Derivan could, as it turned out, absorb spells from spell scrolls just as a wizard could. He'd made an attempt to study the actual contents of the scroll, but most of what it was describing flew quickly over his head; there was a lot of runic theory embedded in the scrolls that he'd need to study for months to really understand.
"There are thousands of these symbols," Derivan commented, staring at the scroll, then looking up at Vex. "You have all of them memorized?"
"Well. Not memorized. My class helps." Vex seemed a little embarrassed, though he was rapidly being energized by the discussion of magic. "New ones are being discovered all the time. They interact with each other, and the system helps set them up for the skills you learn, but it's all just so..."
Vex sighed, leaning back into his chair; he'd already expressed this exact thought several times while Derivan had been reading the scrolls.
Derivan's voice was amused when he responded. "It's not magical?"
"It's not magical!" Vex threw his hands up in the air. "Even my class doesn't feel all that magical, for all that it gives me 'root access' or whatever. And don't get me wrong: I love my class. It lets me do so much more with magic than most wizards. But it still feels like I'm just setting up instructions."
Derivan chuckled softly. Over the past few hours, the lizard had opened up significantly, and he had no problems with expressing his opinions on the nature of magic. He rather regretted that he had never taken the time to seek Vex out to talk to him before. He enjoyed the lizard's company, he found.
He'd have to do that more with all of his companions, he decided. Get to know them better. It was surprising how much clearer things were without the system's instincts hanging down over him, trying to force him to be as inconspicuous as possible.
"It does feel that way, from how you describe it," Derivan agreed. "What do you think magic should be like, then?"
"I don't know," Vex answered. "It just... feels like it should be something special, you know? It feels like it should be an art. I love deconstructing it and learning more about it, I do, but I can't help but feel like there's something missing. Something I'm not seeing. I know all these runes affect mana in specific ways, but I don't know why."
The lizard let out a little huff, and sat on the floor in front of Derivan. He'd run out of mana to channel into Derivan a little while ago, and was now meditating to regenerate. He didn't need to sit still or keep quiet for the skill to work, apparently; when Derivan had asked, he'd told the armor — much to his amusement — that he wouldn't have been able to gain the skill at all if that had been a requirement.
"I knew very little about magic before today," Derivan remarked. "I did not think much of it beyond its use as a tool. But..."
Derivan hummed in consideration. He lifted a hand, allowing his mana to channel through the [Barrier] spell he'd learned. He didn't have nearly the same understanding of spells and magic that Vex did — the runes that formed in his hand as the skill came into being were inscrutable to him.
But what he did see was the way the mana flowed.
As much trouble as he'd initially had with feeling for it and grasping it, now that he had, it was astonishingly simple to see. And Vex was right. There was a beauty to the way it moved, the way it almost seemed to dance through the runes, flashing into shapes it seemed intimately familiar with. It flowed and it danced, and flickers of almost-glass came into being — shards of force to ward away his enemies and their blows.
But there was something missing.
It moved in a mockery of what should have been happiness. It was almost like he should have felt the mana laughing joyously as it moved from one form to the other; instead it was silent, dead. A corpse being puppeted on strings of joy, if he wanted to be macabre. Something within him ached in sympathy.
"You are right," Derivan agreed softly. He met the lizardkin's eyes, saw the way his tail curled nervously, as if he was expecting his ideas to be scorned. Rejected. "Something is missing. I would like to find out what it is. That is your goal, yes?"
Vex looked back at him. Derivan saw a glimmer of surprise in his eyes, at first, like the lizardkin hadn't expected that from him. "It's one of the questions I wanted to answer."
"Then let us find the answer together, once all of this is settled," Derivan offered. "I am sure Misa and Sev would be eager to help as well, if you told them."
Vex was silent for a moment.
"I'd like that, I think," the lizardkin agreed, smiling a soft smile. "I'd like that a lot."
A comfortable silence followed. Vex seemed to lose himself in his thoughts briefly, before he prompted Derivan to continue casting [Barrier]; he wanted to see if there was anything different in how the spell was cast, given Derivan's strange state within the system. He gave the armor tips, too — with his understanding of how the spell worked, he could see the way Derivan's mana flowed, checking for inefficiencies.
He spoke at length about how the system interpreted a wizard's thoughts, allowing modified spells to be granted if one's understanding of the spell changed. Spells were more than input and output, for all that the runic system of spell casting seemed to emphasize only that. Spells were intent and understanding. The two schools of thought hadn't yet been completely reconciled yet, he explained...
Just like that, hours passed.
"Hey, guys." Misa greeted them with a loud knock on Vex's door before poking her head in. "Figured I'd check in since Sev's not in the lobby yet. Made any progress with the training?"
"We're about to wrap up, actually, since we're both out of mana." Vex inclined his head with a smile. "You're welcome to come in."
Misa laughed. "What, me? Come in? You must be in a really good mood. You don't let anyone get near your shit. Especially me." She grinned teasingly at the lizardkin, who flinched.
"I— I mean, because they're my notes! And you might have been able to figure out my class if you saw them..." Vex deflated a little, and Misa relented, stepping into the room with a chuckle.
"Relax, I'm just teasing. I get it. I didn't tell anyone about my class for the longest time, either." The half-orc's grin became briefly brittle.
"Is it dangerous to speak of classes?" Derivan asked curiously. He'd never had occasion to speak much of it. Sev and Misa had given him a cursory warning not to reveal any classes if he could help it, but such a thing was considered impolite anyway, so he'd never put more thought into it.
"Kind of," Misa answered, wiggling a hand in the air in a 'so-so' sort of gesture. "At low levels, in the Iron or Bronze range, yes. The Prime Kingdoms will want to conscript you. At high levels? They won't bother unless you're really special. Their Platinums have better things to do than try to capture someone in the Platinum range, especially if they don't know what you can do."
"I know very little about the kingdoms, admittedly." He'd picked up on the ranking system easily enough over their travels — it wasn't anything complicated. Iron, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, each representing a 20 level range. The Prime Kingdoms were more complicated to ask questions about, given he didn't know what was considered common knowledge. "Are they such terrible places?"
Derivan found that the idea of people being forced to fight for anyone rankled him.
"No. Or at least, most don't see it that way," Vex said. His tail swung about slightly as he considered the question, but his brows furrowed in mild consternation. "For most people, being conscripted guarantees that they'll have a good life. The Prime Kingdoms have complicated leveling programs in place that allow you to get levels at minimal risk, and once you hit Platinum, nothing's really left to threaten you except other Platinum rankers. Which happens... very rarely."
"You know a lot about their training programs." Misa raised an eyebrow. "All the Prime Kingdoms refuse to talk about how much risk is actually involved when they train someone to Platinum."
"I lived in Elyra for a while," Vex said, hunching forward slightly; seeing Derivan's look of confusion, he elaborated. "It's the southmost Prime Kingdom on the continent. Known for dungeon research and magic item production, mostly."
"Ah." Derivan nodded. "But why avoid conscription, then? It does not sound like it has many downsides."
Vex grimaced. "A few reasons, some of which I don't really want to talk about right now — sorry. I'll tell you guys eventually. But one of them is that all the Kingdoms have a strict population limit. They know exactly how many people their resources can support, and they stay strictly below that line. For me to stay, someone else has to leave."
"I think that might be an Elyran thing. I've heard Anderstahl tries to expand its harvest to support more citizens as much as possible, though I guess I don't know how much of that is propaganda." Misa frowned slightly. "But it felt wrong for me to join any of the Kingdoms. My village struggled to survive without help from them. We wanted to be independent. I wasn't going to give up that dream and fuck off to live out my days in a Kingdom."
"I see," Derivan said. He fell silent, turning over what they'd said in his mind. "It is... difficult for me to understand the sacrifices you have made, I think. I sympathize, but I do not know that I truly understand."
Misa chuckled, giving him a friendly nudge. "No one said you have to understand everything immediately."
"I suppose," Derivan agreed. "Home is a strange prospect for me. The dungeon I came from is the closest thing I could call a home, but the word does not seem appropriate. I hold no affection or regard for it. But for what it is worth, I am glad the two of you are here."
"Sev as well," he added. The human wasn't there, but it felt wrong not to mention him. Both Vex and Misa chuckled at that inclusion.
"Yeah, the guy's a smartass, but I like having him around," Misa grinned.
"I thought I was the smartass," Vex said. He managed to actually sound a little hurt, and Misa snorted, throwing an arm around the lizard and dragging him close in a half-hug; Vex yelped as she did so, toppling over against her side.
"You're too proud of being a smartass, is what you are," Misa said, entirely unrepentant. "Sev's rubbing off on you."
"He is not!" Vex protested, his voice barely a squeak as Misa kept him grappled.
"I believe he is," Derivan said, carefully keeping his tone as serious as he could. "In fact, I am worried he may be turning into a second Sev entirely. Perhaps we should find another cleric to check?"
"Derivan," Vex squeaked, sounding outraged and betrayed; the armor chuckled and gave in, reaching out to pull the poor lizardkin free from Misa's unrelenting grasp. He squinted at Derivan's perfectly steady expression, then huffed. "You're getting better at jokes."
"I have always been good at jokes," Derivan said, incorrectly. Misa and Vex stared at him, and he let his eyes curve upwards in a smirk. "I accept no other reality."
Misa snorted in a laugh. "Sure, buddy."
"I support your delusions, whatever they may be," Vex added.
"Alright,” Derivan sighed, conceding. He smiled. “I suppose I deserved that.”
There was a small silence, then, but it was the comfortable sort of silence; the kind borne of quiet camaraderie. Vex broke the silence first, his tone curious as he lounged back, using his tail to prop himself up. "What about you, Derivan? Could you tell us more about the dungeon you're from?"
Derivan paused. It struck him — quite suddenly, really — how normally his friends were treating him, despite what they now knew about his origin. He'd never really thought it would matter, but he found that it did. Acceptance was a strange beast, he mused.
"I can," Derivan said, and he was surprised by how honest those words were. "Let me see what I can remember..."