the outside world continues apace.”

I chuckled at that. “Do they not train you to talk about your feelings?”

“Not while on duty,” she replied.

“Shame,” I said.

“And how are you?” she asked.

“Oh,” I replied. “I didn’t think I would have to answer that.” I looked at the walls going past us. The elevator had been sped up, but it was still quite a ways to go down. “Being a gold mage has more annoyance than I thought it would. I felt like I would be pushed around and asked to make trade-offs that would be difficult, but it’s mostly been a slog. Too much time flying, not enough goofing off. Do the tuung have goofing off?”

“We do,” she replied. “Amaryllis felt it instrumentally important to allow us freedom and leisure.”

“Hrm,” I replied. It seemed to me like it would be hard to relax when you knew that it was just there in order to get back in shape for the grind. Mandatory relaxation wasn’t quite an oxymoron, but it was close. There was something about the phrasing she’d picked that rankled me, though it wasn’t clear that it was supposed to rankle. “You specified ‘instrumentally’?”

“For the sake of accomplishing some goal,” replied Elizabeth, nodding.

“No, I know the jargon,” I said. “I was just wondering why you felt the need to make it clear that it wasn’t freedom and leisure for their own sake.”

“There’s some argument within the tuung about the studies on which her understanding is founded,” replied Elizabeth. “Almost all of the studies cited in the design document for our civilization used humans or dwarves, with none being specific to the tuung.”

“The second generation committee never brought it up,” I said. “So far as I know, they don’t intend to make any changes on that front.”

“I wouldn’t know,” replied Elizabeth. The elevator came to a stop, and whatever else she was going to say died on her lips.

“Let me know if you’d like to talk,” I said. “If there are concerns that haven’t been brought up in the second generation committee, it would be helpful to me to know prior to the second generation project going into effect. The first generation was a proven success,” and we have an alternate timeline’s worth of data showing that too, “but if there are flaws, I’d like them to be addressed.”

“I’ll think about it,” she replied, looking me over. “In my leisure time.”

“Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but we’re going to have a hundred thousand tuung getting basically the same education that you got,” I said. “And that’s happening … maybe tomorrow.”

“I’ll think fast,” said Elizabeth. We stood together on the elevator for a moment, though it had come to a stop. “Was there anything else?”

“No,” I said.

“Then I’ll take you to the place that Grakhuil has set up,” she said, nodding.

The room was nothing special, just another utilitarian warehouse that Elisha Blue must have built. It had been transformed though, mostly with things that had been taken from Sable, and it was filled with the people who mattered most to me.

“Juniper!” Valencia called as soon as I was in the door. I blinked on warder’s sight for just a moment and saw that Grak had, in fact, created a bevy of wards around the room, which had bunk beds set up on one side of it for the four of them. “We were worried you wouldn’t make it.”

“Well, I’m here,” I said. “Is it a party, or what?” Two of Amaryllis were here, the one wearing Sable almost surely the prime version of her. They were deep in conversation. Grak and Raven were also together, talking, though they’d mostly stopped when I came in.

“Not a party,” said Valencia. “Just a time to relax and not think about work.”

It struck me that there were no tuung in the room, which was a little off-putting. They were a vital part of our operations, and they would be bearing the brunt of the costs involved in making even the smallest dent in the problem of Necrolaborem. I was sure that there were a lot of good reasons not to have them with us, but it still felt unequal in a way that rankled at me a little bit.

“There’s a changing screen, if you wanted to get out of your armor,” said Valencia. She gestured in a corner, where a folding barrier had been set up. “You’ll be sleeping here, right?”

“I’ll be passing off sleep,” I said. “The call of the gold seems to want me here though, in the NLEZ.”

“Ominous,” said Valencia with a nod.

“You wanted to talk about the Matrix?” I asked.

“I’ll wait until the armor is off,” she replied. “Unless you’re okay with talking while you change?”

“Sure,” I replied. “I just need to ask Amaryllis for a change of clothes.”

“She already thought of that and left you some,” replied Valencia.

“Of course she did,” I sighed. I went over to the screen and began stripping off my entads and armor. “So, you watched the Matrix?”

“Yes!” said Valencia. “Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is, so I had to watch it for myself.”

“Please tell me that this didn’t lead to an obsession,” I said as I took off my greaves. “I enjoyed the movie, but I don’t think that I could handle you being enthusiastic about it for days on end.”

“Oh, my Harry Potter days are long behind me,” said Valencia. “I spent some time in the time chamber, when I needed a break from Bethel. I gained some new perspective.”

“That’s a bit of a shame, if I read you right,” I said. “And that time was what, looking back on things that you used to love, or that were formative, and realizing that you’ve outgrown them?”

“Sure,” said Valencia. I wasn’t watching her, but I could hear the shrug. “What I really like is that there are happy memories to outgrow. I want to leave a trail of happy memories behind me.”

“So you liked the Matrix?” I asked. I had seen it, of course, but it had been years ago, and I hoped that I would be able to add something.

“It’s an interesting concept,” said Valencia. “But it’s a bit philosophically confusing, and I was wondering whether you had some insights.”

“You’re asking me for insights?” I asked. “I mean, I can try, but it seemed fairly straightforward to me. What didn’t you understand?”

“Well, I think I understood it,” said Valencia. “But … they talk a lot about what’s real and what’s not, and it was confusing to me how or why everyone accepted that there even was a real world. Neo takes the red pill, and then he doesn’t suffer from any misunderstanding of the nature of reality after that. He never thinks that the ship he’s on is yet another simulation, even though the simulations are supposed to be perfect, or close enough to perfect that it wouldn’t be hard to patch the flaws. And Neo’s not just being pulled out of the simulation, he’s being told that he’s the only one who can save the world, which you’d think would make him suspicious.”

“Okay,” I said. “So … you wanted a different movie?”

“No,” said Valencia, frowning at me just a bit. “I mean, I understand it well enough, the instinct people have to say, ‘I see clearly now!’ So often that’s just totally wrong and stupid. But the movie isn’t about that. It’s just … uncritical about the whole thing. So what’s it trying to say?”

“Er,” I said. “I honestly think that it is uncritical. That it is just a story about people waking up from a dream to see, for the first time, the real world, without very much time or thought given to, uh, anything like what you’re talking about. That uncritical way that it deals with the difference between truth and fiction, and how you can’t actually tell the difference if the simulation is good enough … that would undercut the metaphor, which is about seeing the true world, and, I guess, how seeing the real world can be painful or exhausting.”

“But it’s a bad metaphor for that,” said Valencia.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I replied. “Sometimes there’s a powerful metaphor that provides people a language for something, and it doesn’t really matter whether the metaphor holds when you think about it for more than five minutes. As a movie, The Matrix had a lot of impact on the culture, some of it for the special effects stuff, some of it for the philosophy, and I think a lot of the philosophical impact wasn’t because it had any really new ideas, it was that it packaged them in a way that made talking about those ideas easier for lay people.”

“Are you talking about The Matrix?” asked Amaryllis, walking over to us. She wasn’t wearing a glove, and so of the two, was probably the clone. “Terrible movie.”

“Terrible how?” I asked, sighing just a bit.

“Why in the holy hell would they use green lines for their user interface?” asked Amaryllis. “And why are people able to bend the rules of the Matrix through sheer willpower? Who would code in such a stupid system?”

“Did either of you see the sequels, by chance?” I asked.

“There are sequels?” asked Valencia.

“You told me not to watch them,” said Amaryllis.

“Well, I don’t think that they really clarify much,” I said. “Just curious.”

“All I’m saying is that the movie takes the aesthetic of computer programming without taking the time to understand computers or how people interact with them,” said Amaryllis. “If there are reasons that people are able to bend the rules of the Matrix from within it, then they’re contrived reasons.”

“I mean, it could be —” I began.

“Contrived,” said Amaryllis, before I could finish. “A sensible program architect will have physics behave in consistent ways in accordance with the physical reality that they’re trying to create, rather than creating them from the beliefs of the people within the program. Surely the Matrix contains people who have mental disorders, and must be able to account for that, the simplest method being through making a sensible system architecture that connects with the mind through a series of inputs and outputs, rather than using the mind for construction and control of the body without an intermediary process.”

“Okay,” I said. “Granted. But what I was just saying to Valencia is that it’s not actually about that, it’s about the aesthetic, the metaphor.”

“It’s the misuse of the aesthetic that I dislike,” said Amaryllis. “Everything about the premise is interesting, but they fail to execute on any of that. Instead, they go with the chosen one going through a very typical hero’s journey.”

“Nothing wrong with a hero’s journey,” I said. “And look, I don’t want to defend a movie that’s like, two decades old, I’m just saying … you have to use the right lens. You have to understand the story on its own terms. It’s not a story about understanding the existential horror of living in a simulation, it’s about the red pill and the blue pill, which are stand-ins for all kinds of truths about the world, ignoring that truth is a murky concept. And yeah, it’s uncritical, and you can point that out, but you need to also use and understand the frame of the movie itself.”

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “Fine.” She folded her arms across her chest. “Even if it’s a bad frame?”

“Eh,” I said. “You can point it out, obviously. I just think you’d get more out of it if you took it how it was, rather than how you wanted it to be.”

“Is this related to you going to Perisev’s?” asked Valencia.

“No?” I asked, more than stated. “I mean, now that you say it, sure, I’m sure there’s some connection to be drawn, but most of my time flying home was spent thinking about the Long Stairs, what was in them, and their connection to Earth.”

“Long Stairs?” asked Valencia. “That was … a campaign?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But … we’re not supposed to talk business at this party, right?”

“I might need to sync,” said Amaryllis, frowning at me. “Do I need to sync?”

“Uh, if you want the full context with Perisev, yeah,” I said. “Or I can just tell you.” I looked over at the other Amaryllis, the prime one, who was in conversation with Raven and Grak. “Do you not know anything about the Long Stairs discussion?” I asked. “Because it’s been a busy day for me, and both parts involved that.”

“Shit,” said Amaryllis. “Can it keep?”

“Sure,” I said. “Nothing is going anywhere, at least to my knowledge. This is endgame stuff that we’re preparing for.”

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “I’ll tell myself to do three syncs, and we can discuss this tomorrow.”

“Stop turning the gears,” said Valencia. “We were supposed to be relaxing, remember?”

“Yes, sorry, it’s just hard,” said Amaryllis. “It’s definitely going to be one of those nights where I need a spell to sleep.”

“Do those work on the clones?” I asked.

“They do,” she replied. “But we can’t self-cast.”

“I can’t self-cast either,” said Valencia. “But I’ve never really had a problem getting to sleep, at least not these days.”

“Well, I’m going to get some rest soon,” I said. “I just need to check in with Grak and Raven first.” I looked at their little group. “And other Amaryllis, I guess.”

Amaryllis came close to me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “I might give you some company tonight?”

“Sure,” I said, feeling my cheeks get a bit warm and resisting the urge to look at Valencia to see what she made of it.

I walked over to where the other three were talking, and caught the end of Grak’s sentence.

“— because if it did, the dwarves would veto.” He looked relaxed, but the day had definitely taken its toll on him, and beneath the stoicism, I was sure he was eager for sleep.

“They would?” asked Amaryllis, glancing at me for a moment before returning to Grak. “Just out of a sense of preserving the status quo?”

“Yes,” nodded Grak. “It has never been the dwarven belief that equality for individual groups is best served by equality for all. There are many factions within dwarfkind. The consensus is on protecting our own.” His tone was flat, but I knew him well enough to know that he was a bit flustered. Groglir had a habit of putting two opposed statements of fact next to each other without anything to join them, no ‘but’ or ‘however’. It was much more common for him to slip into that habit of opposed statements when he was agitated.

“I understand the mindset,” said Amaryllis. “But I don’t think I can explain how vehemently I disagree with the strategy, tactics, or morality.”

“It is what it is,” replied Grak.

“What are we talking about?” I asked, finally seeing my chance. “I don’t need a full summary, just a description of the topic.”

“Rights for sentients,” said Raven. “We were talking about entads and magical effects, which Amaryllis might technically be considered,” she gestured to the clone, who had sat down on a couch with Valencia. “Specifically, expansions of rights.”

“Huh,” I said. I looked over at the other Amaryllis, and she looked back at me before giving a small wave. “There’s an argument to be made that she wouldn’t qualify?”

“A strong argument,” replied Amaryllis. “In Anglecynn they’re actually structured as being owned objects.”

“Wait,” I said. “Really? Not people?”

“Sorry, I misspoke,” said Amaryllis. “The plan, if the clones were challenged, is that they are owned objects that nevertheless represent my will and count as being me. They haven’t been challenged, so right now, legally speaking, they’re not actually anything. The arguments have not been made one way or another, let alone resolved.”

“But they’re people,” I said. “Sorry if that’s politically naive, but — you said this relates to entads?”

“To a variety of magical effects,” said Raven.

“Alright, I guess I don’t have much input except that’s clearly wrong,” I replied.

“It’s complicated,” said Raven.

“In what way?” I asked. “If they can think and feel like a member of the mortal species, then they deserve rights, don’t they?”

“The issue of rights is a complicated one,” said Raven. “It’s not as clear-cut as that. Uther wanted to package everything up, to make a grand universal declaration, but he ran into problems, because people are so diverse, their needs so varied. A group like the Ha-lunde can be accommodated, but that’s not true of every group, and when rights conflict with each other, or you have issues like voluntary servitude, you immediately run into problems.”

“To be clear, we’re all against slavery?” I asked.

“Well,” said Amaryllis. “It depends.”

“Does it?” I asked. “Does it really?” I stopped for a moment. “Is this because of the existence of the slave species?”

Aerb had a few so-called ‘slave species’, typically those that had been created by ancient or complicated magics and had a pathological desire for ownership, or at least some kind of firmly rooted idea of themselves as belonging to another, or desire to foist autonomy off onto someone else. The exact implementations differed, but it was always biological, not cultural (else they would have been slave cultures, not slave species).

The whole thing was kind of skeevy, but that was what had attracted me to it, back on Earth. I didn’t often include those kinds of things in games, but for a period of time, I had been into transgressive worldbuilding, worlds that were different from our own in ways that violated basic precepts of modern civilization. Some of them got jotted down on sheets of paper that were then consigned to a folder and forgotten, others ended up in aborted draft documents on my laptop, and a rare few made it into a campaign. Some of it was just edgelord garbage, justification for a place that was not too different from the Doris Finch Exclusion Zone, or some of the hells. Other things were just extensions of real world pseudoscience, taking some dumb ideas that people had like phrenology and trying to ponder what the world would look like if those ideas were true. That was where things like the slave species had come from.

“I know it’s not how it is in America,” said Amaryllis. She was watching me, as she sometimes did, paying close attention to my face. “I know that there, you had more of a history of slavery than we ever had on Aerb.”

“There was slavery,” said Raven. “But Uther ended it.”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis with a sigh. “Along with his many other accomplishments, aided by a technological revolution, a sterling wit, gobs of charisma, and the most powerful kingdom on the face of Aerb. And I don’t mean to diminish that accomplishment, but he had a lot going for him in that endeavor, not least of which was, potentially, narrative force.”

Slavery hadn’t been booming business back in Uther’s day, it had been on a decline, largely consigned to those polities where it was so firmly institutionalized that ending it would have been nearly unthinkable. Uther did what Uther often did, which was to write the kind of revelatory tract that would have propelled someone else to instant fame and recognition. Against Slavery was fairly short, not more than a hundred pages, with a calm, easy-going tone and a dense thicket of citations, some of which were arguments and stories of their own. At the very end was the shortest section, which said, over the course of a paragraph, that if none of the preceding reasons were adequate, Uther would personally come to every slave holding polity on Aerb, one by one, and set them right, one way or another.

Of the thirty-one slave-holding nations, twenty-nine of them backed down, putting in place various schemes to step down and phase out the institution of slavery on a five year timeline. The remaining two faced Uther’s full wrath.

“Did he enjoy it?” I asked Raven.

“Enjoy what?” she asked back, confused.

“Did he enjoy sticking it to the slavers?” I asked.

“He did,” said Raven. “A bit too much. When he sent the book off, it seemed like he was hoping for an all-comers fight. And when there were only a few holdouts … this was later into his career, when he held a lot of personal power, when he was so beloved by Anglecynn that they barely batted their eyes at the thought of going to war for a just cause. I think, when we actually got there, storming the gates, he wanted to believe that these were all evil people, irredeemable.” She shook her head. “He gave them opportunities to surrender, plenty of them, called for them to throw down their swords, but the people who were guarding the bastions were the fanatics, the ones who had been convinced that ending slavery was an assault on their way of life.”

“Which it was,” said Amaryllis.

“Which it was,” Raven replied with a nod. “At the time, I felt like him, that they were terrible people defending a terrible tradition, amoral and greedy. But the more I thought about it, over the decades that followed, the more I thought that it just looked that way from the outside.”

“I mean, he was probably right,” I said. “The hand of fate probably conspired to place the worst people in the world before the path of his blade, and when he was finished, all the people who finally surrendered were the ones who had just been going along with things, just scared, desperate, people.” I personally didn’t have much sympathy for slavers of any kind.

“I suppose,” frowned Raven.

“Does it matter to the topic at hand?” asked Grak.

“Kind of, in a way,” said Amaryllis. “In theory, we might one day wield enough power to simply force changes in the same way that Uther did. If the dwarves don’t want magical effects to have recognized autonomy, then Juniper can lay out an argument and back it up with power greater than any individual polity would be able to stop.”

“Controversially, I frown on the genocide of dwarves,” said Grak.

Amaryllis rolled her eyes. “Obviously I’m not envisioning that, I’m envisioning almost everyone agreeing with us right away by the virtue of our arguments, backed up by the raw power we would hold. You don’t need to hurt anyone if they know ahead of time that you’re capable of doing it.”

“Except that it wouldn’t come out clean like that for me,” I said. “I’m not playing by the same script that Uther was. Look at where we are!” I gestured vaguely around us, at Necrolaborem. “This is a messy, complicated situation that’s not going to go away with game powers or killing the right villain. And that’s how it is in real life. You know that, right, Raven? Five hundred years, and you see that it wasn’t just a matter of good or evil, not once the thumb was off the scale? With Uther gone, that’s just not how it works?”

“The entirety of the world cannot be trusted,” said Raven. “So I can’t say that it would naturally be. We can’t even trust Earth.”

“We can’t?” asked Amaryllis. “I mean, I’ve had my doubts —”

“Sorry, I forgot, that was a clone,” said Raven. “There have been some recent developments, but apparently nothing that you felt necessary to sync for.”

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “Give me ten minutes.”

“You’re not supposed to be working,” I replied. “And hey, sorry to turn in early, but it’s been a damned long day, with more long days ahead of me, so I’m going to get some rest, if not sleep. Also … you should tentatively sync with the clone that’s over at Perisev’s, there was information there that matches up to what Raven knows. So you’d need twenty minutes to get up to speed.”

“Next time we do this, we’ll have a debriefing session first,” said Amaryllis.

“Oh, also, have you synced up with the clone that was with me for taking apart Tommul?” I asked. “We had a discussion about postmodernism that maybe gives another piece to the puzzle.”

Amaryllis sighed. “Fine, go rest, I’ll get you up if it matters enough.”

I nodded. “Thanks. Sorry, I know it’s been a long day for you too, I’m just ready to crash.” I turned to Grak. “Can I talk to you for a second first?”

“Of course,” he nodded, though he seemed surprised. When I went to walk over to one of the bunks that had been set up, he followed behind, and I sat on a bottom bunk, running my fingers through my hair. I decided that I was greasy, and needed a shower. In theory, I could blast away the oils with gold magic, but my control wasn’t fine enough that I was confident that I could do that without obliterating my hair. “What did you need?” Grak asked.

“Just wanted to make sure you were okay,” I said. “I know you’re putting in work, worried that your wards aren’t going to be sufficient, or that you’ll be asked to do something that puts people at risk, and I noticed you weren’t talking too much when it was the four of us over there, so I just thought that the last thing I would do, while I still have scraps of will and energy left to do anything, would be to ask you how you were.”

“Thank you,” said Grak. He sat down on the bunk beside me, and it made me think about whether the beds would actually work for him. It was the kind of thing that I would have expected Amaryllis to think of, but the bunks had to have come from somewhere, and I wasn’t sure that they were built for dwarves, who came shorter and thicker than humans.

“Still thinking?” I asked, after what felt like a long time had passed. I’d switched to Groglir, and hoped that he would do the same. Sometimes it seemed like Anglish provided him with a shield.

“During my time at Barriers, I felt a weight of obligation,” he finally said, switching languages with me. “My father sent letters to me, once or twice a semester, and after every time, I would feel a wave of stress descend to blanket me. I would spend a day or two feeling miserable, not eating, my stomach unaccountably upset. I would have trouble falling asleep, and trouble staying asleep. Then, with time, that feeling would pass, and I would convince myself that I would be able to squeeze out another year, to keep my comfortable lifestyle going.”

“Hmm,” I said. “And you’re feeling that now?”

“It is entirely possible that I am the greatest warder the world has ever known,” said Grak. “It is possible that I can do things with wards that cannot be done by others, even in theory. And yet this is not a position of agency or power. I have no choices, no will to exert.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I never wanted you to feel that way, you know that I’m not just saying that, —”

“I don’t blame you,” said Grak. “I am just explaining my feelings. I make the wards I am asked to make, or more often, that I deem necessary given our situation. I provide for the team. But the goals of the team are not my goals, because my desires are to live a simple life with a few good friends and a riot of civilization to poke my head into from time to time. The world needs us, Juniper, but I have no strong desire to save it. It's an obligation.”

“Huh,” I said. “If I can make an analogy?”

“Of course,” he replied.

“There’s no love,” I said. “There’s duty, but it’s cold, soulless duty. You provide the defenses, but that’s not a fulfilling thing, it’s just rote work, for the most part. It’s a job that you have to keep coming to every day, even though you don’t like it at all, because you need to pay the rent.” Not that I had ever had that experience, but that had been my mom’s description of the working world. “You get through the work for the day, and hope that you’ve done enough, that you’ve earned some rest.”

“Yes,” said Grak. He was staring ahead.

“What can I do?” I asked. “We can arrange time in a time chamber for you, but I don’t know how close to a real break that’s going to be. It’s worked well enough for me, at least in the past.”

“Listening helps,” said Grak. “Speaking about it helps.”

“Okay,” I said. “That doesn’t seem like enough.”

“It’s not,” Grak replied. “But the weight of obligation will still remain. I will be instrumental in these plots.” In Groglir, the word that equated to ‘instrumental’ had connotations of ‘being used as an instrument’. “I cannot be replaced. I do not want the world in which anyone would try to replace me, because the outcomes would be worse. This is the crux. This is where the weight of obligation comes from. If someone could take my place, I wouldn’t feel the weight, and could continue on.”

“Hrm,” I said. “You need a goal.”

“A goal?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, I’m driven by finding Arthur and ending the shitshow. It’s what I think about, when things threaten to seem overwhelming, which … yeah, is kind of where I am at the moment. There’s an endgame waiting, there will be answers, a resolution. That’s why I push on. But you don’t have that, because for you — I hate to put words in your mouth, but it seems like you don’t really care about Uther, or the resolution.”

“I don’t,” said Grak. “A heaven seems nice, but it is so disconnected from anything we do that I have no faith. There is an alienation from that goal, for me. The work that I do advances us toward it, but the connection is often murky. Sometimes all I can see are my wards.”

“You saved us from dragonfire,” I said. “We’d be dead if not for you.”

“This is true,” said Grak. “But it’s so … reactive. The building of the ward is the active part, and that is done without knowledge of if or when it might ever matter. I have layer upon layer of ward around me, all made just in case they might, some day, be useful.” He turned to look at me. “There’s nothing that you can do, but that you took the time is appreciated, more than I can say.”

“Alright,” I said. “If you ever need to talk, let me know.”

He reached over and squeezed my hand, then stood up from the bunk and quickly made a ward so that the light would be blocked out and I wouldn’t have to hear whatever else was going on.

I’d passed off sleep, which left me in the bunk, staying up at the upper bunk above me, thinking without actually feeling tired. I wished that I could have slept, but while the call of the gold would probably allow that, it didn’t seem prudent. There was a list of things that I should be doing while the call of the gold was active, and after an hour or two, I would probably go do them. But for a time, it was good to be all alone, to be thinking my own thoughts.

I didn’t want to think about Perisev, or postmodernism, or the Long Stairs, and certainly not Fel Seed. So I turned instead to my favorite hobby, building worlds and crafting adventures that no one would ever play.

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Alexander Wales

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