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Generated: Aug 08, 2020 1:17 PM
Post last updated: Aug 08, 2020 1:16 PM
alchemical tinkering
Belmarniss in Fullmetal Alchemist
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Emma's head's starting to hurt from staring at Doctor Marcoh's stupid notes. She understands why he encoded them so thoroughly - and this code is brilliant - but it's been ten days of very, very little sleep. Bellona hasn't been sleeping, though she generally doesn't.

Still, Emma's almost there, if she could just decipher this last little reference...

She's disturbed by a yawn. Her own. Great. Emma blinks, glances around at the piles of books, and has an idea.

She pulls down one of her earlier sets of notes, starts cross referencing...

And she finishes the code.

Emma sits back, hard, staring at the pages.

The key ingredient to the philosopher's stone is human lives.

And that's just the start.

Of course, before she can process this fully, life decides to interrupt her, because when does it ever let her rest.

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The life that interrupts her is not human but some kind of purple creature, very wrapped up, white-haired, with goggles stuck to her forehead and a knife and crossbow at her belt and a bag on her back. "Yaugh!"

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She jumps and just barely doesn't knock over her chair.

She does not reflexively cover her notes. She almost does. But her notes and translations are also in code so it just looks like someone's writing a very detailed and messy draft travelogue while reading a cook book, and covering that'd be suspicious.

She slides into a ready stance to cover her flinch. It isn't quite threatening, but she's staring at the stranger, and very clearly trained in fighting herself.

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The advantage of being an empty suit of armor with a soul attached is you don't have an adrenal gland, and Bellona's trained herself out of instinctive flinches.

She stays seated, calmly looking up from the mess of notes she has spread out.

"Hi!" she says. "Who're you, and how'd you get in here like that?" Bellona has perfectly good priorities and she is fairly certain the woman wasn't standing there earlier.

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"Tongues. Say again?"

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"I said 'Hi, who're you, and how'd you get in here like that.'" Someone with attention issues?

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"I'm Belmarniss and I don't know."

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"Why are you purple?" Emma asks, sensibly, before Bellona can get nerd sniped.

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"Runs in the family. Where am I?"

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"A library in Central City in Amestris! Where are you from?"

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"You won't have heard of it. This spell lasts an hour total, by the by."

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"Spell?"

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"That I'm using to speak your language. I have another one that'll let me understand you but not talk back."

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" - I haven't heard of alchemy that lets you speak languages. Is a spell something else?"

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"...yeah, it has nothing to do with alchemy, I don't even know how to make potions let alone alchemical preparations."

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"Potions? Alchemy's the science of transmutation."

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"I know some spells in the transmutation school, but I suspect we're talking at cross purposes."

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"Probably, especially if you have something translating for you. Which is cool - you're stranger than what we usually run into."

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"It's mutual."

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"Do you have a way to get back where you're from?"

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"Not as such. I can probably figure it out eventually."

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"You'll need a place to stay here - you'd really stand out... Our guards would probably report you to the military government, too, and they're outside the door, and the government doesn't like foreigners wandering around without papers but that's probably because we're at war with all our neighbors... I guess if you're foreign though some kind of - foreign affairs building or department or something would be appropriate though?"

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Emma mentally puts together 'Philosopher's stones are people' and 'Marcoh worked for the government' and 'if I was a military dictatorship with the ability to trivially vanish people and a lot of motive to do that', and says: "Government's evil."

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"But the government's evil so that might actually be a bad idea."

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"I have a spell that turns my skin beige and my hair brown but I can't cast it till tomorrow."

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"I can get people around without them being seen pretty easily but it's a bit graceless - my armor's hollow, and I can modify it to be cozier... Probably no one'd question it if we stayed in here overnight again, too, but I'm guessing you need to eat? And there'd still be questions about how you got into a guarded room in a restricted library..."

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"I need to eat. I have a few days of food on me."

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She nods. "What kind of things would you want to be doing, like, to entertain yourself or while you work on getting back - probably we should also use some of this hour to explain how we expect things to work around here but if you can understand us for longer than an hour it might be good for the information dump from us to be mostly after the hour - "

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"I can't go back till I've leveled up a few more times. Uh, that usually happens from fighting monsters and stuff like that, I don't know if you have monsters handy for me to shoot at. So I'll be here a while, I guess unless one of my friends finds a way to yank me back. I can understand you after this spell wears off for an hour per lesser spell and have more uses of that one."

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"I'm not sure we have monsters just - roaming around, most of the things that attack us are humans or, like, chimeras that were trained as guard animals. Why would you get better from shooting at things and not from studying?"

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"I don't know, this is one of many questionable design decisions of the universe. You start out by studying but after a few levels you need real high-pressure stakes or nothing you're working on will stick well enough to use."

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" - That's really weird, ours is mostly doing math and chemistry at the universe and then getting better at this and better at fine control and at developing new transmutation arrays, and alchemists fighting at all is really controversial I think? Though that's probably because of how the government uses State Alchemists when there's a war on."

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"Well, maybe you work differently, like I think you don't need to go on combat-heavy adventures to be the best at making coil pots or whatever, or maybe all your alchemists are level five and under, I don't know. Though the ones who are war veterans should have leveled up if you work like us."

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"War alchemists mostly just specialize in one combat-usable array, so they get really good at the problems unique to that but often are less good at other alchemy because of time trade-offs."

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"Huh. I guess it might be possible not to notice levels under those conditions? But I don't know anything about alchemists, I'm a wizard."

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"Yeah! Which is exciting, it'd be really hard to do a translation effect with alchemy, for one."

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"If being a wizard works on predictable facts about the universe then alchemy should be able to exploit it, we just haven't figured out how yet."

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"Translation spells really frustrate linguists but I guess I don't know if they'd also really frustrate alchemists."

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"If it's hard that just means it's a good puzzle to work on."

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"It's interesting, at least. Is this a good use of this time?"

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Shrug. "Best use would probably be explaining the basics of Amestris if there's obvious places where you'd want to ask clarifying questions."

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"You know what, we could do a phrasebook thing, kind of a hack but it'll work, if there are things I might need to say later - like 'yes' and 'no' and 'elaborate on that' I can write down how they're pronounced in your language now and still have them later."

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She nods. "That'd probably work well... Also request stuff like for food or water or us to leave something alone, and phrases you might need interacting with people, especially the military."

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"Yeah, good plan." She starts writing up the left column of a chart.

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Bellona can suggest a few things, including her own name (Bellona Elric), her sister's name and title (Major Emma Elric, the Lion Alchemist), how to say "Where is..." and some locations, and how to say "I'm a guest of..." which should hopefully have most people at least turning questions about Belmarniss to Emma or Bellona.

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Then after a bit they'll have a three column chart (Taldane meaning for Belmarniss's reference, local alphabet for Bellona and Emma to look at when they re-pronounce everything for her later, and a blank spot in each row for Belmarniss to write down a transliteration).

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"Good - and, uh, obvious things to know about our country... I've never actually left it's the problem... If you've traveled, are there - obvious things you tend to need to know that vary?"

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"How racist are people going to be about me being purple, what churches are active and what are they active about doing, where do the adventurers hang out, what climate am I packing for, will they take my coins or do I need to change them..."

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"People will probably be very surprised because we just have humans with brownish skin tones. You don't look like you're wearing body paint but you might be able to claim alchemical experiment gone wrong or right, or people will assume that - most people probably won't believe 'from a different world where people are purple.'"

"Churches exist anywhere? They're more a thing in Aerugo, and maybe used to be in Ishval... The only Amestrian church I've seen or heard of was in the town of Liore and the leader of it was mostly trying to swindle people."

"I don't think there's anywhere specific people who like adventures hang out... People who like to go into the desert looking for ruins might have specific networks? But that's more 'archeologists.'"

"Amestris is temperate. Most places get snow in the winter and get warm in the summer, and humidity's usually reasonable. North's colder, south's hotter, there's a giant desert to the east and it gets drier as you approach it."

"People probably won't take your coins; currency is centrally issued and using alternate or counterfeit currencies is variably illegal, though that's not actually strongly enforced since it's nearly impossible to stop alchemists from counterfeiting on small scales."

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"And I'll pay you in currency or equivalent exchange for any questions you answer about your world and magic."

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"Sounds fun."

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"Hm. So, cultural things - I think this is mostly alchemists culturally... 'Equivalent exchange' is a big philosophical thing? The law of equivalent exchange is a major basis for alchemy, where it's literal - 'nothing can be gained without first sacrificing something of equal or greater value' - and people tend to apply it to general life things. Most alchemists try to really strongly avoid having debts or sometimes having people in debt to them. It's supposed to be bad luck. Which might actually be true, equivalent exchange tends to catch up to you hard if you try to dodge it... And this is generally reflected a smaller amount in non-alchemists?"

"Also, laws are really strict, and the military rules absolutely. The press is controlled centrally. There's sometimes a lot more leeway for alchemists, though, especially ones willing to work with the state. 'Publicly insulting the military or the Fuhrer' is the big group of illegal things that tends to get foreigners in trouble..."

"Central City doesn't currently have a curfew in effect, but those sometimes get declared, too. If a city declares a curfew they're serious about it and will arrest people for being out at the wrong hours."

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"Huh. What constitutes an insult?"

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"Complaining about a specific member of the military being a dick is generally okay, though if that person overhears you they'll usually have more avenues for getting you in trouble than you have for getting out of it. Calling state alchemists 'dogs of the military' or calling soldiers murderers or saying the Ishvalan War was a massacre or a genocide tends to get people in trouble. Backhand complimenting the Fuhrer is alright, and some journalists get away with very neutrally couched things like listing numbers dead in a conflict, but you shouldn't say the Fuhrer is criminally mishandling something, or sing bawdy songs about him, or call him a fool, or say he should be removed from office."

"People tend to care a lot more about 'criticizing policy decisions' type things than 'keeping a solemn appearance' type things - you can wiggle out of mocking the military a lot more easily, and it's way easier to get away with saying something in semi-private than with shouting it on a street corner or making pamphlets about it. I think a lot of the time censorship laws are also used against people the military was looking for an easy excuse to arrest in the first place?"

"Things are also more strict here in Central City, since it's the capitol. Rural areas or anywhere without a strong military presence are less likely to bother with enforcing censorship laws."

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"Makes sense. Uh, I could probably have gotten most of this with an 'elaborate on that', maybe this is a good time for me to earn my pocket money." She looks at Emma.

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"Right." She flips to a new page in her notebook. "What are the basic guiding principles of using spells?"

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"They are typically cast with a gesture and a word though either or both can be omitted with specialist knowledge. Some also require a material substance consumed by the spell or an object to focus on while casting. They are renewed every day with sleep, time invested in advance preparation, or both. They come in levels; the most common types of spellcaster can cast spells of their own level divided by two rounded up. Spell levels go from zero to nine. Zero-level spells may be cast any number of times per day, others get slots. You get more slots as you level up and most spells also get more powerful. Spells are divided into several schools which loosely group their effects - transmutation is one, others are evocation, enchantment, necromancy, conjuration, abjuration, divination. A handful are of no school."

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"How are new spells made?"

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"Wizards invent arcane spells; I think gods invent divine ones."

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"...Gods?"

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"An ontologically distinct category of powerful being. Not actually the only kind that can grant spells to clerics, a type of magical priest, but the archetypical kind."

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"Huh."

"Do spells obey the natural laws around conservation of mass and energy?"

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"Not at all."

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" - There are a lot of experiments I can think up to do with that and our alchemy, since something like 'conservation of mass and energy' is generally considered the one and only limit on alchemy, though I'm unsure right now whether alchemy would even acknowledge magic to exist... Or how dangerous that'd be to test..."

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"Dangerous how?"

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"The natural law governing alchemy is 'equivalent exchange' and not 'conservation' because things get weird once you stop messing with physical objects and start using esoteric alchemy - mostly anything involving souls. For instance, the main ingredient for the array binding my sister's soul to her armor was 'my right arm,' which sounds insane in the context of normal alchemy. Arrays that don't properly account for their ingredients or what the alchemist wants out of them can also have unforeseen effects in general, which depending on the ingredients can be dangerous, though as far as I know on a scale of 'the thing you were transmuting is now poison gas' and not on 'massive explosion.' Alchemists who're very incautious with esoteric alchemy tend to wind up dead."

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"That does sound concerning, yep."

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"It's probably possible to experiment safely, but I'd want to think about it for more than a few minutes."

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"Super reasonable."

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"Is there anything obviously or commonly dangerous to a spell user from using spells?"

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"Uh, if you do a dumbass thing like cast fireball on your own location you will be harmed."

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"No tendencies towards magical backlash?"

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"Not unless the spell normally behaves that way for some reason, no."

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"Seems... friendly."

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"I guess? If you learn to swordfight the sword won't leap out of your hands and attack you; you could make a mistake, or, like, stab yourself, but it's not unfriendly."

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"Concrete alchemy isn't that unfriendly either, I suppose."

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"Concrete?"

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"Dealing solely with matter and energy and not with souls, knowledge, or theoretical concepts. Most people are referring to concrete alchemy when they say 'alchemy,' since most people aren't really aware you can alchemize things that you can't physically interact with."

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"How do you... exchange a theoretical concept? I can guess how you do it with souls or knowledge but could be guessing wrong on that too."

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"I haven't actually figured out all of the exchanges for esoteric alchemy yet."

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"I don't even mean what do you trade it for, I mean what would it mean to stop having it?"

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"I'm not actually sure. Anyone who's made that sort of trade wasn't polite enough to write it down where I can find it."

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"Rude."

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"Alchemists often are! In that way, at least."

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"What else do you need to know before this runs out, it'll be any minute now?"

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"Don't think there's anything urgent, unless you have allergies. You could ask us questions for us to elaborate on later I guess."

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"Sunshine's bad for me, I can compensate by wrapping up or using a spell."

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"I can alchemize you local style clothes that will block sun pretty thoroughly."

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"My spell that makes me look more like a surfacer - I'll still have pointy ears - also takes care of it fine but it has an opportunity cost if I prep it."

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"People probably won't notice the pointy ears, at least... But full coverings would also hide any unusual features just fine."

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"I'll defer to you on what clothes I glura nimube shil."

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"And I guess that's the spell... Can you still understand us?"

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Apparently not. She gets the phrasebook and points at things so she can write down transliterations.

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Bellona handles giving transliterations.

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And then she casts another spell.

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"Do you understand us now?"

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Nod.

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"We should probably head out and back to our room, maybe after this wears off... Though actually - Em why'd you say the government's evil like that's news. That seems like it's pretty important?"

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Shrug. "Translated enough of Doctor Marcoh's notes to get that the key ingredient in the philosopher's stone is human lives, or maybe souls. We know the government was making philsopher's stones for the Ishvalan War. It'd be stupid to stop making them. Easiest ingredients are anyone no one'd miss, enemies of the state, and people you've already vanished or put on death row. Your new friend probably wouldn't be an ingredient, but you know how the Fuhrer gets over potential assets."

"Not so much a revelation over them being more evil than expected, but over their capacity to keep even large scale deaths secret, which suggests getting caught up in their web's not something you want to do incautiously."

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" - Yeah that sounds like maybe a problem..."

To Belmarniss - "Philosopher's stones are supposed to let you break equivalent exchange, so they're a big - thing to try and have and control."

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"Elaborate on that?"

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"On philosopher's stones?"

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"Yes."

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"I've never actually seen one. They're kind of - half mythical. Supposedly, you can use one to substitute for any ingredient in a transmutation, even esoteric ones, and you can make bigger trades than otherwise possible or safe. We started looking into them because we thought they might be a good enough trade to get our bodies back, though we didn't know anything about how to make them then. The thing we've been doing the last while is decoding the alchemy journal of someone who used to make philosopher's stones for the government. Alchemists might think your spells are running on a philosopher's stone if they see you using them? Alchemists doing things people didn't know alchemists can do sometimes gets rumors of them having a stone started."

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"Eesh."

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"Government having a stockpile's probably bad, especially since the only time we've seen evidence for them being used is in the war..."

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"Elaborate on that?"

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"The stockpile being bad?"

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"No."

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"The war?"

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"Yes."

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"Most of it was when I was really little so I don't remember what things were like then - I think it started like... Fourteen years ago? And ended six years ago. It's called the Ishval Civil War officially - we annexed Ishval a really long time ago, and Ishvalans weren't really allowed to live other places, and there's always been tension with the state. There was a period of higher tension, I think, so more soldiers were sent to occupy Ishval - one of them killed a kid during what he claimed was a building riot, which started real riots which kind of spiraled into a rebellion. The war spilled to neighboring areas, and a lot of the country ended up being a war zone. It ended when the Fuhrer ordered alchemists mobilized for war - that hadn't really happened before, not as direct soldiers - and the state alchemists wiped out most of Ishval's population."

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"Ended up being a pretty convenient power grab, since State Alchemists never actually got demilitarized."

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"Eesh."

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"Government's not usually that blatant, but there's a lot of centralizing power - especially military power - whenever they see the chance, without really caring at whose expense it is."

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"Elaborate on Fuhrer?"

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"The commander-in-chief of the military and the leader of the nation. Whenever the old Fuhrer dies or steps down, the new one's chosen - generally from among the Generals, though sometimes a really exemplary lower ranked soldier's picked, especially if the last Fuhrer stepped down instead of dying. The process by which a new Fuhrer is picked is somewhat opaque, but I'm fairly sure the Generals don't elect them."

"Fuhrer Bradley has been in office for about twenty years. Don't know much for sure about his predecessors, since the history books are pretty heavily censored."

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"Eesh."

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"Technically we also have a parliament, which is democratically elected, but the Fuhrer can veto even unanimous laws and motions, can dismiss any parliament members or even force full reelections, and can put Orders into law which are just his office and which supersede laws passed in parliament - militarizing the State Alchemists was one of those. Still, parliament has control of a lot of minor stuff, probably to give them an illusion they're getting anything done."

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Nod.

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"Pretending to have a democracy's kind of more insulting than just admitting how the government's run - everyone knows what the government's like but you're not supposed to say so."

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Nod nod.

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Shrug. "Do you want to try getting back to our room soon, or have us keep explaining things?"

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She's got the numbers written down. "One."

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"Right."

Emma starts packing away their notes, separating out the original - which needs to stay here - from the translations - which are currently her property.

"Easiest way's a ride back in Bellona's armor."

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Belmarniss eyeballs the size. "...yes," she says dubiously.

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"I've hidden people taller than you before..." Bellona says, shrugging. "There's a trick to not moving too much while I'm walking."

She undoes her front plate while Emma keeps sorting. It is indeed empty in there, except a rune marked near the back of the neck in what looks like dried blood. The leg holes are closed off, and it's got shelves in it. Bellona claps her hands, touches her armor, and the shelves recede, leaving an empty space.

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Belmarniss steps in. She fits but her backpack doesn't.

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" - Want me to hold that?" Bellona asks. Her voice seems to come roughly from her helmet.

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"Yes." She pulls a book out and tucks it against herself rather than relinquish it but hands over the bag.

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Bellona settles it carefully against her back. "Right. Good to go?"

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"Yes."

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Then Bellona can relatch her armor - she points out the internal catch she made so Belmarniss would be able to get out even if Bellona's paralyzed or something weird - and they can head out.

There's two guards outside, one male, one female, from the sound of it. They gripe ask idly what the girls have been working on, and mention that it might be safer for them to stop changing the door to block sound - which seems to be an old argument, because Emma just rather grouchily says that if they get in a fight everyone will notice, and their work's classified, anyways.

Bellona does chat, friendly, with the guards. They seem verbally at least less guarded with her than with Emma.

The barracks are nearby, and the guards are still stationed right outside their room.

There's a crackling sound, and then Bellona unlatches her armor.

"We're here. We sound-proofed the room and swept for bugs," she says. "So we should be clear."

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Belmarniss checks her list. "Today?" she asks.

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"It'll last until next time we leave the room - we're not supposed to leave it modified and they sometimes put bugs back in while we're gone."

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Nod.

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"They're not very good - bugs are small listening devices, but they don't have good pickup and they're easy to identify if you start messing with electricity, and generally they're only a problem for higher ranked people but we're apparently special."

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"...elaborate on, uh..."

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"Bugs?"

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Headshake.

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She thinks about what else was in that sentence.

"...Electricity?"

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"Yes."

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Bellona can actually explain electricity quite well, even at a basic overview level - it's not her main field, but she studied pretty widely while she was doing her apprenticeship.

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This is apparently really interesting and novel and Belmarniss takes lots of notes.

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Since it seems something worthy to take notes on, Bellona starts going into some high value applications, which she actually knows more about since she frequently breaks or repairs electronics via alchemy.

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Neat!!

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Yeah! Refrigerators and washing machines and air conditioning are pretty important, though they're not close to universal in homes yet, and so are radios, electric lights, telegraphs, printing presses, street cars, automail... Plus there's stuff that's just fun, like films and music.

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This is great!!!

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"Probably helps that alchemy doesn't work that well if you don't know the underlying science? And it makes manufacturing stuff easy, so this's all be relatively easy to figure out."

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So-so gesture.

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"We might also have different technologies entirely..."

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Nod!

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"Huh. Next time you can talk to us I'd like to know about your world's technologies."

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"Tomorrow."

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"Yeah. I can plan stuff I want to ask you, too."

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"Yes."

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She pauses to think about other recent technological breakthroughs that aren't electricity. "Do you guys have vaccines?"

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"No."

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Well, she knows anything about scientific ways to treat and prevent disease, so she can relay those. "There's still a lot we haven't figured out, and medical and biological alchemists are kinda rare unfortunately..."

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Nod nod.

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Is there anything else Belmarniss wants her to elaborate on?

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Belmarniss seems content for the time being.

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Bellona has a small side room in the dorm suite, since they're staying here for a while. They've been using it to store books. Belmarniss can stay there - Bellona doesn't actually need to sleep.

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Convenient.

In the morning she preps new spells.

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Bellona and Emma seem to have spent some portion of the night arguing about something; they're a bit tense with each other. There's a city map spread out over most of the table in the main room that Bellona's staring at, and a lot of encoded notes.

"Hi!" Bellona says when she sees Belmarniss emerge.

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"Hi!" From the phrasebook: "I can understand, but tell me when I need to talk."

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"We'll need to decide probably in the next hour what we're doing for the day - there's a supposedly shut down lab I want to investigate, though we're unsure whether the best time to do that's after dark... Emma feels we don't need to investigate and can fairly accurately guess what we'd find and don't need to put targets on our backs."

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"Elaborate on that?"

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"It's about the philosopher's stone thing we discovered. If they're still making them, they have to have a facility for that, and the most convenient place is this abandoned lab - it's next to a prison, and it didn't have any good reason for being shut down." She taps the map. "There's also some other things not matching up that make me want to get a look at an actual philosopher's stone array. We don't think the notes we were decoding have one, but if they've been using the arrays recently there'll be records, or probably the actual array will still exist."

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"Hmmm..."

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"Em doesn't think there's any rush, so we should be able to get you able to blend in and with somewhere to stay before we go after that - Em also thinks there's a decent chance some part of my plan's gonna blow up in our faces..."

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"Tongues.

I can turn people invisible for a few minutes."

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" - That'd be ridiculously useful, yeah, at the very least to get us in the place..."

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"Why doesn't Emma think you need to investigate?"

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"It's risky, she thinks we can get the array somewhere else without running that risk, just more slowly - though I don't really trust the person she wants to ask, either - and she doesn't think we need to confirm the government's continuing to make the stones."

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"What's wrong with who she wants to ask?"

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"Our teacher's old teacher. She knows a lot, but also our teacher kept warning us off of trusting her, and she's - manipulative, and if she knows how to make philosopher's stones she's almost certainly done it before. A lot less likely to stab us, but I generally prefer people who'll try to stab me to my face over just... Maneuvering me."

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"Maneuvering you into what?"

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"She did a lot of encouraging us to try to resurrect someone when we were kids, which with alchemy is both illegal and kind of objectively stupid - how I lost my body and Em lost a leg."

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"Okay, maybe don't do anything objectively stupid this time and just ask her for information? I can make sneaking into a building easier but not risk-free and I'd like to go home someday."

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"Letting her know we know about philosopher's stones would be a - cost towards her, and it'd put the transaction in her favor in a way stealing the array wouldn't, and she's not that safe a person to owe things to."

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"...rephrase that?"

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"So - you can't get anything without sacrifice. We'd owe Dante if we got the array from her, and she'd then have blackmail on us, but she doesn't tend to make getting out of her debt at all clean or easy, and we can't really predict her well. Stealing the array from the government would be risky but we know the risks pretty well, and know how to mitigate things pretty well, and it's the type of risk I'm more comfortable with - though Em's less comfortable with direct known risks, more comfortable with indirect unknown risks."

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"...stealing the array from the government isn't getting something without sacrifice? Does the risk constitute a sacrifice? Are you sure this is true about things like espionage and not just about your magic system?"

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"The risk and effort's a sacrifice, yeah. And - " She pauses. "It's debated how far equivalent exchange goes, if it's just alchemy or everything. There's kind of evidence for both ways? Though... When we tried the resurrection, we both had this hallucination of a Gate which held all knowledge behind it, and a figure in front of it who called itself a lot of things but mostly 'truth and God and the universe.' I think the Truth mostly governs esoteric trades, but it - seems inclined to comment on things people do and make trades metaphorically. When talking to me it implied - a lot of stuff, and it traded me for a lot of knowledge, which to me added up to... My current general impression that equivalent exchange governs more than just alchemy, mostly? Or - more that equivalent exchange only governs alchemy but that everything is alchemy."

"Em thinks the Truth's evil but powerless and lying about its abilities so it can manipulate things, my impression was it's... Mercurial and sometimes cruel but generally honest, and powerful but bound by alchemy's rules and frustrated by this."

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"...I'm not bound by alchemy's rules."

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"Probably, yeah. No idea how that interacts."

"I don't think I have a really persuasive reason for avoiding asking Dante except 'I really prefer being shot at as far as risks go.' I won't sneak in without Em, and as it is now she probably won't sneak in without an edge like invisibility - so I guess it comes down to which path you feel like helping with?"

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"I think I don't really want any of these people to know I exist."

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"And we can manage that with talking to Dante more easily than we can if we get caught sneaking somewhere with weird abilities."

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"Yeah. Does having me around smooth anything over with her?"

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"Probably not, if we're not introducing you to her?"

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"I can cast spells on you guys? I don't know if any of them would help at all."

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"What sorts?"

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"I have a lot of stuff in my spellbook... uh, there's spells that make you smarter in various ways, if that'd let you maneuver around her better? If you can temporarily steal notes you want to copy, I can copy them quickly from somewhere safe and you can put the originals back."

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" - Spells that make us smarter might be better used on figuring out alchemy stuff. Quickly copying notes would be good, though."

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"I can do one of the ones that makes you smarter a lot. I don't know which kind of smart alchemy uses, there's three spells so we think of it like there's three kinds but you might not have that concept. One's like math and memorization and being quick with fluency in new systems and making conceptual leaps, one's situational awareness and self-awareness and big-picture calm thought, one's like tracking social dynamics and choosing your words well and being kinda interpersonally shiny. I can cast any of them but the one I can do today is the first kind, Fox's Cunning; the others are Owl's Wisdom and Eagle's Splendor."

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"Owl's Wisdom seems like it would help actually performing big, complicated arrays, but that most of alchemy would be impacted by Fox's Cunning, especially developing arrays - it's basically entirely math, memorization, and language with some conceptual leaps if you're working in esoteric fields."

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"Do you want to try it now?"

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"Sure - let me get my notes - " She pulls a notebook mostly full of loose scratch paper out of a stack.

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"Fox's Cunning."

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She stares off into the distance for a few seconds then starts scribbling, in a mixture of letters and numbers that's probably a code and almost certainly meaningful only to her.

...And then she pauses, flips over the city map she'd been working on to show a country map, taps a few points in pencil, stares at it, sketches a diagram over on her scratch paper, stares some more, says, "Fuck," scribbles a series of very long equations, solves them, sketches some symbols and then a very involved diagram, curses again, and then claps her hands together and turns her notes into dust.

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"...huh?"

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She glances over at Em, who's looked up from her own work at the crackle of alchemy.

"...Infohazard," she says, slowly. "That I need to think about before sharing."

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"Okay. I don't think I can magically fix disintegrated notes, I hope those are replaceable."

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"I have enough of the information to reconstruct what I need later if I want, the important part was the conclusion."

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"Okay. Spell wears off soon."

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"Alright. Thanks." She tilts her helmet back, thinking, until it does, though she doesn't spot any holes in her earlier logic.

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"Translation spell also doesn't last forever if there's anything else we should talk about, though again I can cast one to understand you with more cheaply and I do have another couple of this today."

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Pause. "I think leaving the city and going to find Dante sooner rather than later's probably a good idea, at this point..."

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"You didn't want to do that before."

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" - I think it's fairly important to get a look at the philosopher's stone array, but also I've updated significantly in the direction of not letting the government know whether we have it."

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"If we stop working on decoding Marcoh's notes and just take off they'll figure something's up."

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"Eh, tell them we just need some of our Professor's old reference books, maybe."

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"If you can wait till tomorrow I can prep spells with this more closely in mind, especially if you're going to lie to people, Eagle's Splendor is good for lying to people."

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"More time working on the notes will also probably make it less suspicious, I guess? And we can talk to the guards about probably needing the books before taking off." She sighs. "Though Em's also good at lying anyways."

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"Okay. We should probably talk about what all I have available."

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"Yeah."

"Giving a coherent overview of our abilities is a bit hard, but we should also share what we commonly end up doing..."

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"Besides spells for straight combat, I can detect magic - it's effectively free to do that if you want me to see if it works on alchemy - make little illusion sounds or send messages, got a thing that stops me from tripping, I can detect poison, I can do light telekinesis. I can clean things or mess them up, change their colors temporarily, temporarily create small objects, make things slightly warmer or cooler or change their taste. Those are all spells I can use all day long if I want without it trading off against anything but my time, cantrips. First level spells I have two sets, which trade off within but not between sets. The language one, one that lets me reliably hit things though not any harder than I normally would, and one for being comfortable in extreme weather, is a fixed set. The set I have to prep things for can include some defensive spells, an invisible servant thing that can do simple tasks, a couple things specifically useful against magic I don't think you have here, a thing where you count as fully rested without actually sleeping as long as you don't do anything effortful, short invisibility spell that ends if you do anything aggressive, a - oh, that only works on me - a floating disk mostly used to lug stuff, something for falling safely, thing to make someone drop a metal object. I can do Fox's Cunning, in particular, several times a day, doesn't trade off against anything. I can prep the other ability boost spells - Eagle's and Owl's, plus ones for strength, dexterity, and constitution. Longer invisibility spell. Nonlethal ray, knocks people out if it hits them hard enough. Sticky web over an area. Another one that probably only makes sense in context of more people from my planet being around. And in another basket, spell for flight, spell for wrecking or sometimes countering magic effects which I again don't know if alchemy counts, unusually costly use of the basket to paralyze people temporarily, one to speed up people and it works on several at once fine, one for sucking the air out of people's lungs so they can't talk which is more useful if they're going to cast spells, the one I can use to not be purple all day, one to lift people in the air and hold them there, buncha straight combat spells. Opaque hemisphere that protects against the elements but I, specifically, have to stay inside or it ends. And the spell for speaking your language."

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"...Things that specifically do damage in a way that 'nonlethal' makes any sense might be really hard to test on me, I'm mostly inconvenienced if my armor gets destroyed, but I also haven't been unaware since getting stuck in this, so I don't know I can fall unconscious."

"The two of us can effectively turn anything into anything else that shares a base element with it - element as in 'type of atom,' where atoms are a very small unit of matter - for instance, pure gold is one element but water is a combination of two elements. We could theoretically turn something into another element but it takes a lot of energy. Doing that quickly is hard, and sometimes figuring out the chemistry or controlling the reaction is hard. We haven't, for instance, put enough time into figuring out controlled flame alchemy, which turns air or water into a combination of elements that easily explode, but we can fairly arbitrarily rearrange solids. Large or complicated effects take more time than small or simple effects. Most alchemists need arrays to do alchemy, and need to prepare an array ahead of time for a specific reaction. We don't."

"When fighting we usually rearrange the landscape some to help us. Trapping someone in a cage is pretty easy, and stops most people short - even an alchemist will have to stop to draw an array to get out of it. I can also fill the area around me with toxic gas, including stuff that knocks people out with few side effects, but it's unsafe to use around people who need to breathe. If someone flat out wasn't going down and was a major threat I could deconstruct them and turn them into their constituent ingredients, but I'd need to touch them or trap them in a deconstruction array to do that."

"Enemy alchemists who're actually threats are usually either rogue state alchemists, with a specialized array focusing on combat-useful reactions, or alchemists who've had time to prepare the field and set up traps or make alchemical creatures to fight for them."

"We don't have any kind of limit on how much alchemy we can do, except that it's kind of mentally tiring to do a lot of and if we get tired we might make mistakes."

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"...can you turn things into diamonds?"

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"Yeah, cheaply and easily. Diamonds are just carbon, which is in most organic things, including charcoal, and a significant number of rocks. Colored diamonds can be tricky to get right, since you need to balance the impurities or structures well."

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"Okay, that... doesn't matter in practice since I don't have the spells that chew through diamonds on my person, but some of the really good spells require them as a component."

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"When we figure out how to get you home, we can give you a bunch of diamonds before you leave as part of the trade for helping us?"

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"That would be neat."

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"Probably also at some point get you actual blueprints of technologies your world doesn't have, since only the precision manufacturing stuff actually uses alchemy at any step."

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"Yes please."

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"Anything else you can think of that'd make a good payment - other than local currency, of course..."

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"I could offload local texts on a linguistics obsessed prince I know. But diamonds and technology schematics will do."

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"If any local texts count, mass printed books are pretty cheap, though they're heavy and take up a lot of space compared to diamonds and blueprints. Probably should get you some science textbooks at least, though, to go along with the technology schematics, especially since I'm not sure how much like a circuit diagram helps if you don't know anything about electrical engineering..."

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"Ooh, cheap mass printing."

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"Yeah! We've had some kind of mass printing for a couple centuries, but I think it only got cheap a century or so ago, and all the history books make a big deal out of it."

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"Copying books can be done fairly quickly with the spell I mentioned but you do need a wizard for it. Not-even-first-level wizards, or sometimes first- or second-level ones, do that or laundry, put themselves through more school."

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"I think the printing machines need someone tending them still, but the early printing presses didn't take much training to use, and the current ones are... I think you just need to change out the paper rolls and sometimes maintain the machine? And turn them on and off."

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"Yeah, that's way better than what we have."

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"They're pretty fast, too, I think."

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"Cool."

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"Not sure if they still have the thing where they work best for languages with an alphabet - I think old movable type printers had a problem with languages with logograms?"

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"I know one of those but it's mostly alphabets."

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"Yeah, shouldn't run into that problem then."

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"Be inconvenient for the monolingual - oh, you know what should be in my phrasebook, names for all the spells, let's squeeze that in before this wears off -"

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They can work on that next, then.

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They just barely get that in under the wire and then Belmarniss adds transliterations.

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"Do you want to wander around the city today at all? Me and Emma are probably going to spend most of the day cooped up with the cipher from earlier, in case there's more information now that we've started cracking it and so we can ease into leaving."

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Headshake.

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"Do you want to go with us to the library, then?"

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Nod.

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"Okay. We'll have to sneak you again - library's restricted access, even if we could explain knowing you and you looked human-ish."

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Nod.

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Then off to the library it is.

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She'll put up with being toted in Bellona.

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Getting to the library's relatively painless, then. Emma talks to the two guards about how they're getting to a point where they're mostly stuck, so they're going to spend today making a list of books they remember being in their teacher's library on Xingian alchemy and language. It's possible the cipher is referencing those, they think. (The guards mostly do not seem to have the technical vocabulary to poke holes in this.)

"That Fox's Cunning spell would probably help us a lot with the ciphers," she says as Emma pulls out their work from earlier. "And we should figure out what we're doing once we're ready to leave..."

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"Fox's Cunning."

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Bellona sets to work rather quickly.

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"Do you want me to explain more things while she works on that?" Emma asks Belmarniss.

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Nod.

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"Just what I think of, or something specific?"

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"First thing."

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She starts going down a list of laws she knows off the top of her head - most of the probably confusing ones are traffic laws. Do they have cars where Belmarniss is from?

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They do not!

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Right.

Cars are a type of machine used to transport people and goods around. They need a fairly flat and even surface to run on, but they can go anywhere on that surface. Most places have roads designed for cars. Most places, especially cities, also have laws about where cars can drive - Central especially has sidewalks, which are paths to one or both sides of the road that're slightly elevated. Cars aren't allowed on sidewalks, and people walking aren't supposed to go in the road in the middle. Intersections are where two or more roads meet. In a big city with sidewalks there'll usually be a crosswalk between the two sidewalks. Cars and people can both go over crosswalks, but cars are supposed to yield to people. Sometimes the people driving cars are idiots, though, so you need to look around before crossing a road, to make sure you're clear. Crosswalks have white or yellow painted bars in a path.

It's a bit different in small towns and rural areas, where you might not have sidewalks. Usually there you just walk in the road and step aside if you see a car coming.

There's also trains, which are like very fast and big cars that only run on specific tracks. The tracks are two pieces of metal this far apart (she holds her hands up demonstratively) with wooden crossbeams connecting them underneath, which run parallel to each other for very long distances. Usually the tracks are on long, narrow hills, since trains need tracks to be mostly level. Cars can usually stop if someone's in front of them. Trains cannot. If you're not used to trains, just don't walk directly on actively used tracks - which are generally ones without plants growing in them - though it's okay to cross the tracks if there's not a train around. Trains do blow a very loud whistle if they're approaching somewhere the tracks intersect with a road. Some places have bars that'll lower to prevent people from driving up onto the tracks anyways before the train gets there.

Central City also has barriers to keep people from climbing onto the tracks, but most places don't.

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All this is interesting!

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Yeah. Cars and trains are a pretty recent thing, too, but they're really good for connecting people and goods. Require a lot of infrastructure, though.

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Belmarniss takes plenty of notes.

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Infrastructure's probably not the sort of things that ends up in singular sets of blueprints, so she gives an overview of that - roads and tracks she's mentioned, but also bridges designed for them, factories to make them, fuel to make them go - coal or petroleum, which is actually really unideal as a fuel source because it pollutes the air - and people to maintain and repair them when they break. Cars just need one driver, but trains need a team. Laying the railroad tracks throughout Amestris was a huge project that required a lot of precision engineering and math, and was done mostly by labor teams with only marginal help from alchemists.

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Belmarniss will find this interesting as long as Emma wants to indulge her.

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Bellona's working through the cipher faster than they'd been working on it combined, earlier. Emma might take a break to make a show of going to ask after some texts she knows they don't have, though. Maybe pick up some blueprints even - a lot are stored here, and alchemical ciphers are weird enough no one will really question it.

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Belmarniss can refresh Fox's Cunning several times, on request, though infrequently enough that probably Bellona wants to save it for flashes of insight and then catch up on what she laid out in between so she doesn't get ahead of herself.

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Yeah; that seems to be the best rhythm for this, especially since a lot of cipher work is flat out tedium.

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- And, partway through the day, Belmarniss notices a shadow she can't see through out of the corner of her eye.

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She's on her way from the bathroom back to where the natives are; she pauses to look at the nearest plausible article of decor and casts detect magic as unobtrusively as possible, which is to say with a gesture but no words in a sorcerer slot.

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Really magical - the aura's strong. Just that one shadow.

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Well gosh.

Suppose she sings a charming little song, in a language from another planet, under her breath, signing along with herself, swaying her way back toward the bathroom like she forgot something there, and casts Silent Image, and follows her image very closely, and casts Vanish, and leaves her image looking in the mirror fixing its hair while she tiptoes back to the natives.

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It's hard to tell what, if anything, the shadow is doing or looking at. It was possibly originally moving away from the room she's now going to. Still, the shadows near her image get thicker, harder to see through, in addition to the shadow she first saw.

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Yup. She ducks into the room with the girls and checks all its shadows while Vanish wears off. Casts Tongues.

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Shadows here are normal.

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"What's up?"

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"I can see in the dark. Some dark I can't see through, which is magic, is currently being misdirected by an illusion of me in the bathroom, but I don't know how long it will be fooled by me being amazed by my own reflection and not making any sound when I breathe. Hoping you know what the fuck."

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" - I do not know what the fuck. Em?"

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"No. That sounds bad."

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"Kind of don't want to be here when it notices."

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"We can leave. It's late enough."

She starts packing papers, rapidly.

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"No guarantee it can't follow us to our room."

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"I'll notice, if I'm looking, but I don't actually know what to do about it."

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"My instinct's either get in the dark or get in extreme light, depending on what sort of shadow it needs."

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"I couldn't tell you."

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"Dark's easier to get. Less suspicious. Might give it an easier time, though. But also eliminating all shadows from a room is hard."

They finish packing.

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"If I can't see in it, it's not normal dark."

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"And it might not behave how we'd naively expect."

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"Yeah. I don't really even have any guesses."

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"We could just leave the city? Might not be able to follow us onto a train." Bellona's also been - antsy, lately, to get going.

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"Heading straight for the train station would reveal we saw it, likely..."

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"Reveal it to whom?"

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"I'm assuming there's some kind of intelligence behind the shadow, or that the shadow itself is intelligent. It's possible we could just safely report this to our guards, and they'd escalate it appropriately."

"I don't think we need to necessarily panic - it could be infiltrating the library for something unrelated to us. It could be after our notes. It could be the government's, and it routinely monitors all state alchemists - possibly just in Central - and we've just never noticed. It could be an assassin, targeted at us or someone else, in which case 'surrounded by the military' is a better position to fight it from. It could be a lot of things. If it was heading away from us, it might've already decided we're not interesting to it, or it might've already gotten what it was after."

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"It was watching my illusion when I looked. That lasts only as long as I concentrate on it so I'm not in top conversational form at the moment."

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"Right. So we'll get you out of the library - but Bellona and I won't be able to see if it's following us..."

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"Don't have a spell to give you darkvision."

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"I think our options are pretty much just head back to our room, head for the train station, or ditch our guards and just stay in the city - last one we'd be able to have you out to look around fastest."

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"How about I just get in the armor now before I lose my concentration and you do - something -"

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Armor: open.

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In she gets. Her image is SOOOO interested in its reflection.

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They head out, back to their dorm - which, once Belmarniss is out, turns out not to contain any suspiciously under-visible shadows.

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"Everything looks normal."

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"That's one thing at least. We don't know if it followed us out of the library at all, though."

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"Yeah, I can't see out of you effectively."

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"And we won't really have much time to react in creative ways if it comes for us here, I don't think."

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"My image would have dropped when we got far enough away even if my concentration didn't falter at any point before then."

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"It might not've still been paying attention to you, but if it was it might come looking."

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She starts packing. "We should maybe get out of town."

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"Yeah, definitely." She packs as well. "We'll either have to leave in the morning, leave officially, or sneak out - I don't think our guards will really put up with us just leaving suddenly, even though we've been talking about it."

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"We could also call Hughes. Or stop by his house, if you're worried about lines being secure. He'll have a better idea what to do."

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"I don't know that I want to drag him into this..."

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"Who's he?"

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"A friend of ours. He's in the Intelligence division. His loyalty's more to our superior officer, but he also looks out for us a lot. He's nosy."

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"But you don't think he's in on the shadow spy."

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She really, really doubts it.

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"Okay, your call. This Tongues casting's not long for the world, let's get a phrase down real quick for, like, 'I see it' or a coded phrase for that or something."

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They can do a coded phrase pretty easily.

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And she's back to Comprehend Languages only.

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"If we're not going anywhere tonight, Bellona and I should work on learning your language more, too."

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"Okay." She can teach them Taldane for everything in the phrasebook.

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Bellona seems to pick up on it faster than Emma, but both of them are still notably fast. Neither needs things repeated.

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Impressive. If they want Taldane for anything else they can ask.

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They have a pretty good idea of the things they tend to need to communicate among themselves, which they ask for - Emma taps out of the lesson sooner than Bellona, who apparently wants to know random general cultural stuff, too. ("I like people and talking to them," she says with a shrug. "And hooking information to thoughts of people makes it easier to remember.")

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"My people are kind of awful. I'm teaching you a common human language."

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"Okay. Do you know about the humans?"

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"Some, yes."

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Bellona's curiosity can at least today be satisfied with that little slice, then, if Belmarniss feels like sharing - it's also a good opportunity to highlight cultural differences with Amestris.

The degree and nature of sexism from Belmarniss's world is apparently really weird locally - there's definitely skews in some jobs (like, the rank and file military leans towards men, though state alchemists are more balanced), and a lot of people have this or that stereotype about women or men, but people usually latch on Bellona and Emma's ages (or Emma's short height) if dismissing them, and she's never heard someone suggest women don't belong in the military at all.

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"It depends where you go. My people have women in charge."

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"It just seems a silly thing to divide by, though I guess we also divide by silly things - loyalty to the state's a big thing people think is important, and everyone's suspicious of or hates anyone who's loyal to the wrong state or wrong religion or whatever, and sometimes that spills over to people who belong to an ethnic group usually loyal somewhere else."

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"I guess loyalty to a state is, like, information about who'll juke where if something big happens?"

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"Yeah, though it tends to encourage people to not question the state, because they might get targeted by their neighbors."

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"Yeah, that's not great."

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"I wonder why the differences?"

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"I couldn't tell you. I guess people'll try anything and most of it doesn't immediately bite them too bad."

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With some humor: "Yeah, and some people'll try even the obviously bad things."

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"Which might immediately bite somebody, but as long as it's somebody else..."

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"And some people can get really reckless even with themselves if they think it has a good enough payoff - that's really common in alchemists."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Adventurers too."

Permalink Mark Unread

"'People being reckless' is how a lot of advances happen, especially if they're also being methodological."

Permalink Mark Unread

"For reasons that are not clear it's almost impossible to get past level five or so without taking lethal or at least high-stakes risks."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's generally not the case with alchemy. You can get extremely good taking no risks, and especially not risking your life - alchemists being martial at all is really recent - but a lot of people who want to be alchemists are experimenter types. There's also a thing where the highest level of alchemy requires a lot of risk, but that's - irregular."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sometimes a god drops a lot of levels on a cleric all at once but it's really rare."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think the closest thing to that is the Gate of Truth, which is - incredibly stupidly risky to face and guarded by an asshole. It's rare for alchemists to know about it, rarer for them to try, and a lot rarer for them to survive."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Guarded by an asshole?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah. Calls itself Truth, and the universe, and God, and all sorts of things. We're not sure - what it actually does - and both me and Em disagree on what it looks like and how it behaves, and I haven't talked to anyone else who's seen it in depth."

Permalink Mark Unread

"What was it like for you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Uh. To me it looked like a kid - did for Em, too, but mine was shorter... But it was just an outline, for both of us. White, with this kind of - black static around it, and it had a big mouth and no other features. It behaved kind of... Like a cat playing with a mouse? Sadistic, amused, easily bored, weirdly friendly while also being cruel. Laughed a lot."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yikes. Our gods suck but at least the evil ones have some competition."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Dunno it actually does much, though. Alchemy doesn't - seem like something that usually has something intelligent controlling or intervening in it? You always get out what you put in."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I haven't seen all that much of it but if it can be arranged whatever way that still seems complicated. If you give the same box of paints to a bunch of different people they will make paintings that weigh the same amount, I guess, but the paintings will be different."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's close to 'weigh the same amount', but... The same circle with the same materials with equally skilled alchemists will make the same results, mostly, with some differences accounting for visualization if the circle was under-specified in what it makes. Less skilled alchemists might instead make an equal weight pile of slag."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I guess that does sound plausibly mechanistic, if you're doing the design work just like I'd have to for a complicated conjuration."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah. We usually consider it more like a branch of chemistry or physics than like magic? It works, the same way mixing reagents or dropping large weights works."

Permalink Mark Unread

"How much of the process is mental? Could a better and a worse alchemist getting different results say and do the same things while trying their thing?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Standard alchemy's an array that you activate, materials, and visualization, usually of array components you haven't drawn. Visualization is entirely mental, but how important it is varies with array. My and Em's method is almost entirely visualization, but that's rare, and what we're visualizing is the array - we're just not bothering to draw it, first."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh. That's sort of both like and unlike a wizard spell."

Permalink Mark Unread

"There's actually a risk of someone untrained accidentally setting off an array that's complete enough, too, which's why you're not supposed to leave them lying around - and textbooks usually present them in parts."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's different. Enchanted objects can be set off accidentally but that's when they're designed like that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah; part of why we consider alchemy more a science than anything else. Chemicals also don't care how much training you have if you start mixing them."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't know a whole lot about chemistry but I can see why you'd make the comparison, yeah. It does show up to detect magic though."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It makes more sense that it's technically magic if it's not universal, I think? Or not universal to places running on physics as I understand it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"How do you mean?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Like - if a universe has people who need to breathe air, and who need to eat food with specific nutrients, and they have gravity and light and all, I'd also expect those people to have specific underlying biologies like cells, and for chemical reactions to work basically the same as they do here, and for magnetism to exist, and all that, since those are basically the really small... Bits of the thing that make the whole work? But I'm not really surprised a world like that could exist without alchemy?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh, I like that distinction. By the same token it doesn't seem that weird that you don't have magic I'm familiar with here, that seems extra and optional. Though there are a lot of kinds of people in my world who need to breathe air and eat food who are also inherently magical in various ways and I suspect I'd feel differently about the separability of magic if I were one of them."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, that makes sense, too."

Permalink Mark Unread

"My species does actually have a few innate spellcasting abilities but they don't feel importantly innate."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We just have the one sapient species, I think, and no one's got any abilities that aren't just alchemy..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"How do you suppose alchemy would do the shadow thing?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Probably some kind of esoteric alchemy? Like what binds my soul to my armor - theoretically you could alter the array doing that so I could just move my soul around. The 'shadows' could be some kind of base matter a soul's bound to, which is either damaged by light or very absorbent or both."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I guess it could have just been some sort of black thing. I asked someone once what darkness looked like and we concluded it was like having a black blanket over your head."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, though it's also hard to say for sure, especially from a description..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We can guess it was able to conventionally see, since it followed my illusion."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, though I can too despite lacking eyes - we still haven't figured out how, but it might be a general awareness of my surroundings I'm filtering through senses I was used to having when I had a body."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure, but it's not using hearing, or tremorsense, or echolocation."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, especially since it didn't act like it could see an invisible you - which does suggest it's mostly interacting with light."

Permalink Mark Unread

"How does alchemy normally interact with light?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"We don't know much yet about how light works - there's a debate ongoing if it's particles or if it's vibrations in a medium like sound is - so people in general can't really account for it in arrays."

Permalink Mark Unread

"You can't... make arrays that would work under one hypothesis or the other and see how they do?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"The problem is we don't know what you could even transmute theoretical light particles into, or what they transmute from, or what symbols you'd need to refer to them unambiguously. Anyone's working on it, and that'll probably be part of how the debate gets solved, but it's in progress, still."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Maybe you could change their color?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Shrug. "I'm not an experimental physicist, but I've seen some arguments that'd prove one or the other or both. I think the initial experiments will probably look more like shining lights at light-sensitive materials and trying to filter out parts, to at least narrow possibilities."

Permalink Mark Unread

"If you could turn light into other things you could run stuff on the sun."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, we think solar energy probably requires non-alchemy advances but would be revolutionary if we pulled it off."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We don't have it, unfortunately, so I will be of no help."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah. Hopefully we can get it soon and pass the blueprints on, though."

Permalink Mark Unread

In the morning, the girls go to their friend Hughes' house instead of the library.

He greets them with a smile, gets them squirreled away in his home office (curtains drawn) at some signal, and then listens as Emma explains Belmarniss.

"I'd like to meet her, if you don't mind."

Permalink Mark Unread

She's a little twitchy about it but not unwilling.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hello," he says. "I'm Lieutenant Maes Hughes. You're Emma and Bellona's new friend?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Tongues. Yes, that's right."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Did you intend to appear in front of them?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"No."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do you know what happened to cause that?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It seemed like an exotic trap in an old tomb but I've never actually heard of one that sends people someplace this exotic before."

Permalink Mark Unread

"But being sent somewhere at all is normal?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's not commonplace but both teleportation and plane shifting are understood to exist and sufficiently advanced wizards can do them."

Permalink Mark Unread

He glances at the girls.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Her abilities are definitely very different from alchemy as we understand it."

Permalink Mark Unread

He nods. "Can't say I know much about alchemy or magic or whatever, anyways."

To Belmarniss: "What are your goals, here?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I didn't land with an agenda. I generally prefer that things be better instead of worse and all else being equal I'd like to go home someday, which requires me to level a few times, which probably involves getting into fights but I currently don't feel well-prepared for the kind available around here either tactically or in terms of which ones are a good idea to pick."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Most people not active in the military never get into fights, and even the military usually only sees action on the fronts..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"This is inconvenient for me but probably good for the average non-military citizen."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah; some regions manage higher crime rates but that's more 'frequent theft' than 'frequent violence.'"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's not traditionally a crime-related thing - well, sometimes it is, I've done jobs catching pirates, but mostly the fights are with monsters."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Monsters?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Dangerous animals or extremely antisocial people who are shaped more like animals than like you or me? It's not an especially principled class of entity but it comes up a lot in my line of work."

Permalink Mark Unread

"There's. Uh. Bears? Those usually leave humans alone, though."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Bears are a very minor grade of monster if one counts them as one at all."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Our world's very different there, then."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It seems like it, yeah. It's possible I'll never make it home at all."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Alchemy might be able to get you home, too, if moving between worlds is possible in the first place - it should just be transferring energy and matter and information..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"And magic. I don't want to start over at wizardry or see what happens when the magic I was born with is gone. You have no experimental subjects available, either."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's the big problem, yeah, and - there's problems, with just using a philosopher's stone to compensate for all areas we're lacking."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's possible my insurance company or one of my friends will find me eventually."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That'd be really nice, yeah."

Permalink Mark Unread

"And then ongoing contact is just a matter of funding the spells, probably."

Permalink Mark Unread

"And alchemists are really good at producing and refining valuable materials."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm not sure alchemical diamonds and so on will work for the most high demand applications, but I guess it could at least cut competition with the jewelry market."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Depends on what's important about diamonds, I guess?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Items conjured with our magic can't be used as spell components. I don't know if alchemy is different enough."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It'll be something to test, if nothing else - do any of your current spells use spell components?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Expensive ones," she clarifies. "The cheap stuff I know how to skip. Rite of the Centered Mind wants incense. I'm out of it so I don't have a sample to copy, though."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Expensive might mean something different, here. I can make diamonds out of fireplace ash."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Diamonds are expensive there but I don't currently know any spells that call for them, just the incense one."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Does any incense work, or just a specific kind?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It has to be relaxing? I usually buy it in component shops so they have the right kind without me having to know the details."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Is it easy to experiment with using different kinds?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, if it's not good enough the spell will just fail, but I am limited in number of trials per day."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Which makes experimenting probably really slow and frustrating..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah. It's also got an opportunity cost against other spells I can prepare."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It'd be really annoying if alchemy worked like that..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, it's annoying for me too, but it is what it is. Cantrips I can cast all day, but rite of centered mind is first level."

Permalink Mark Unread

She nods.

Permalink Mark Unread

Hughes has been listening with interest. "Your world sounds very different from ours."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Very much so, yes. If I ever get back I'll have interesting notes on technology to share around."

Permalink Mark Unread

That seems to amuse him. "You're lucky you landed on the Elrics, then."

Permalink Mark Unread

"They've been very hospitable."

Permalink Mark Unread

"They're good kids."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah. Uh, this translation spell won't last all day, what's your priority here -"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Mostly getting a sense of you, your trustworthiness, and your priorities."

Permalink Mark Unread

"There's magic back home that can detect what 'alignment' people are on two spectra from law to chaos and good to evil and I read 'chaotic good', if that helps."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, I don't think you're lying about that, but we don't really have a local structure where that means something relevant... Still, 'chaotic' definitely puts you in Bellona's wheelhouse."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's not a very good system even in its context, honestly, but it's what came to mind."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can imagine a couple of problems fairly easily, yeah."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, it gets worse, anyone who sorts evil goes to a torture afterlife when they die."

Permalink Mark Unread

" - Eesh."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah. My long term plan is to ascend to godhood and kick that real hard. But that's not really something I can do here."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We really don't have - any ways I know of at all for getting godhood."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We have a few but the most straightforward is going and poking a specific magic rock. It's hard to get to, most people die trying, I will need to upgrade my resurrection insurance before taking a run at it."

Permalink Mark Unread

He nods. "Probably not something I can help with."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Not as far as I know."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Let me know if there's anything I can?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Thanks, I appreciate that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't think I have any more questions, but I can probably answer some of yours."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Did they explain the shadow thing?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"As much as they knew, yeah."

Permalink Mark Unread

"My race can see in the dark. It was some dark I couldn't see through, or I would never have noticed it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm unfortunately not the resident weird things expert. Still, I'll keep an eye out for anything off."

Permalink Mark Unread

"'Preciate it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Whatever it is might not be friendly to us, either. Thank you for the heads up."

Permalink Mark Unread

"You're welcome."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do you have anything else for me? If not - I'll get started on getting you girls out of the city, which should be pretty fast even with the guards."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't think there's anything else from me."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'll start on my part, then. Train ride to...?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"South," Bellona says after a pause. "Thanks, Mister Hughes."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's no problem. You all look out for each other, okay?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Nod.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Soonest I can get is... Probably this morning, actually, if you don't mind changing trains at some point."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't think that's a problem."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Isn't for us, either."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Then I'll go do that..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Thank you."

Permalink Mark Unread

He heads off.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do we wait here?" she asks the sisters.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Probably in the living room? Mrs. Hughes will probably wanna make us a nice breakfast and all, too..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Ooh." Living room it is.

Permalink Mark Unread

Where Mrs. Hughes does in fact insist on feeding them! Bellona doesn't eat, as usual, and plays a bit with the Hughes' young daughter instead.

Permalink Mark Unread

Om nom surfacer food.

Permalink Mark Unread

It's good quality food, too, featuring a wider variety of fresh vegetables and fruits than most surfacer places offer.

Permalink Mark Unread

Well, she can't go too nuts on portion sizes but she can savor a reasonable amount.

Permalink Mark Unread

Mrs. Hughes also offers to make them some sandwiches to take with them on their journey; she seems under the impression the Elric girls don't eat enough, or at least not enough healthy food.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sandwiches to bring along would be great, thanks!"

Permalink Mark Unread

Does she have any foods she especially likes, or alternatively can't eat?

Permalink Mark Unread

"I really like honey and oatmeal and pears. Don't think I'm allergic to anything but I can check before I eat it if I don't recognize an ingredient."

Permalink Mark Unread

Alright! She'll get right on that, then.

Permalink Mark Unread

Belmarniss is appreciative.

Permalink Mark Unread

And soon enough it's time to head to the train station. Presumably with Belmarniss still catching a ride in Bellona's armor?

Permalink Mark Unread

Yup. Discomfort ahoy.

Permalink Mark Unread

Still, they make it onto the train - and into a private car, Hughes really pulled through from Em's comments - without issue. Em pulls the curtains, and Bellona opens her armor.

Permalink Mark Unread

Out comes Belmarniss. "Bleah."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sorry."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I mean, it would be strictly worse if I had no way to hide in transit, but. Bleah."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's worse when she's also trying to fight. Never really pleasant, though."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Wow, I hope I never experience that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We've had some... Interesting... Cases of needing to run away."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do I want these stories?"