Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The "Best" RPG Ever-79

"Hey, it's Pirr!" Rayna waved at the elvish guard. "I guess you're fully recovered."
"'Nough for desk work, anyhow," she shrugged. "What d'you need?"
"Is the Captain in?" Rayna asked. "We fought some ogres coming toward our house this morning and they were carrying something unusual; I think it's worth reporting."
"Mmh," she nodded. "She just came in. Just 'tween you and me, had a satisfied expression of some sort. They're always real subtle, but you can tell if you learn to look hard enough. No appointments right now either, so you can knock and see."

The fox-girl went to the door and knocked.
"Who is it?"
"Uh, Rayna."
"Is it important? I have a lot of paperwork to get through." What seemed like it could be actual mild annoyance was present in her tone.
"I think it's slightly important. I can make it quick."
Her ears picked up a quiet sigh, and then: "Do that, then. Come in."
She carefully opened the door and stepped inside.

Rayna went straight to the point, getting the crystal out and setting it down on the Captain's desk. "We found this on an ogre this morning," she said. "It was fixed into a giant, crude staff and he was throwing magic around from it. I thought you might know something about it."
Ezra stared at it for a second, and then up at Rayna, who was slowly pulling herself down into the nearest chair. "...It's a magic crystal," she said flatly. "Surely you've seen them before."
"Well..sure." Now that she really thought about it, Rayna could 'remember' seeing people pull out small, glowing crystals and pull elemental magic from them—including Ezra, during the fire giant fight. They were frequently used by people who didn't have much magic capacity themselves, to be able to draw elemental power for spells from—but Rayna had always used her illusions, and when she became interested in magic Lynn had discovered she already had enough talent of her own to enchant arrows consistently without help. "But..have you ever seen one this size? On a monster? And Nora said it had a lot of different elements in it, too," she said, recounting the things that were actually unusual about it in light of the fact that magic crystals were Quite Normal.
"Hmm." Appearing to decide it was worth her time, the Captain picked up the crystal and examined it a little more closely. "..You're right. This is a level of craftsmanship most would be incapable of. The cheapest ones carry only one element at a time; this handles multiple elements differently from the power sources of those guard armors you found. It takes the more modern approach of 'compartmenting' the elements separately instead of trying to counterbalance them, which reduces capacity somewhat but doesn't run the risk of a meltdown if you spend too much of one element over the others. On the other hand, this kind is impossible to power constructs with."

She set it down again. "It isn't very practical for most people to use at this size, although that gives it an exceptionally high capacity. If you want to make use of it you should find someone who can cut it up into smaller pieces someone can wear in jewelry."
"Got it. You know, with the size and the way it was set into that staff, it's like it was made for the ogre or something," Rayna said. Something about that suggestion Ezra didn't like; not in the sense of her becoming angry at the fox-girl, but—well, there was just this slight movement in her eyes. Almost..worry?
"..Perhaps you should Look at it," the Captain said, pushing the crystal toward her across the desk a bit. "Your Sight may be able to determine something about its origin." Whatever had been in her eyes for a second there wasn't evident in her voice, which was as level as ever.
"Huh. I've never really tried that before...but it sounds plausible," Rayna nodded. "Let's see..."

The fox-girl leaned forward a bit, staring deep into the crystal. She tried to "look" at it, specifically through the veil of "see" where it had come from, who had made it. She wasn't aware of it at the time, but exercising her powers in this way gave her eyes a faint visible glow. She only saw it set into that staff, being swung around by an ogre for a long while, at first, but then she tried looking deeper—farther back—and regretted it instantly.
"GaaAAAaah!" She jerked backwards, almost knocking her chair over, her eyes shut in a tight wince. It was like someone had managed to pump excruciatingly loud speaker feedback through her eyes! Her next motion was forward, doubling over in place with her hands up over folded-back ears trying in vain to make any of it stop. For an eternal few seconds she experienced something like staring into the sun while raking her nails across a chalkboard and taking a deep whiff of pepper spray—except that it wasn't in her eyes, or ears, or nose, it was in her mind and no amount of clawing at her ears seemed able to make it go away.

The first thing that woke her out of it was the feeling of a hand on one of hers. After that, her hearing seemed to catch up on the last few seconds—first the sound of a chair in front of her toppling backwards and the Captain saying her name once at a normal volume, and then again a bit louder. Her perception caught up on a third time, her hand being pulled gently off of her ear. "—na! Open your eyes. Look at me."
She made a choked whimpering sound, but managed to bring her eyes to a slight squint. Ezra's other hand took her chin and gently raised her head. "Right here," she said in a soft but firm voice, pointing the hand that had been on Rayna's own at her eyes. "Nowhere else."

The fox-girl felt a ragged, voiced gasp go into her throat, and realized she hadn't exactly been breathing for the past few seconds. She tried to focus on the eyes in front of her, and the..mind pain..slowly dulled and faded, seeming to become a bit more like the sun where it wouldn't hurt if she didn't try to look directly at it. Ezra's expression was sharp, stern, but also kind. Somehow Rayna had never noticed the color of her eyes before—two different colors. The left was a bright, fierce red, but the right was a cool, deep green.
"Tell me what you saw," she said quietly as Rayna began to recover her breath.
"It was..." She took a deep breath, trying to get a hold of whatever didn't hurt too much to think about. "Th-there was a hand closed around it, then holding it up. Like to the light? A little bigger than mine. Messy long nails, scars across the wrist," she said, running an index finger across the opposite wrist to illustrate the direction. "It was—there was a voice, but it was like twelve voices but it was one," she said, fully aware that it sounded like nonsense. "They—it, was saying, 'A gift. Now go...' That was where I stopped Looking."
Ezra nodded very slightly, making it a small enough motion of her head to keep her eyes easy to follow. "How long ago?"
"Um..Long time, I think. Years, a decade or two? I guess that's not all that long to you though."
"It's certainly not long enough," she said. "You should be okay now."

The Captain backed up, squatted to pick up her chair and put it back in place. Rayna understood that she had been leaning halfway over the desk for the past moment, and also that a piece of black cloth had been draped over the magic crystal Thing on the desk at some point so she couldn't look (much less "Look") at it by accident.
"Rrgh..what was that?! Gods, it hurt," she said, putting a hand on the side of her head even though what she had just experienced had not been any kind of headache.
"Some information carries barbs, and an unprepared mind attempting to learn or think about closely related concepts can run afoul of them," Ezra said. "Katherine should be able to scrub off the pain and just leave the useful information behind. Or if not, there's another psion in town who can definitely do it."
"You mean Tsaron, right? I guess it's obvious you'd know he was here, since he was in the same party as you," Rayna said. It was half-guess, but there was a lot of evidence for it to be true.

"Now, take this but try not to think about it until your head's fixed," the Captain said, carefully wrapping the crystal Something in the black cloth and pressing it into Rayna's hand, maintaining eye contact the entire time, "and then do as I suggested later. Whatever its origin, Nora would have already noticed if there was any dangerous magic actually inside of it." Rayna put It in her inventory without looking, and slowly stood up. Ezra was getting up too. "I have an errand to take care of now," she said.
"I thought you were busy with paperwork?"
"It'll have to wait." Ezra brushed past her, walking briskly out of the door.

Rayna shook her head slightly, not feeling entirely recovered after the...whatever that had been. But she could stand up and walk out of the door fine, and gave Pirr a small smile and wave on her way out, starting to feel a little better. The best course of action was obviously to get back to the house and distract herself as much as possible otherwise, because even thoughts that literally hurt were sure to be subject to ironic process theory.
Her thoughts, when steered away from the pain, seemed gravitated toward the ruins, the ones she, Nora, and Mira had been through the other day. Her memory of the inside of the place seemed...sharper than usual, and thinking about it more (since this didn't hurt, and a meta-thought arose as to why her brain had brought this up at all) summoned the image, as clear in her mind's eye as though she were looking at it, of the collapsed area—near where the back exit was supposed to be: The room to the right facing the exit, the piles of broken "ultra-stone" and dirt flooded in from outside.

Nora had reported a certain feeling of dread, looking at it. Rayna's current mental image was different from what she remembered actually seeing. The fragments of broken wall and ceiling were covered in dried blood, and there was much more of it across the floor, as though it had splattered out from something just under the pile of dirt covering the right room.
She stopped, blinked a couple of times, shook her head. Had she seen that? The others hadn't, and she hadn't at the time; she would've said something. But her powers involved seeing truth, and Nora had an extra sense of her own that could have been the source of that unease. It was like something in the fox-girl's head had been blown...not open, but slightly ajar by whatever she had Seen in the...well, in whatever knowledge had made her hurt, and as a result she could just barely perceive something she didn't feel entirely safe knowing about.

Rayna resumed walking. Logically speaking, whatever disaster happened in that place had happened ages ago. There couldn't actually be blood still left over there, from that long ago. But if it wasn't actual blood she was remembering, then what was it? Conceptual blood? Indicating, what, that somebody had died there? It wasn't a surprise if they had...but in her memories of life in this world she had witnessed plenty of places people had died, or where the dead were, without "seeing" anything particularly special about it. What—if anything—were her powers really tring to tell her?
The journal would not have been there if its writer had survived and left. It was unlikely the place would be so abandoned, with no record of even its existence, if anyone had survived. They were also probably being funded by the castle Lynn and Rayna first appeared in, which was also totally abandoned apart from a guard armor and some weird ghost thing that Zack's party ran into—which obviously could have come in later, and had nothing to fear from that armor physically attacking it. The guard armors were constructs, which meant somebody originally had charge of them—the ability to turn them on and off and tell them what (not) to attack. They were clearly a valuable asset, too; if the castle's inhabitants had fled in anything but the utmost haste they would have taken them with them, or at least, probably, shut them off?

Her thoughts were interrupted by a small sigh from—not exactly any specific location. More like the concept of one, in her mind. Well, congratulations on distracting yourself long enough that I didn't have to. Tsaron's voice. She looked around for a second, but of course he was probably either 'invisible' or two-plus blocks away or something. It's much harder to mess with a thought a mind is holding onto, and most people get caught in an obsessive loop around the attack vector.
Indeed, the sense of mental pain was completely gone, the memory it had been attached to seemingly still completely intact. Rayna was able to think about the magic crystal looted from the ogre without difficult again. I didn't ask you to do that, she thought, annoyed.
You were going to eventually, I just saved us both the trouble. Katherine hasn't seen a dangerous thought in her life, and would probably fumble around with it helplessly for a good few hours or else get overzealous and just blast the entire memory out. The thought of a disappointed head-shaking. You can thank me later. Or not at all. I'm quite used to not being thanked. This was followed by the sense that he had left, although he was probably still watching. Rayna just gave a small "Hmph" and continued on toward the house.

Once she'd knocked on the door, the witch quickly ducked aside to wait for somebody to open it. There was an audible "One moment!" in a voice that sounded like a young girl's. A moment later, the door opened inward. The person behind it was a very short, slim Vulpin girl who looked like she couldn't possibly be older than thirteen, with something resembling a lab coat draped over her entire body, and a pair of glasses strapped around the back of her head like goggles for reasons that were obvious given her gigantic, ever-mobile ears. She sported bright blue hair and fur a much darker shade of the same color; while she looked to see who her visitor was, her expression changed from annoyance to what seemed like respectful fear on realizing an actual dragon was at her door. All the same, her ears barely moved from the horizontal the entire time.
"Hi~," Rose gave a friendly wave, totally oblivious to the expression. "Are you an herbalist?" Well, Mira thought as she leaned over and got a look at the girl herself, at least she wasn't making any assumptions based on apparent age.

"...That I am," she said after brief hesitation. Perhaps she was surprised at a lack of comment on her "age", too? "Can I help you with something?"
"Umm." That seemed to be about as far as Rose could get on her own. She wasn't really the kind to easily brag about herself, it seemed.
"My friend here is a nature dragon," Mira said, finally coming fully into view. The girl's eyes toward her were...much more curoisity and intrigue than anything else; if she even knew she was looking at a witch then she wasn't terribly afraid of them. "We thought she might know a few useful facts about plants that aren't so well known."
"Hmm." She adjusted her glasses—apparently a necessity even with how these were secured. "Well, I suppose I should at least invite you in. I beg you both to be most cautious not to knock anything over," she said toward Rose, and then turned aside to let them inside.
"O-of course!" Seeming to realize something, Rose concentrated for a second and shrank her wings back to how they had first started. There was nothing like that to do about her tail, but—it was a start, at least.

Coming inside, the witch winced instinctively, her nose assaulted by a large number of strong scents all at once. It was like some sort of greenhouse, with luminous crystals lining the ceiling, rows of plants in the ground and smaller potted plants covering every available surface. Even the walls had moss or vines running up them, or planters where there wasn't.
Rose, of course, was enamored right away. "Waah~, there's so many plants!" she said, looking around with a starry-eyed expression.
"Your reputation precedes you, of course. I admit I scarcely believed it when I heard a dragon had delivered some valuable material to our healers," the girl said, turning around once all three of them were inside. "Since I have you two at a disadvantage, my name is Vae. I don't mean to be impertinent, but my time is extremely valuable. Perhaps you would allow a brief test to see whether you really have a chance of knowing something I don't," she said, only barely softening the bluntness of the request.
"I'd be glad to!" Rose said. "Right now I only know I knew some stuff not in a couple of books, so maybe they were just outdated."
"...Indeed." Another adjustment of Vae's glasses; Mira could tell she was a little surprised at that being taken so graciously. Now that she'd been close to her for a moment, the witch's powers were able to inform her Vae was, indeed, at least a young adult and not some sort of child prodigy. The youthful appearance probably just ran in her family or something.

The fox-girl looked around the room briefly, before settling on a plant in a pot on a nearby table with white leaves that appeared to be faintly glowing. "Do you know what this is?" she said, pointing to it.
"Hm~mn. I usually call them glowies," she said.
"Terminology isn't a very fair test; she's been alone for quite a long time without any reference books to learn it from," Mira said.
"..Allow me to rephrase the question, then. What do you know about it?"
"Oh! Well, glowies aren't really plants at all," Rose said, "they're uh, like mushrooms? Fungies. They like to soak up magic in the soil around them. I don't keep very many in my forest since that's my magic they're eating then, and I sorta need it for stuff. But the brighter it glows, the healthier it is and the more magic it has, and if someone eats it then it can refresh their uh, magic stuff."
"Not bad. What of this?" Vae pointed to a plain-looking bush on the path opposite the table.
"Oh! You don't wanna touch that, it's like really prickly," she said, "and poisonous too. Sometimes I drive monsters that get too close to my forest into a little patch of those I've got near the edge, and they'll go down really quick. But every ten years or so it'll make these super sweet berries that aren't poisonous."
Vae nodded. "The toxins themselves are more useful for my purposes.

"All right," the small girl crossed her arms. "Tell me something that wasn't in the book you referred to earlier."
"Umm.." Rose looked around, and eventually identified a patch of blue flowers along with a wall planter that had a few of the 'princess' flowers in them (currently folded in on themselves in the 'daylight'), and pointed them out and explained the same thing she'd said to Lynn before.
"Hmn." Vae gave a thoughtful expression. "That isn't implausible, given their respective properties, but I would have to actually try it out to know for sure whether you are correct. At any rate, you've convinced me you may know some worthwhile information. We will perhaps need to take some time to correct the linguistic gap..."

"Umm..?" Rose seemed to have troulbe understanding the last couple of words.
"You and her have different names for the same plants," Mira explained.
"Oh! Yeah. Um, I can also like 'sense' what kinda plant I'm looking at if I've seen one like it before, but I guess if there's something you don't have here I'd have to show it to you in my forest. Or..try to describe it if I don't have it."
"Really?" For the first time since they had come in, Vae's ears actually perked upward ever so slightly. "There are a number of useful specimin that are immensely difficult to tell apart. That alone would be an invaluable resource."
"Heheh.." Rose just giggled bashfully.
"Well, I would be happy to discuss at length with you whenever we are both free, anyway," the fox-girl said, re-crossing her arms. "I'm afraid you've caught me in the middle of a delicate experiment for now, however. We're both lucky I was just to the portion that requires patient waiting, and that time is rather limited."
"Oh. I'm sorry!" the dragon-girl said, not happy to be interrupting someone.
"It's no trouble; for the moment I'm only making productive use of that wait. I can draw up a list of times to...wait. You don't exactly have a mailing address in town, do you?"

"Well, we do," Mira said. "If you send us something marked with her name I can just pass it along."
Vae nodded to the witch. "That would be most helpful. Now, please excuse me; I'll have to ask you to let yourselves out." With no further warning she whirled around and left through a nearby interior door.
Rose watched her go with a mildly confused expression. "I guess that 'limited time' ran out," Mira said. "C'mon, the smells here are gonna give me a headache." Then she led the way back out of the door, and took a long, deep breath outside.

"Is it really that bad?" the dragon-girl said. "I thought it smelled nice in there."
"One or two nice scents at a time is one thing, but that was just sensory overload for me. I can't even imagine what it's like with a sharper, foxy nose, but I guess she just got used to it at some point."
"I guess we can head back to the house now?" Rose said.
"Yep!" The witch started leading the way.

A moment later—perhaps when the dragon-girl thought they were out of earshot of those gigantic fuzzy ears—she said, "She seemed um...a little weird."
"Struck me as some sort of eccentric genius," Mira said. "Those are usually the best kind, though. At least she agrees you might know something good."
"Uhm...can I also say...she was really, reeeaaally cute?" Rose said, half a whisper and half a squeal. "Like waayy too cute!?"
"Heheh..well, I won't deny that. Even trying to 'carelessly' drape a too-big coat over her whole body just makes it worse. It'd be smart not to say that to her face, though. Or in earshot. I think she probably gets enough comments about her appearance as it is."
"Mm-hm! That's why I was trying not to say anything about how she looked, like at all," Rose said.
"Good plan."

Jacob had a mountain of books on the table in front of him. He would be annoyed at the library not letting him rent half of these tomes out if he didn't already find it to be the superior location for study in the first place. His cramped apartment was no good for thinking; he needed wide open space and the silence of the dead. Anyway...
Anyway, there was someone who'd only ever seen him here before, and if she wanted to see him again this was probably where she'd look for him.

He tried to brush off the distracting thought, poring over the ancient language of the text again to try and figure out just what Bimorphaeus was saying in this possibly-fictional tale. He hated to have to get up for a reference to the language when he knew most of it, it was just these two or three words that he was sure he could make sense of from context clues with enough effort. Unfortunately, he was districted by an actual noise this time.

It was a quiet, polite clearing of the throat—the kind of thing scholars did to each other when they didn't really want to disturb the other party, but absolutely needed their attention nonetheless. Applying the etiquitte he'd learned a long time ago, Jacob finished reading the line he was on, and then lowered the book just enough to peer over it at the person who had made the sound from across the table in order to determine whether or not he could be bothered to respond right away or needed another couple of minutes, please.

The elf jerked back in his seat ever so slightly, moving the book the rest of the way down and quickly (but quietly) setting it on the table face-up. He had never really seen her in person, but had heard stories. Seen pictures. The Captain of the guard was here, sitting across from the table and watching him. "Er...can I help you?" he said.
"More than likely, yes." She produced a small stack of papers and set it on the table, pushing it toward him slightly; it was a mixture of neat, tightly-packed writing in Common and what looked like detailed tracings of some magic sigils and glyphs. "You have an interest in Chaotic magic, do you not?"
"Uh..right," he said, recovering himself after a moment and forcing his eyes back up to hers before they could get lost in the writing. "It is, closely associated to my area of research. What's all...this?"
"Translations. Recently I had a party explore some freshly-discovered ruins, and there was a magically preserved journal inside. It seems that its last occupants were trying to find a way to channel the magic out of a monster and into a person."
"That's.." Jacob had difficulty coming up with the right words for just how bad of an idea it was.
"A terrible idea, yes," she said, agreeing with him. "However, they invented a large amount of magic along the way which has never been seen since.

"I know the ancient tongue the journal was written in, but I am no mage. It contained an impenetrable wall of jargon which I either left alone or tried to translate literally, and technical diagrams I'm not qualified to make heads or tails of."
"So you...what...want me to help you finish translating this?" he said. "What language is it in?"
"One too old for you to know. And no, I've done all the translation I think is feasible. What I want from you is to make sense of their methods, enough to put together a spell that does just the opposite."
"The opposite...?" Jacob had to back the conversation up a few lines to understand her meaning. "You want a spell to purge Chaos out of people?" he said. "That doesn't...a normal soul's very existence naturally rejects chaos to such a degree that a spell like that has no practical purpose. It..shouldn't, anyway, it.." He stopped, staring her dead in the eyes for a long moment.

"How much do you know about what I'm researching? And why, and how?" Jacob said, realizing that these were sensible questions to have asked near the start of the conversation.
"The library keeps thorough records of which books are checked out, or even removed from shelves, and by who. I haven't read every one personally, but I have a general sense of the contents of every book that isn't in the restricted section," she said. "I know enough about your research, and the kind of spells you have already successfully learned, modified or invented for your own use, to know that you're my best bet for this. That's why I want to commission this spell from you, and not somebody else.

"This is extensively dangerous knowledge," the Captain continued. "Anything to do with what they were attempting should remain clandestine. There is a silence spell between us and nobody close enough to hear this conversation through it—I checked. If it happens to point your personal research in the right direction...I don't object to that, and it should be obvious enough what needs to stay under wraps. But I want a spell that any idiot with half a brain and a drop of magic potential can learn. Preferably something that scales with the power output, but if you can't do that then reduce its cost as much as possible while keeping it effective so it can be done by one person in rapid succession instead."
" you know that I don't?" he said. Her voice was quiet, calm, but she spoke quickly, crisply, and with a depth of intensity that made him feel a vague, fleeting panic on the edge of his mind.
"A great many things. But in this context, nothing." The Captain pushed the papers a little closer. "I don't know, but I have a feeling. Isn't that why you're still here after several months of dead ends? If nothing else, consider that the spell I want is basically harmless, and that you need support to continue living here anyway."

It was clear by now that she had come in already knowing exactly what his answer would be. Just the opportunity to see what such a group had learned about Chaos magic was enough to tempt him...not to mention everything else. Talking to her was like talking to a psion who'd mind-scanned you ahead of time, and so knew almost exactly what you were going to say about six steps ahead. Jacob understood now that his assent was basically a formality to her.

All the same, he did have to actually give it. Her hand was still on top of the stack of paper, as if ready to snatch it back to herself if he said no. But of course, Jacob didn't do that. He gave a small, exasperated sigh. "All right. I'll, at least see what I can do," he said.
The Captain nodded, picking up the offending hand off of the papers and dropping it to her side. "That's as much as I can ask for," she said. "There is no reason to believe this is urgent, but all the same—the sooner the better. As you may imagine, I want to know this spell myself and teach it to every magic-capable member of the guard, just for starters. I'll see to it that some official paperwork comes your way soon."

She then rose unceremoniously and stalked off, disappearing behind the shelves before Jacob could think of anything else to say to her.

Well, the encounter had been about as intense as expected, he thought, pulling the stack of papers closer. At least it had been...relatively amicable—offering him a job rather than, say, warning him away from his research as he thought most people who dealt with monsters daily might be inclined to do. He rearranged the books around him so that they obscured what he was reading from the front, and placed the first page atop the book he'd been in a moment ago, stowing the rest of the stack away for now. The first priority was to get a better idea of exactly what he'd just agreed to...

One could be forgiven for thinking that I planned this out well ahead of time, to ensure that Rayna was the one who showed the Captain the crystal. As a matter of fact, the first scene of this part didn't even occur to me until after I had part 78 already queued up.

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