Sep 19, 2021 3:14 AM
Baruti encounters a harried bureaucrat
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The folder thunks gently onto the pile. The entity examines the next packet.

"Hmm, how'd this one get here? It's out of circuit and the power level isn't generally much to look at... ah, I see, but the potential is reasonably high if you make your choices correctly. Warnings include mandatory gender—you will emerge from the pathway as a woman in both body and mind regardless of your gender going in—and 'villainy', which is to say, the pathway sets you up in a scenario in which you will be intended to act out an antagonistic role, although you can choose to act otherwise. It's called Otome Villainess. Ah, 'out of circuit' means that by entering this pathway you leave the local soulstream of the Reincarnation Office and enter the soulstream of the selected pathway, meaning you would not travel back here through ordinary reincarnation. Usually that would also mean you would have a hard time reaching your original world from the pathway's destination, but apparently in this case it would be reasonably easy, and you might even be able to travel back here and reenter our soulstream under your own power, although I can't guarantee it. On the upside, the administering entities are lovely, very helpful indeed! They're constrained by a somewhat eccentric and rigid arrangement of choices, though."

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"If it changes mental gender as well I suppose it wouldn't be much of a problem. Let's put that one with the Maybes."

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"Sensible." Down it plops. "Let me see..." A quiet, dusty sigh. "Oh, this one—another villainy warning, and a fate warning, which in this case means that the pathway contains several choices for how events will transpire once you reach your destination, and in the ordinary course of things, those events will play out as dictated regardless of how much effort you put into averting them. It's called the JRPG Traitor. The potential rewards are quite high but not many people find them worth the mandatory betrayal."

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"How mandatory, and whom is one betraying?"

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"There will be an Overlord plotting the conquest or destruction of the world, and a number of Heroes endeavouring to stop them. The chooser is fated to betray those Heroes, either for the Overlord or for some third party. Fates such as these cannot be averted without some truly extraordinary intervention; if you took this pathway as you are now, I don't believe you could escape it."

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"...Hm. Put it on the dubious pile."

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Ruffle plop shuffle rustle.

"Next we have..." The voice trails off. "W̶h̢͘͠a̛t?͠!" They cough apologetically and modulate their voice back into the human range. "Excuse me, it's just that I thought we banned this one... 'under review', I see. I would strongly advise you against taking it, but I can explain if you're curious."

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He raises an eyebrow. "Intensely curious."

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"The Void Maiden pathway has a strong Weird Sex Stuff warning, an entrapment warning, and an oblivion warning—that is, a possible outcome of taking the pathway is that your soul might be destroyed. Relatedly, its destination is interdicted pending resolution of an ongoing safety issue, which means that once you travel there you can't leave that worldsheaf again until the safety issue is resolved. The safety issue is an entity known as the Abyss—no relation to Abyss Diver—which intends to consume and destroy all life within its reach. I've sent a few people there, after emphatic advice to only take that pathway if they believe they can single-handedly defeat such a being, and so far the situation persists. Several of them have been devoured already. If you mean to take that pathway, I strongly recommend doing so only after you complete several others—for one thing, until you solve the safety issue you won't be able to return to your own universe, and solving the safety issue will be faster if you first accumulate more power."

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"Yes, you can skip the dubious pile and start a 'no' one," he says firmly.

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The entity consigns the Void Maiden pathway to the No pile.

"Hmm, hmm... ah, 'Fay Path', another Weird Sex Stuff pathway... this one has a binding warning, which in this case represents the fact that the first choice on the Fay Path is between two different forms of indefinite servitude to the administering entity. I suspect you won't want to take this one."

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"To the No pile it goes." Plop. "All right, that's the first layer done—I can re-run the search to cast a wider net, but whatever I pick up will either have less available power or be farther from your home universe. If I may make a suggestion, though—I think it would be a good idea to choose something with less available power and a lower general threat level first, then return here under your own power—assuming you can, but after all you did manage it the once—and try something more difficult next. Repeating as many times as needed. But if you want to pick something more lucrative on your first try in case coming back here proves unexpectedly difficult, that's up to you."

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"...I'll take something low power with a negligible risk of costing me my existing magic," he says thoughtfully. "To start with. I imagine I can replicate what brought me here."

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"I have a standard recommendation for people who want a reasonable amount of power with a manageable amount of risk. It doesn't meet the power threshold for the original search, but," ruffle shuffle flip rustle, "as I suspected, it's within the approved multiversal radius of your original world. It's called the Mask Maker and the pathway entails crafting a magical mask which grants powers when worn. The mask can be integrated directly into the soul, which enables it to persist stably through nearly all forms of reincarnation. Once you emerge with your mask into the destination world, other mask-bearers may try to harm you, but they tend to be unprepared for extradimensional powers, especially ones as strong as yours. I can look for alternative options in a similar style if you like, or you can pick something from one of the existing piles."

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"That sounds like it would do nicely. Is there anything else you can tell me about this path before I'm sent there?"

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"The pathway we use now is a variant; the original had every mask be a sapient symbiote, but that one was much less popular for obvious reasons. It's still possible to choose to have the mask possessed by a spirit, and it can be surprisingly helpful and is very rarely a bad idea from a practical standpoint—but there's always a little risk that something about the spirit in question will be inconvenient. Hmm... I think you'll have an advantage at learning the various forms of mask magic that take time to learn, because your magic answers questions for you. Note that making masks is a skill you can pick up once you have one, but your first several masks will almost certainly need to have spirits attached; it's much, much harder to make them without one. You might want to have a source of volunteer souls available while you're practicing. Also, a mask must be made for a specific bearer, and will be bonded to them until their next death, or beyond if it's a soul mask. Attached spirits can be let go eventually but you should assume that if you put a spirit in a soul mask they're in it for the long haul. I can't think of anything else offhand; do you have any questions?"

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"Where would one find volunteer souls?"

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"In any world where the dead linger in the mortal realm before proceeding to the local afterlife or out into the soulstream, or in any world where the local afterlife is within reach of your magic if not the local kind, or, in situations where neither of those is an option, I suppose you could also take donations from the living. Though they might be harder to convince. Existing as a magical mask is widely considered a step up from ghosthood in the Mask Maker destination world, but also widely considered a step down from true embodiment."

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"Understood. No more questions." Wryly: "Or, rather, I doubt you have answers to all the questions I have, or would appreciate being squeezed for drips of relevant information."

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"I'm a busy being," the entity agrees. "Other important information... ah! If you come back here under your own power, I should be able to see to you more or less immediately, but if you die and enter the soulstream, there can be a significant delay. I recommend staying alive if possible." A clipboard turns sideways and inserts itself between stacks of paper, extending toward Baruti. "Please read this and sign at your leisure."

The clipboard contains a very simple single-page form:

MASK MAKER PATHWAY
  • Warnings: NO MAJOR WARNINGS
  • Destination hazard level MODERATE
  • Available power level MEDIUM
  • Choice complexity level LOW
[_] I affirm that I have read this information packet and freely choose to proceed through this pathway.

SIGN HERE: __________________
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He signs, the hieroglyphs he uses possibly more dramatic than strictly necessary.

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"Good luck!" the entity says cheerfully, and the office unravels around him, the illusion of physical space dropping away until he is a disembodied perspective floating directionlessly through a featureless void.

There is a sensation of movement. Something lightly ruffles the substance of his being.

 

Reality reweaves itself, and his body—or an approximation of his body—is sitting on a patch of bare dirt in a misty clearing, dimly lit by moonlight filtering through the narrow leaves of the tall white trees that encircle him. In front of him there is a broad tree stump, and five piles of materials evenly spaced around its surface: a stack of rough cardstock, a block of pale wood, a heap of iron ingots, a ball of leather scraps, and an empty space where the mist swirls and eddies uncannily. The clothing he's wearing is unfamiliar, all faded grey linen with torn and ragged hems.

"Welcome," says a soft androgynous whisper from no particular direction. "I am the Assistant; I will help you make your mask. Please touch whichever material you would like me to describe first."

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He considers the options for a moment, then reaches out and touches the wood.

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"Wooden masks are sturdy and practical. They're not too heavy and don't lose power with extended use. But if a wooden mask is damaged, even while unworn, the bearer will be struck by a proportionate minor injury or illness."

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