(Y6, September 11th-13th)
Quandocor was not entirely surprised when he entered the common room to see nearly no one up. There was a small fire going on in the hearth, with a large pot labeled “Coffee” in bright letters on it.
“Put it back on the fire after taking your cup,” came from the side.
Quandocor took a mug from a rack and went to pick some coffee. There was a pair of large fresh loaves of bread at the end of one of the tables, a jar of butter with a brand name with too many “ö” on it, and a plate of meat cuts.
He sat next to the bleary-eyed woman and started to nibble as he waited for the headache to clear. His Sense Life and Death told him that she was a bit lower level than his… host from last night. Which had been gone when he woke up with hammers circling his head. He hoped it wouldn’t be too awkward.
“Sorry, didn’t catch all your names yesterday,”
“I’d be surprised if you remembered anything. I’m Sansemilla.”
They shook hands.
“Does… this happens often?”
“The party? Not that often, but pretty much. It comes with the job description.”
“Job?” asked Quandocor.
“Valkyrie. Of course, you probably know nothing of Valkyries except for the comic book version.”
“Guilty. And not even that, mostly the second-hand movies stuff from comic book stuff, which I haven’t read.”
“Well, Valkyries are Odin’s helpers. The original version is that they go everywhere around finding the best of the best among warriors, usually when they die gloriously in battle. Then they bring all those Einherjar to Valhalla, where they train for Ragnarök all day, and party all night.”
She laughed then winced.
“Shouldn’t do that. The mead is nice, but it’s the worst for the next morning. Anyway, there are no Einherjar around, so we do the fighting and partying without them.”
“Sounds like a good time.”
“Wouldn’t do anything else. Well, last night was a bit more than the usual party, but then, you’re the first guests we’ve ever had… and heroes to boot.”
“Those heroes have been running away for months now.”
“But you’ve lived, and you’ve made it. Surviving elite 90s? The wrath of the biggest guild on Northworld? That would break lesser people.”
There were noises from the back and Quandocor saw Randgridda coming out with hair sticking all over. She looked even worse than Sansemilla. She picked her mug, filled it and skipped the plates to come straight to sit.
“Greetings to you, Randgridda.”
“’sup,” was Sansemilla’s only greeting.
“So what’s the plan?” asked Quandocor.
“Already? Can’t we just wait a bit?”
“I don’t think our enemies will wait before coming.”
“They have no idea where we are,” said Randgridda.
“They’ll probably bring the best tracking skills to bear once they spawn. I mean… I’m still a lowbie, so I’ve got a limited range, but I could use Lay of the Land yesterday to find out what seemed to be your keep, while I was still in the range of Mt. Talbor.”
“You can do that?” asked Sansemilla.
“Yea. Any ‘significant location’ where there’s gear, creatures and/or people, I can guess from 30km away. So I might not be able to get your keep from town, but once close enough, no problem.”
“Didn’t know that skill.”
“It’s a rare one,” said Vantegaard.
“Hey! Van! Morning!”
“Morning you all.”
Vantegaard sat with the rest of the group.
“But Quan is right. There are plenty of skills that you can use to track people. I mean, they caught up with us at Mt. Talbor. Even if they have to guess a bit, they won’t take long to find us again. Once they end up their Recess, they’ll press on.”
“So, what’s your plan?” asked Randgridda.
“I told you, we’re going to try to get the Earthen Brethren’s help. Which means I need a Recess… and potentially travel to Beta after.”
“Which means you all need a Recess, to make travel faster. You’ve got, what, four days until they’re back?”
“If they stretched their stay until AS, at least four.”
“And most of us are fresh from Recess, but we should be good.”
“We’re not going to let you three go alone to Beta. The Cartographer’s announcement says the road they scouted is safe for lowbies, but even then, it’s better if you have a stronger group.”
Half an hour later, the hall had started to fill up as various Valkyries made their way to the common room. Birkathane looked worse than most, but the coffee miracle happened quickly.
“So, what you guys been talking about?”
“We were discussing Recess. Your chief here says she’ll come with us along with a couple of Valkyries, to make sure we don’t mess up with the trip to Beta. If… that is if the Earthen Brethren agree.”
“Sounds like a plan. We’ve got Recess up, but…”
“Randgridda here said most of the Valkyries spawned back half a week ago. She made sure all of them would be ready for our arrival. So they don’t have Recess up, but they should be good for three-four weeks. So, if we purge now, we can be in sync for the next, which should be mid-point or nearly Beta?”
“So, how long? Two days?”
“Yes, two days.”
“We tend to make a lot of these shorts Recess.”
“Can’t be helped. There’s no Internet on Northworld.”
“At least we don’t need to shuttle everything between here and Earth this time.”
As they were going back to their room to pick their backpacks for the Recess, Quandocor caught up to Birkathane.
“Birka, can I talk to you?”
“I have something I want to ask you about while we’re on Recess…”
Jasper Hill pulled up his laptop and started to write the email.
From: [email protected]
Subject: Proposition of mutual interest from an Archmage Geomancer
I know how and why you get the specific skills from the Guild’s courtyard. And what is more, I know how to expand on that for other skills not available at the Guild Keep.
If you are interested, we can talk.
To show that I’m not bullshitting, I’ll give you a hint: all of your mages that have completed the training regime have gained one but no more of Empty Wind, Repel or Call the Stone. And they also gained one, but no more of Armored Earth, Immutable Mind or Extract Essence. But they never get Tread the Earth, Control Weather or Waterwalking from the Keep. They might have got one of those from random like outside the keep or using a skill stone.
If I am correct – and I know I am – then contact me.
Jasper breathed, and started checking the rest of the web. Four of his accounts had been suspended. Not just the Cartographer one, but three different sites. It seemed that the Cartographers were trying to tighten the noose on ‘Vantegaard’. His previous attempts at communications had been for naught.
As Jasper was browsing the general earth-side politic news on the legislative morass on the Silvergate front, the laptop dinged with an incoming mail. The Brethren had finally given him a response. Apparently, a live chat handle. That was good; it meant they were taking him seriously.
“I’m Berkleyyan, an officer of the Earthen Brethren. And I am very interested in hearing how you got wind of our internal secrets.”
“I haven’t got your internal secrets. I’ve got mine, which… well, they apply to the Keep.”
“There are lots of people trying to bullshit their way into our guild. But you’re the first to know that much on what we offer to our recruits after the trial period when they join. So, no. Spare me the bullshit, and tell me how you know that. Then maybe we’ll see a suitable compensation for plugging the leak.”
“There’s no leak. Just a question – does your training gives you normally 7 skills or 8 skills? That’s the thing I don’t know – yet – about your central courtyard.”
“So, our snitch didn’t give you all the details?”
“No. As I said, there’s no snitch. I just have knowledge that covers the Earth Keep but is more general. I mean, I mentioned Tread the Earth, Control Weather, and Waterwalking and I do know you cannot have them at the Keep. You can pick them by chance, but they’re not from your special list.”
“You might have the complete list of what we have and just picked some random geomancer skills that are not on it…”
“I can tell you exactly how every one of your members can obtain one of those three. Probably even if they got one by chance before.”
There was a silence at the end of the chat channel.
“Look, I don’t know the entire list. I just know that each of your mages usually purchases on the lottery one tier 5 skill, two of tier 4 skills, one tier 3 skill, two of tier 2 skills, and either 1 or 2 tier 1 skills. Depending on one of my hypothesizes about 7 or 8 skills.”
“Look, M… Vantegaard. We’ve always known the Keep was a special location. That’s why we structured the entire guild around it, and we’ve kept our secrets for three years now. And you’re telling me you’ve deduced our guild’s secrets… even while you’re in Gamma and have never been here?”
Ouch, thought Jasper. Sounds like they do know who I am.
“I’m telling you that I figured out something, and deduced the consequences on the Earth Keep. And… we’ve made a few tests to make sure we are right. It looks like we are.”
“Now, I’m going to tell you that some of your mages cannot complete their normal training. They get 6 skills, and then, they stop. Or sometimes, they even get 7 skills, but they skip the one you normally get for your 7th skill and get straight to the 8th. Am I correct?”
“That’s oddly specific. And you keep telling me nobody gave you that information?”
“No. But I can deduce it. And I can tell you why. Look, I’m going to show my good faith and tell you exactly how your Keep works. I just want a promise that you’ll consider that a genuine offer, and you don’t want to sit on it and screw me.”
“It looks to me that you are already screwed. Which baffles me, since I have no idea why you contacted the Brethren and what you want from us.”
“I’m just going to ask a question. Do you often recruit mages that have made a pilgrimage to the Stones of Tarquar.”
“Not many do succumb to the lure of superstition. I know it’s popular, but I mean, thinking that those floating stones let you…” the man stopped.
Bingo, thought Jasper.
“You’ve just realized what I’m saying.”
“You are telling me that… the Stones of Tarquar… do work exactly like the Earth Keep?”
“And not only that, but that there are three sets of skills available at the Stones of Tarquar, and two of them are also available at the Earth Keep. The last two you get from Tarquar are also the last two sets at the Keep.”
“So, if you’ve picked two or three skills at Tarquar…”
“Then you can no longer pick those at your Keep. Which is why some of your recruits will end up short. Because they made their own pilgrimage to Tarquar and picked their skills there already.”
The Brethren officer stayed silent. Then he started to object.
“But it can’t be. I mean, even Aetherists say they can get a skill at the Stones. Even Ritualists swear by it, although almost none of them ever get one.”
Jasper frowned. Then he remembered the Stones of Fanduk. He had acquired another skill there. He’d been so focused on Earth magics, but maybe it was more than that…
“The knot under the Stones of Tarquar helps more than just Geomancers. It just helps us more than the rest.”
“It’s the leylines? That’s what you’re saying? It’s not the Keep or the Stones. It’s the leylines themselves.”
“Yes. The leylines do more than just boost the amount of power we can use. They also serve as a catalyzer for the lottery.”
“We’ve always thought the Courtyard was a special construct to provide skills. I mean, it’s an ornate circle with 8 divisions, one for each skill you get. And the divisions have symbolic representations of the skill tiers. And you have to stay in the circle to roll the correct skills. Get away from it and you start getting random results. And even then, some people don’t get all the 8 skills.”
“Let me guess: it’s 50m radius. With the leyline knot exactly at the center.”
“It’s not a magic construct. It’s just a visual reminder of where you need to be for the best effect. 50m away from any leyline or intersection, and it no longer affects your skill pick. So if you go outside, you might still get a single or two leylines affecting your lottery, but most interactions are missing.”
“There are two minor leylines at the Keep, but three at Tarquar…”
“And thus you can get a one-minor and a two-minor leyline skill pick at one or the other. And once you’ve picked that, it’s gone. It literally does not matter where you picked it. You get the one chance.”
“But it doesn’t explain the Tarquar site?”
“If you’ve looked at the forums, there’s another similar site.”
“The Fanduk site? It’s been posted. Supposedly in the wilds, in a new sector.”
“I’ve been there. And I got an Aether skill, in addition to the local geomantic skills. That’s why I’m saying the knots do more than just a combo. I’m not saying I know everything. I just found a new mechanic for skills.”
“And, it’s really easy to check. If you have any recruit that has not completed their training regimen, and not gone to Tarquar, ask him or her to leave the Keep, go like a kilometer away from the Courtyard, but still on one of the minor or standard leylines. Straight on it. Then they run the lottery. Then if they’re on the minor, they get one of Rock Dart, Earthen Presence or Earth Sight. Because that’s what a single minor leyline gives you.”
“I mean… I’ve been to Tarquar. But I never tried to pick a skill since that looked silly. But Chastabulous, he’d done it there twice, then he came short during training. He never got the 7th skill pick. Like you described.”
“If you’ve never picked the Tarquar skills, then you can still pick the combo of three minor leylines that’s there and not on your knot. That’s one extra skill you never had before. Congratulations on your future tier 3 skill. It just costs you a few points, but…”
“There are more combos…”
“That are not in the Keep’s knot. The trio of skills I gave you that you don’t get is the one when two standard leylines intersect. But if you find that combo anywhere, then it’s easy. You just run the lottery on top of the knot and bam. New geomantic skill, guaranteed.”
The officer went silent. Then, he asked a question.
“But how did you know? I mean, even if you notice that Fanduk maybe has skills like Tarquar but you didn’t know we offer…”
“I have a rare skill. It’s called Sense the Leylines, and I can detect a leyline from miles away, and know exactly how I’m located against it without having to do the move dance looking at the max power in the Interface. But I found that, since I can sense exactly the leyline, the Interface also displays the relevant information, as it does for each skill. In this case when I’m on top if, the fact that the leyline interferes with the lottery. I even get the list of skills and I can pick exactly which one I want.”
“Yea. I’m a cheater. So what? You’ve all been cheating without knowing it. I’ve just told you how to cheat a bit more with Geomantic skills.”
The officer, Berkleyyan, stayed silent before asking a question.
“How many people know this?”
“Right now? You’re the fourth. Probably.”
Depending on how fast Erika had spread the information around her Valkyrie friends. Hopefully, she’d have stressed the need for confidentiality while they were negotiating.
“Can you keep it…”
“A secret. Yes. At least for a limited duration. But it’s a general mechanic. The more people there are in Northworld, the more likely it is that someone finally adds 2 plus 2 and finds it makes 4. Or someone else gets my skill and starts posting ‘did you know that…’ on the first forum they get.”
“It’s not going an Earthen Brethren exclusive, you mean.”
“More like… a time-limited heads-up. But even without another like me, it’s the usual. Three people can keep a secret if two of them, yadda, yadda. I’m even surprised you kept your Courtyard secret for so long. But I suppose people thought that there was no sense giving away that one since you still couldn’t get in to take advantage of it. And even with it, you still have a nearly unique knot with the three World lines. That one’s your tier 1 exclusive. And probably the intersection of every type of leyline.”
“So. What do you want, Vantegaard?”
“You seem to know about me.”
“It’s hard not to. The Cartographers have been screaming blood and now offer 2 gold for catching any one of you three. Which I assume are the other people who know about this.”
“That’s correct. Do the Carto…”
“They say you conspired to assassinate an entire expedition of Cartographers.”
“We did not. We merely stumbled on a…”
Jasper stopped himself. Trying to explain the Pyramid would probably make him pass for a lunatic.
“… a very high-level dungeon trap. It was completely empty until we triggered a kind of alarm, then packs of elite 90s poured out of everywhere between us and the exit. Everyone but us three got killed, and that’s by pure chance we got away. We shouldn’t even have been able to.”
He added, “But Vasilikulik, the officer in charge who told us to run, he was well known and appreciated by the guild, and the upper echelon didn’t take his death rationally. So they didn’t believe us about the dungeon, and think we lured them to a PvP ambush for some nefarious reason.”
“But then why would you announce their death? I mean, expeditions die often enough…”
“The Guild knew we were along with them. So they think we had no choice but pretend unless we wanted to self-exile. Which no true Gater wants to. I’ve stopped trying to figure out what they believe.”
“And so, what do you want from us?”
“We want to clear our names. The problem is, they unleashed an Inquisition and mercenaries and whatnot on us, ready to dose us with all kind of screwy potions, and they promised to throw us into an oubliette to starve and then have us arrested Earthside for murder, and so on.”
“Overreaction much, then?”
“Yea. I’m not even sure they’re really interested in finding what happened more than the punishment of the already condemned.”
“And mediation by the Earthen Brethren would be?”
“Acting as neutral ground. We’d meet the emissaries of the Cartographer Guild, submit to an examination, let them use some truth skills or potions under your guarantee, in order to establish the fact that we did not conspire to kill their expedition. As long as we’re not otherwise restrained and dragged off to an abyss without any recourse.”
“That’s going to be hard from Gamma.”
“It’s only 400km between Gamma and Beta. We don’t have the trails maps, but it’s not that far.”
“They announced the world map two weeks ago. You’re right.”
“So… that’s all we want from the Earthen Brethren. A neutral ground, and your contact with the Cartographers to organize this. You’re respected and powerful enough that they’ll think twice before breaking their word.”
The Brethren officer sighed.
“I’ll talk with the leadership. See if they agree. That’s a big if. You’ve… handed us an enormous secret with that combo thing, even if it’s a temporary thing. If it pans out and it’s not just a load of bullshit built around elaborate fantasies.”
“As I said. Get out of the keep on one of the minor leylines, and test it. 99.99% of your test subjects get one of the skills. Unless they already have all three skills, I suppose. You can also test it on the standard or major leylines, for those recruits that are early in their training. If you have any. And… do you have any multimages? Aetherists?”
“Too bad. Your knot may be big enough to offer an Aether skill as well like the Stones. Anyway, if you accept to conduct the negotiation and we come around, I’ll be able to tell you if it does. Or you can invite an Aetherist and let him try your circle.”
“I will be in contact.”
“We’re on a two-days short Recess. If I haven’t heard from you, I’ll check on the next Recess slot in 10-12 days.”
Vincent Archer wrote his first story around age 11. On a mechanical typewriter, with carbon paper for a mimeograph to distribute in class. His teacher knew enough to make vague encouraging noises rather than really tell him what she thought. He wrote more stories afterward, but Time has thankfully managed to erase every trace of them.
Now that his career has settled in a mix of routine and insanity and that he's figured out that herding cats would probably be easier, he's finally started to write stories again on a media rather than inside his brain. Some of those are even potentially good enough to show to other people.
Silvergates is his first attempt to finish one rather than admit defeat against the usual writer's block.